New supervisors

Who do you want to be as a supervisor in 10 years?

Sometimes you need a quick answer for the short term, but you might also benefit greatly in the long term from gradually developing a repertoire of skills and attitudes that will help your develop a reward and successful supervisory practice. Many supervisory relationships will last several years, and your ability to see great results in 10 or more years depends on how you begin and how you imagine the future.


Recruiting students

Depending on your department or program, students may look for supervisors before being admitted into a graduate studies program. You can recruit promising students in person through courses and research networks. Maintaining an online presence is key in recruiting students who are considering applying to McGill. Applicants are typically searching online to learn about a potential supervisor's: 

  • areas of expertise
  • availability to supervise (e.g., accepting new students)
  • support for current supervisees (e.g., publishing, professional development, etc.)

Orientation for new supervisors

New supervisors are required to complete an online orientation module in their first year.

For more information, consult Training for Supervisors.

Supervision involves:

  • professional, collegial, “near-peer” relationships;
  • mentoring, including verbal encouragement;
  • promotion of the work of good students through networks; and
  • long-term pedagogy, beyond the student’s graduation

See also the McGill Expectations for Graduate Supervision

Scope of a good supervisor's role

When undertaking supervision for the first time, it can be helpful to clarify your own views about the scope and boundaries of the supervisory role. Reflect on the following activities of good research supervisors that you might already do or might want to start doing.

  • Appreciating individual differences (e.g., uniqueness of each candidate and candidate differences within each stage)
  • Being available (e.g., having regular meetings and being contactable through a range of media)
  • Providing appropriate direction and structure (e.g., challenging the candidate when required and assisting with structuring and developing the project)
  • Celebrating (e.g., giving public recognition of a candidate’s or research team’s achievements)
  • Building a research community (e.g., attending seminars with candidates)
  • Building a social community (e.g., being involved in research team social events)
  • Assisting with developing students’ skills related to the graduate studies experience
  • Networking (e.g., including candidates in professional networks for their research and career planning)
  • Being a mentor for life (e.g. helping with career planning and collegiality after graduation)
  • Demonstrating interest and enthusiasm for the project and candidate progress
  • Having good listening and questioning techniques
  • Providing constructive and timely feedback on written work

Adapted from Janssen (2005); and Lee, Dennis, and Campbell (2007).

When does a good supervisor step in?

In developing a supportive supervisory relationship, it can be challenging to know when to let students solve problems independently and when to provide the answer. Good supervisors try to find a balance between the two extremes of “benign neglect” and “taking over”.


Interviews with a few new faculty members at McGill revealed that new supervisors have lots of questions about how much they can and should do as supervisors. These two assistant professors pointed to some common challenges:

[One of the challenges is] keeping a balance between “doing” and “enabling”; how much detail should I know about the work [my supervisees] are doing? Can I trust they are doing the right thing? I don’t have time to sit down with them and work: am I expected to do so? (STEM supervisor: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

[A main challenge for me is] having to tell students that they are performing poorly and showing them the door (in spite of the fact that this is a better solution for the student and me). (STEM supervisor: McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

Questions for reflection

  1. What is the best use of your time with students? Where do you plan to invest a lot of time working directly with students, and where do you plan to let students work more independently? Your answer might depend on which skills you excel at teaching and which skills you enjoy teaching (e.g., writing, planning, experiment design, etc.)
  2. When a student asks for help with a problem, how do you respond? In which situations are you likely to just provide an answer? In which situations are you likely to take the time to guide the student towards different possible solutions?
  3. How will you decide when you’ve reached the limit of how much you can help a struggling student? How will you set boundaries on your time, and how will you communicate this to the student and to the Graduate Program Director?


Janssen, A. (2005). Postgraduate research supervision: Otago students' perspectives on-quality supervision problems encountered in supervision. Dunedin: University of Otago.

Lee, A., Dennis, C., & Campbell, P. (2007). Nature’s guide for mentors. Nature, 447, 791-797.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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