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Problems and solutions

Plan for mutual success but watch for warning signs.

Problems can be prevented by setting expectations through good habits of communication and tracking progress toward objectives, but signs of distress or ill health might indicate a problem requiring outside help. Supervisors are not expected to be experts in counseling or diagnosis and should refer students to an appropriate service (e.g., those listed in the McGill resources section of these tabs).

To prevent problems from starting or from becoming more serious, consider the following.

Establish clear expectations and good communication from the beginning.

Many of the suggestions made in the Starting out and Avoiding delays pages of this website can help you to avoid a number of the more common misunderstandings which lead to grievances. Also deserving of attention are Student-supervisor relationships, which have inherent differences in power that are necessary to an extent but can also be troublesome. The 2012-13 supervisory surveys reveal that students are considerably less comfortable than professors in discussing non-academic (e.g., personal or professional) issues, and so supervisors might benefit their students by explaining their willingness to help. When students are doing collaborative work with others, communication is often a bigger challenge. So, consider how to ensure that expectations and communication strategies are established for tracking the contributions of all parties in order to avoid situations such as the following reported by a student in the United Kingdom:

There are also other obstacles like problems with collaborators (in this case a fellow [doctoral] student who unfortunately has a different working attitude possibly due to his different cultural background), which makes collaborating efficiently and with high quality results really hard – and costs me loads of nerves! My supervisor, of course a very busy man, believes we are doing well, which is partially true. He doesn’t have enough insight [into] how hard it is to keep the quality up in this collaboration and he seemed to have the impression that I was rather slagging my collaborator off when I told him about the problems and my doubts in the results, which gave me a bad feeling. I reflected even more on myself than usual if possibly it’s me that sees the things in a wrong way because this stresses me probably more than all others involved.

Take advantage of progress reports to document any concerns.

Progress reports are an opportunity for the supervisor formally to express a concern. There are occasions when supervisors have not taken the reports seriously, with a cursory sign-off, and then realized later that they missed this opportunity to document their earlier concerns. Likewise, some supervisors write over-optimistic reports either to avoid discouraging a student who may be feeling vulnerable, or to avoid accepting fundamental problems in a research topic that they may themselves have suggested. Remember, however, that doing research is costing the student time, energy, and often a considerable amount of money. Experience shows that concerns should be indicated to the student when they are first noticed. Naturally, negative comments need to be expressed with sensitivity and solutions offered where possible. It is important that the student not learn of negative comments for the first time in a public setting, so if a supervisory committee is involved, the supervisor should attempt to discuss the issues one-to-one before broaching the topic in the presence of others and the student. See Giving feedback and Monitoring student progress.

Plan carefully for fieldwork, which can be isolating for the student.

A particular time when students can feel under stress is when they are away on fieldwork. They can experience a feeling of being forgotten or cut off from a supervisor during this time, without careful forward planning.

The student suddenly has to be quite independent. Therefore it is recommended that supervisors should:

  • agree to as detailed a plan as reasonable, including timelines and objectives for the work to be completed outside McGill;
  • agree to regular contact by telephone, reporting by e-mail, or otherwise, as appropriate;
  • agree to what should be delivered (such as a written report) by what date during the fieldwork or after the student's return;
  • consider jointly how to manage the situation should any radical changes in approach appear to the student to be necessary while the student is away. A mechanism for discussing and agreeing to any such change before the student spends time on the new approach should also be agreed to.

These recommendations are not intended to encourage supervisors to exert undue control but merely to provide proper support and guidance for their students.

Furthermore, some students can undergo disturbing or even traumatic experiences while on fieldwork, so it is critical that supervisors demonstrate care and concern for any student in this situation. The evidence shows that it is not just the traumatic event itself but also the network of support for people following a trauma that contributes to their psychological resilience and recovery.

It is important that supervisors meet with their students when they return from fieldwork to talk about how things went from a personal and emotional perspective, in addition to any research-related discussions. It is worth acknowledging that living away from Montreal and then returning to McGill can both require some psychological adjustment time. Not only are accommodation and social networks disrupted, but sometimes the individual's whole outlook on life may change.

