Roles over time

A supervisor's role changes over time

Supervisors have multiple roles: coach, facilitator, mentor, and sponsor. Although these roles co-exist, mentorship and sponsorship become more important over time, as supervisees ask for letters of recommendation and benefit from informal promotion during their job searches. Balancing the different roles and styles promote a mutually beneficial supervisory relationship.


The Supervisor's role involves:

Coaching: Helping supervisees develop their research expertise through instruction, suggestion, progress tracking, and feedback.

Facilitating: Establishing an infrastructure that supports and guides the student’s progress (e.g., helping students set goals, providing templates for grant-writing).

Mentoring: Providing advice, encouragement, and support. See Mentoring.

Sponsoring: Helping students secure funding or resources (e.g., helping student apply for funding, securing funding or resources through the supervisor’s own grants, grant-writing with supervisees, etc.)

Adopting a balanced approach

Imbalance: Selfless


Imbalance: Selfish


Co-operation vs. leadership


I disempower myself, withdraw, become more passive, rely too much on the other to take the initiative, or provide the impetus – “laissez faire.”

I believe in empowering communication, which is appropriately assertive, not disempowering but actively empowering the other person.

I disempower the other person: being overly directive, controlling or even coercive.


Listening vs. talking


I focus too much on the other person, and listen too much.

I balance attention on myself and the other person.

I am too preoccupied with my own agenda, and listen too little.


Relationship vs. task


I focus so much on feeling, needs and the relationship that I lose sight of the task.

I balance between the focus on task and the focus on the relationship.

I focus so much on the task that I lose sight of feelings, needs and the relationship.

In order to position oneself in the center, that is, to achieve a balance, it is necessary to:

  • not focus on ego-issues (i.e., taking something personally);
  • have an open attitude to embrace alternative perspectives and new information; and
  • maintain a collaborative, problem solving mindset.

Adapted from materials (the table and list) provided by Geoff Mortimore, CEDAM, Australian National University.

Guiding students towards independence

Excerpts from the Supervision Snapshots series highlight how award-winning supervisors shift the way they support students as those students’ needs evolve over time.



The dream is that your students actually go beyond what you've done, right? So, if you think of that as the goal for a student, you can work backwards to ask “okay, so where should I start with the student? And what should I do next?” And one thing I make clear to my students is that eventually in weekly meetings it’s going to be less of me saying “Well, check out that, check out this, check out that” and then eventually there’s a transition to “Okay, you tell me what you think the next thing to do is, what you think the next objective you want to realize is.”

Prof. James Richard Forbes, Mechanical Engineering

[A graduate degree in Math] is more of a lonely exercise. So I like to think of it as an intellectual mountaineering expedition. My role in all that is that I am the guide. I am trying to help students find their way. It comes with some ups and downs; it comes with some difficult stretches; it comes with some places where we just don’t know how to continue. And so in that moment I step in and I help them find a different route or to explore different options.”

Prof. Johanna Neslehova, Mathematics and Statistics

Questions for reflection

  • How would you describe your style of supervision?
  • As a supervisor, how do you help students develop as independent researchers?
  • When should a supervisor step in and coach a student through a challenge? When should a supervisor step back?

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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