Roles over time

Be ready for inevitable changes in your supervisory relationships.

Like other forms of teaching, supervision is usually not very simple. Accept change; 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. Decide today which role you will try to emphasize in the coming year in your relationships with supervisees and colleagues.


The Oxford Learning Institute document Different support roles can help you categorize your activities and understand how you fit into the four following roles. 

Coaching: Helping your supervisee develop their research expertise through instruction, suggestion, monitoring, and feedback. Coaching is also carried out by other team members, technical staff, and skilled professionals such as librarians.

Facilitating: Establishing an infrastructure that supports and guides the student’s progress. This may include helping the student set goals, providing them with outlines for grant-writing, or providing them with more autonomy in their work.

Mentoring: Providing non-academic support by nominating your supervisees, introducing them to people in their networks, and providing verbal encouragement and support. A mentoring relationship tends to develop with mutual trust and confidence.

Sponsoring: Helping your 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.

Pearson and Brew (2002) mentioned a fifth role that supervisors play: model. Students look up to their supervisors; the supervisor is often the students primary role model of an academic in their field. It is therefore important that supervisors strive to set a good example for their supervisees.

How will your roles change over time?

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 continue to evolve as more research is conducted. Over time, will you be open to learning from newer colleagues and their practices? Will you participate in policy-making at the university level? 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.

  • 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 similar to or different from your approach to mentoring a new supervisor?

  • If you are the principal investigator of a research team where 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, 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. Experienced supervisors often also serve as mentors to newer colleagues, which can be a great learning experience for both mentor and mentee - an experience that can improve one's own 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  day-to-day research skills and abilities 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 (Pearson & Kayrooz, 2004). However, this may require them to find others who are able to assist in supporting new students and often this role is given to postdoctoral fellows.

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 (Mullins & Kiley, 2002). Furthermore, each time they supervise a student through to completion they consider that they are in a better position to examine. See the Being an examiner page for more information.


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., & Brew, A. (2002). Research training and supervision development. Studies in Higher Education 27, 135–50.

Pearson, M., & Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.