Watch for warning signs of distress, ill health, etc.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows sometimes experience troubles, and sometimes one of these might be more than a passing event due, for example, to a stage of graduate study.

  • Distress: this might occur for many reasons, including poor health, psychological problems like anxiety or depression, family difficulties, relationship problems or the pressure of juggling work and study.
  • Disturbed behaviour: such as self-harming or misuse of drugs or alcohol. Mental health problems can lead to behaviour that might appear strange or inappropriate for the situation.
  • Ill health: personal health or that of a family member.

Supervisors cannot always easily determine whether a student is "just having a slump" or if it is the beginning of something more serious. As with many such issues, the best advice is to act early on your observations and your hunch that there is a problem. Remember that McGill has a wide network of Student Services.

Often, detecting and acting early can save a candidate from considerable distress and ill-health. It is important to remember that students may need assistance in seeking advice regarding their physical and mental well-being, in the same ways that they need help and encouragement to seek advice or help regarding writing, presentation skills, etc. If a student is unwilling to accept advice and help, and if the situation is judged to be dangerous, there are procedures recommended by the Office of the Dean of Students on its Dealing with Violent, Threatening, or Worrying Behaviour page.

Consider a change of supervisor or research topic if necessary.

If a change of supervisor is the only option, see the Questions and answers page for guidance. See below for the alternative: a change of research topic.

A change of research topic can sometimes avert a change of supervisor. (See Defining the research topic.) Because a student needs to have a very real interest in and aptitude for the research that she or he is undertaking, the match of student to topic is crucial, and there may be good reasons to change topic because of a mismatch that could not have been anticipated. It may also be that the original topic turned out to look unproductive or unsuitable to pursue with the available resources, and then also a change is appropriate. Changing topics means that a student might over-run the funding available or the time normally allowed for the degree, and so it is a decision to be taken with great care and with these issues of timing in mind.

A student may seek to change topics simply in order to change supervisor. In either case, the underlying problem should be addressed before considering whether a change of topic is appropriate. These are difficult issues that must involve faculty officers and must be carefully documented.

At McGill, there are many people whose experience and expertise can help you to avoid or deal with problems. If you are a graduate supervisor, they are probably as close as the office next door. If you perceive a problem developing with one of your graduate students, your immediate colleagues within your discipline are the most obvious source of help and advice, and approaching them may well be sufficient to help you address straightforward issues.

Supervisors are not expected to be experts in counseling or diagnosis and should refer students to an appropriate service (e.g., from the list of McGill resources above) instead of trying to solve serious problems without help. Students can be encouraged to go to the aforementioned offices on their own, and many in fact take the initiative without needing encouragement, but in serious cases a confidential referral by the supervisor to one of these offices can be warranted. In any case, supervisors should be aware that, according to the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, they are more likely than their supervisees to know where to go for help.

When should potential problems of supervision be documented?

Record-keeping is sometimes a needless task, but it provides a valuable "paper trail" when serious problems occur. A supervisor might wonder about how much risk to tolerate, and whether the risk of problems increases with the number of supervisees and over time. Especially in disciplines when more time elapses between meetings, the documentation of objectives, achievements, and concerns can be important.

Record-keeping, such as making notes during or after meetings, often seems overly legalistic or administrative, and it need regular attention to be done right; however, in graduate supervision it can be an indispensible aid when problems occur. Supervisors and supervisees alike might wonder why they should bother if problems are rare. A serious problem might only arise once or twice in a supervisor's entire career, but they can be onerous and difficult to resolve, especially without a "paper trail." Ask yourself to what extent you are risk-averse. Would your willingness to tolerate the potential for problems differ according to the number of supervisees you have?

A discussion about a problem is likely to end with one or both sides offering to make some change of practice. Supervisors and supervisees should agree to a record of such an offer, while also indicating when the new practice is intended to be in place and when its effectiveness should be reviewed. Such a written agreement can be achieved without objectionable formality by a simple exchange of sensitively worded emails. Establishing a timeline against which to chart progress is good practice in all aspects of research supervision.

