Warning signs

Plan for mutual success but watch for warning signs

Detecting warning signs and acting early can often save a student from considerable distress and ill-health. Students may need assistance in seeking help regarding their physical and mental well-being, in the same ways that they need help and encouragement to seek help regarding writing, presentation skills, etc. The supervisor’s role is to make supervisees aware of the support available (not to treat or diagnose). Supervisors should know their limits in supporting supervisee mental health and refer students to campus resources.


Helping Students in Difficulty

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.

The Helping Students in Difficulty folder lists warning signs to watch out for, with corresponding resources to contact. Warning signs include:

  • Academic indicators that a student is struggling (e.g., marked changes in performance)
  • Lack of communication
  • Worrisome communication or worrisome behaviour (e.g., disconcerting comments, changes in temperament, etc.)


If you are concerned about a student, err on the side of caution and notify the Case Manager, Office of the Dean of Students.

Leaves of Absence

Students experiencing personal or family health issues may decide to request a leave of absence.

The GPS website has information on the policy, the procedure for requesting a leave, and the documentation required.

How can supervisors help reduce isolation?

Graduate studies can at times be isolating, especially at times when students are not regularly interacting with their peers. As a supervisor, consider how you can help students during the phases of their program where they will not have consistent access to peer support.


Support during thesis writing

Another time that students tend to experience isolation is when they are writing their thesis. Typically at this time, students will be finished with their courses and other aspects of their project in which interaction was more prevalent. It is easy to get caught up in the writing process and forget to make time for other things, such as socializing and self-care.

The pages below provide practical advice for supervisees: 

Graphos offers writing supports for students aimed at reducing isolation. 

Support during fieldwork

Fieldwork can be stressful for students; without careful forward planning, they can experience a feeling of being forgotten or cut off from a supervisor during this time. Therefore it is recommended that supervisors:

  • 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/video conferencing, 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; and
  • 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.

Peer Support

Supervisees benefit from opportunities to connect and learn from one another. Whether through lab meetings, journal clubs, reading groups, or social activities, supervisors can play a role in creating spaces for supervisees to form connections with peers.


Questions for reflection

  1. What are the most isolating aspects of graduate studies in your field?
  2. What opportunities exist in your department and/or field for students to connect with one another? How can you ensure new students are aware of these opportunities?

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.

Back to top