Communicate with mutual respect and openness
As a supervisor, it is critical to develop a relationship with your supervisee based on clear expectations and mutual respect from your first meeting onward.
Supervisors are responsible for staying in contact with supervisees through regular meetings, emails, etc. Investing time in regular meetings with students – even when the issues to be discussed are not pressing – builds rapport, facilitates accountability, and prevents smaller issues from ballooning into larger problems. Research suggests that a productive supervisory relationship arises from shared values, mutual respect, open communication, and clear expectations for both the supervisor and supervisee (Wisker, 2005).
Regular supervisory meetings provide the basis for communicating expectations and establishing trust with supervisees. At the outset of a supervisory relationship, it is important to clarify expectations about how you and your supervisee will communicate in a Letter of Understanding (LOU; see Clarifying expectations). This LOU can address various topics, such as:
- meeting schedules and milestone deadlines
- preferred ways of communication (e.g., email) and availabilities
- expected supervisory support (e.g., financial, program milestones, networking)
- expected supervisee outcomes (e.g., productivity, professional development)
- general behavioural expectations (e.g., respect, punctuality, help-seeking)
Miscommunications can occur in any relationship, even ones that begin with a clear Letter of Understanding. When miscommunications or conflicts arise, consider taking the following actions:
- Seek first to understand the roots of the issue through direct discussion with your supervisee and/or reviewing available documentation (e.g., meeting notes, LOU)
- Review relevant University policies and consult your Graduate Program Director or Chair if you require clarification
- Consult an Associate Dean in Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) for advice or intervention if other options are not effective
The McGill University Expectations for Graduate Supervision website provides additional context and links to resources should you need to address an issue with a supervisee.
If communication breaks down, reach out for support
Communication between supervisors and supervisees can sometimes break down entirely. In these situations, supervisors should reach out for support.
- Your Graduate Program Director and/or Chair help mediate disagreements or secure a new supervisory arrangement if needed
- The Helping Students in Difficulty folder provides a useful list of resources, including emergency contacts and case workers in the Office of the Dean of Students
Wisker, G. (2005). The good supervisor: supervising postgraduate and undergraduate research for doctoral theses and dissertations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Supervisees as colleagues: Balancing support and respect
Communicating with both collegiality and compassion is key in building professional supervisory relationships where the supervisee can work productively and independently.
A key purpose of doctoral training is to produce independent researchers, many of whom will decide to pursue careers in research or expert practice. Many supervisors thus see their students as colleagues or peers, especially in the later phases of the PhD. Students in turn rely on their supervisors for mentorship, encouragement, understanding, and support.
At the same time, supervisors have responsibilities to support students that are different from the responsibilities with one’s peers. Supervisors need to:
- Assess a student’s progress and communicate when they are not meeting expectations
- Assess the quality of a student’s work and support the student in addressing weaknesses
- Ensure all supervised students receive equal opportunities for training and professional development
- Demonstrate understanding of personal life challenges and refer to useful resources as needed
Professional boundaries can help supervisors deliver critical feedback that will help students succeed when their work is evaluated externally (e.g., by peer review, or in the context of an oral defence). Similarly, recognizing when a student requires academic or personal support is key to referring them in a timely manner to campus supports tailored to meet those needs.
Questions for reflection
- What was your supervisor’s communication style when you were a graduate student? What did you appreciate? What held you back? What did you vow to always or never emulate? What is your communication style?
- Where do you set the boundaries between the personal and the professional in relationships with students? To what extent do you try to get to know your students outside of their work? To what extent do you invite your students to get to know you?
- Outside of formal assessments, such as annual progress tracking, how do you communicate when students are doing well and their work matches or exceeds expectations? How do you communicate when students are not meeting expectations?
- How do you decide who receives opportunities (to publish, to take on paid RAships or TAships, to attend conferences)? Is the process transparent to the students you supervise, and do they perceive it to be fair?