Discussing issues but not being able to remember details or dates can be frustrating for all concerned, especially where there is disagreement about details or dates. Keeping a copy of email exchanges, written notes and formal supervision reports as a routine practice is recommended to avoid this potentiality. Especially in subjects where the supervisor and student meet relatively infrequently, it is wise for the supervisor as a matter of routine (even when no problems have arisen) to write some brief contemporaneous notes summarizing what transpired at each meeting.

Understanding each other: a factor in unproblematic relationships

At McGill, supervisors seem to think that problems are caused by the poor academic performance of their students, whereas supervisees claim that a lack of guidance leads to problems. Supervisees and supervisors both lack insight into each other's practice, partly because of assumptions and anxieties that are not always well-founded. One assumption is that a change of supervisors is bad, but it can be mutually beneficial.

The 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys indicate that conflicts or serious difficulties are explained differently by supervisors and their graduate students. Supervisors tend to identify the poor academic performance of their students as the cause of the problem, but supervisees point to a need for more guidance from supervisors, e.g., greater availability, more feedback, and clearer statements about differing expectations.

Overall, in the scholarship on the subject there is a student-institution dichotomy that can unproductively assign blame to students for what may be structural issues that persist in the culture of the doctorate. For instance, supervisors often have difficulty specifying examples of personal issues that students might experience (Gardner, 2009). (See the Being a supervisee section.) Further, where difficulties are a concern, supervisors report watching for cues related to students’ academic work only, whereas students note personal issues as primary concerns but are reluctant to reveal these for fear of not measuring up (Manathunga, 2005). Studies such as these suggest a normative assumption that supervisory resources and structures are adequate for all students; they thus make invisible the structural and systemic problems that may exist.

One of these structural issues is the invisibility of supervisory change. Students frequently report their fear at initiating change, not understanding that it is a not uncommon process and one for which procedures exist. A student survey (Heath, 2002) demonstrated that change was not as rare as frequently supposed: 18% of students had a change in principal supervisor and 11% a change in co-supervisor. Furthermore, the change was not always the result of student concern: 52% of changes were due to supervisor departure and 10% to a change in topic; only 13% were linked to breakdown in relations. In other words, it is sometimes appropriate to consider supervisory change; what needs to be remembered during the transition is that students wish not to be left in limbo for too long while new relationships are arranged.

The text of this page is based on:

  • Ahern, K., & Manathunga, C. (2004). Clutch-starting stalled research students. Innovative Higher Education, 28(4), 237-254.
  • Deem, R., & Brehony, K. (2000). Doctoral students' access to research cultures - are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.
  • Gardner, S. (2009). Conceptualizing success in doctoral education: perspectives of faculty in seven disciplines. The Review of Higher Education, 32(3), 383-406.
  • Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. (2013). 2012-13 supervisory surveys overview. McGill University, Montreal.
  • Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervision. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.
  • Maher, M., Ford, M., & Thompson, C. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral students: Factors that constrain, facilitate and differentiate. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 385-408.
  • Manathunga, C. (2005). The development of research supervision: "turning the light on a private space". International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.
  • McAlpine, L., Paulson, J., Gonsalves, A., & Jazvac-Martek, M. (2012). ‘Untold’ doctoral stories in the social sciences: Can we move beyond cultural narratives of neglect? Higher Education Research and Development. Published iFirst, February 23, 2012.
  • Wright, T. (2003). Postgraduate research students: people in context? British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 31(2), 209-227.

Where to find experts to help with serious problems

Advice and support with serious problems that are essentially academic are usually most readily available from your department's or faculty's Graduate Program Director or Associate Dean. By contrast, when there is an underlying issue of a personal nature (for instance, relating to the student's health and welfare, or to financial problems), it might be more appropriate to seek help from Student Services, such as the Counselling Service, Mental Health Services, or the Office for Students with Disabilities. To be prepared for emergencies, follow the advice of the Office of the Dean of Students on its Helping students in difficulty webpage.

Acknowledgements: Original content prepared by Margaret Kiley and Gerlese Akerlind, CEDAM, ANU. Amended by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Joel Deshaye, April 2013.