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Roles over time

Be ready for inevitable changes in your supervisory relationships.

Like other forms of teaching, supervision is usually not very simple. Accept that, in much the same way that your graduate student or postdoctoral fellow changes over time, you will not be the same from one year to the next. You will be changing as your supervisees and colleagues change, requiring different things of you. Decide today which role you will try to emphasize in the coming year in your relationships with supervisees and colleagues.


Identifying your role or roles based on your activities will help you immediately to create a match between what you do and what you are needed for. Your role as supervisor depends on the level of your supervisee, whether graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, and on that person's strengths and weaknesses. It can also be helpfully shared by colleagues and other professionals on campus. The Oxford Learning Institute document entitled Different support roles [.pdf] can help you to categorize your activities and understand the associated role. It describes four roles:

  1. Coaching
  2. Facilitating the project
  3. Mentoring
  4. Sponsoring

Let others help with coaching and facilitating.

You are not the only person responsible for these activities, which include day-to-day instruction in the lab, organization of extra-curricular programs to help students, monitoring a student's research progress, and giving advice about what to read or whom to meet. Many others at McGill share this responsibiilty. Other members of the supervisory committee, postdoctoral fellows, librarians, and support staff are involved. Encourage your supervisees to meet them so that they can play their roles too.

Be ready for the transition to mentor and sponsor.

Mentors tend to nominate supervisees, introduce them to people in their networks, and provide verbal encouragement and support, not only guidance on research. A student's mentor need not be her or his supervisor, but may be someone else in the department or on the supervisory committee. Mentoring is rarely one's first role, because it tends to develop with mutual trust and confidence, in the later stages of a supervisee's time at the university. Because it is a rewarding aspect of teaching and supervision, ensure that your role as mentor is possible: From the beginning, allow yourself to care about your supervisee's intellectual and personal development.

The sponsorship role involves helping a supervisee to secure funding or infrastructural resources. Often, this is a role played by mid-career professors, who often have the combination of experience and motivation that is correlated with having grants, or by a senior professor with influence over administrative funding. Wherever you are in your career, be aware of the sources of financial or material help to your supervisees.

How will your roles change with the passing years?

Perhaps you feel up-to-date on policies and best practices, whether your practices were learned through experience, culture, or scholarship of teaching and learning; however, policy-making and research in supervision are continuous. You might wonder how you will remain aware of what's current: Will you be open to learning from newer colleagues and their practices? Will you participate in policy-making and thereby influence the university's positions? You might discover that your colleagues want your advice and that your role-defining activities become more general.


As experienced supervisors, you may find the following questions helpful for your supervision and mentoring:

  • How has your role as a supervisor changed as you have become more experienced? See the University of Oxford’s file on Different support roles [.pdf].
  • How do you feel about co-supervision with a less experienced supervisor? To what extent are you confident about mentoring a less experienced supervisor? In what ways is your approach to joint supervision with an inexperienced supervisor similarto or different from your approach to mentoring a new supervisor?
  • If you are the principal investigator of a research team and postdoctoral fellows do much of the day-to-day supervision, how frequently have you built in formal meetings between you and the students whom you supervise? What structures have you put in place for you to mentor the postdocs in this new role?
  • Do you regularly check the McGill website to update yourself with current policies and procedures?

From a hands-on role to a managerial role

Supervisors have multiple roles: coach, facilitator, mentor, 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. Experienced supervisors often also serve as mentors to newer colleagues, and yet they continue to develop their knowledge in roles such as mentor and examiner, each experience providing insight that can improve one's methods and one's advice to others.


Many experienced supervisors, particularly (though not only) those in the sciences, feel that as they progress in their career they grow away from the day-to-day research skills and abilities that they had at the bench as they take on a stronger research management role. Hence, they often take on a different role with their students. Rather than offering the coaching and “hands-on” support they provided earlier in their career, they become more of a mentor and sponsor. However, this may require them to find others who are able to assist in supporting new students and often this role is given to postdocs.

In addition to mentoring their students, many experienced supervisors find themselves mentoring less experienced supervisors. Some universities (but not McGill) have policies that require staff new to supervision to be on a panel where they are mentored by a more experienced supervisor before they can be a sole or primary supervisor.

Experience as a supervisor tends to go hand-in-hand with experience as an examiner. In fact, many supervisors comment that they learn and develop each time they examine a thesis. Furthermore, each time they supervise a student through to completion they consider that they are in a better position to examine.

The above text was based on:

  • Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). "It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize": How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.
  • Pearson, M. & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

The skill of examination and the experience of guiding

With experience, supervisors also become dissertation examiners more frequently. Experienced supervisors are often asked to co-supervise students with new supervisors and to mentor less experienced supervisors. In spite of the benefits of this kind of co-supervision, research at McGill also suggests that different supervisory styles may lead to issues and problems. See Co-supervision, Supervisory styles, and Mentoring.

See also the Writing effective reference letters page on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website.


Acknowledgements: Original content adapted from Margaret Kiley, CEDAM ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, June 2013.