Starting out

Start planning even before the beginning of term

Successful graduate programs often begin for students and supervisors informally before the beginning of term. When the first term begins, students can be ready for coursework and already thinking ahead about research-related tasks and other activities. Plan to spend more time than usual in the first meetings, and anticipate needs and potential concerns based on what you know of each other.


Student and supervisor can discuss how the student can plan ahead before the official start of term so that they feel prepared upon arrival. Some ideas include:

  • reading on the topic of the research, or on topics relevant to coursework;

  • reviewing or practising techniques or skills that will be used in the project;

  • completing any required or relevant online research ethics courses; and

  • reviewing program requirements and milestones.


For supervisors: Strategies for before and after a student's arrival

Reflect on your expectations of supervision, and what you expect from the student. If this is your first supervisee, the New supervisors page may provide additional helpful information. If this is not your first supervisee, consider what you would like to keep or change from your previous supervisory experiences. An example of such expectations from a McGill supervisor can be found here.

At the first meeting with your supervisee, be sure to clarify expectations. This first meeting checklist from the University of Oxford provides additional suggestions for things to discuss at this meeting. The following recommendations may also be helpful.

  • Allocate more time for the first meetings with students.

  • Be aware of students’ cultural backgrounds- see the Recognizing student diversity page for more information.

  • Clarify preferred means of communication.

Strategies such as the following may be useful to support induction and develop good working relationships. Implementing these strategies starting from the first meeting and continuing throughout the degree can help record and enhance the student’s progress.

  • Ask students to send you an email after each formal supervisory meeting. This email should briefly summarize what they perceive as the main outcomes of the meeting. Written records such as these are valuable not only to correct any miscommunication but also as a record of earlier review and discussion of student progress and development. This is particularly important if there are any later disagreements.

  • Tell students you intend to use completion of the Graduate Student Research Progress Tracking Form found on the GPS website as an opportunity to revisit with them your mutual expectations of supervision, the effectiveness of current lines of communication and any impediments to the working relationships, and also to identify any anticipated learning needs.

  • Make action plans at meetings and ensure that the students know what to do next.


For students: Orientation, advice from senior students, and planning for meetings

A great way to get started at the beginning of term is by attending McGill’s graduate orientation, as well as any orientation events offered by your department or program. See the Resources page for a variety of campus services that may be useful for you upon your arrival and throughout your degree.

Hints and tips from final-year graduate students can be found in the I wish I’d been told earlier document from the University of Oxford. Asking senior students in your department, program, lab or research group about their experience can also be helpful.

During your first meeting with your supervisor, be sure to discuss expectations. As soon as possible after the meeting, write a brief descriptive text that summarizes the direction of the discussion including what was clarified, ending with next tasks and timelines. Send this to your supervisor to verify that you have understood exactly what has been agreed. Continuing to do this after every formal meeting with your supervisor helps to avoid misunderstandings, and provides you with a log of your progress.

How is success measured in graduate studies?

Success as a graduate student involves 3 main categories: academics, well-being and student life, as well as careers and professional development. Setting goals for each of these categories at the start can help guide and motivate progress throughout the degree. Individual development plans (IDPs) are great tools to use for such goal setting.


An IDP is an action plan for the next 6-12 months focusing on self-assessment of skills and progress, and allows graduate students to set short-term research and skill development goals as well as long-term career goals.

Benefits of IDPs include:

  • promoting self-awareness, reflection and motivation;

  • encouraging timely degree completion;

  • fostering productive conversations between student and supervisor focused on clarifying expectations for development and productivity; and

  • helping students transition into the job market.

A typical IDP involves:

  • self-assessment of skills (e.g., technical, communication, leadership), interests (e.g., desired job) and values (e.g., helping others, independence);

  • goal setting for research, skill development, career planning and wellness;

  • creating a plan to achieve these goals; and

  • regular evaluations of progress.

Some programs at McGill are beginning to implement IDPs for their students. If your program has not yet done this, it would be beneficial to create one on your own. Below are some resources to help you accomplish this.

The transition from undergraduate to graduate studies

Students who gain their undergraduate degrees and then become graduate students often face a "culture shock" even if they are native to the predominant culture of the university in which they pursue a Master's degree or a PhD. They face the challenges of increased competition, self-directed research, and creating a student-supervisor relationship that is professional and mutually beneficial. Beginning to set academic and personal goals at the start of term, or even before, can help ease this transition.


Differences between undergraduate and graduate studies

Research (Gardner, 2008; Sambrook, Stewart, & Roberts, 2008) has indicated several important differences between undergraduate and graduate studies, which students must adjust to during this transition.

Undergraduate studies

Graduate studies

Taught program with a focus on coursework

Less structured and more self-directed learning environment with a focus on gaining research independence (once coursework is completed)

Individual is often a “star performer”

Individual is a novice researcher in a context where most others are equally strong performers

Often no supervisory relationship, and relationships are usually short-term when present

Long-term supervisory relationship, which plays a key role in student success


These differences may be more relevant to graduate students in research-based programs, since it has been shown that graduate students in coursework-based programs have similar needs to undergraduate students (Stagg & Kimmins, 2014). For those who come with years of professional experience, however, the issue is often that of being treated like students rather than professionals (Hall & Burns, 2009). Many incoming graduate students also experience personal changes simultaneously with the change in education environment, such as a adjusting to a new institution, city, culture or language, as well as a change in personal social and support networks (Gardner, 2008; McAlpine & Amundsen, 2011).

Goal setting can help make the transition more manageable

Adjusting to the less structured and more self-directed nature of graduate studies can be made easier through goal setting, which can help break down the graduate degree into smaller chunks that feel manageable while ensuring that everything gets done. A great goal setting tool is the Individual Development Plan- see the ideas for reflection tab for more information on this.

In addition to stating goals, IDPs require the planning of measurable actions relevant to the goals. Research suggests that setting “implementation intentions”, including the planning of when, where and how goal-relevant behaviours will be executed, increases goal attainment (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). Implementation intentions can help prevent common obstacles to goal attainment, such as difficulty getting started and unwanted thought/behaviour responses (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).

Another component of IDPs is regular evaluations of progress. Frequently monitoring progress towards a goal has been demonstrated to increase goal attainment rates (Harkin et al., 2016). Progress monitoring involves comparing your current state to the goal state, allowing the planning of behaviours to reduce this gap (Harkin et al., 2016).



Gardner, S. (2008). "What's too much and what's too little?" The process of becoming an independent researcher in doctoral education. Journal of Higher Education, 79(3), 326-350.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Scoial Psychology, 38, 69-119.

Hall, L., & Burns, L. (2009). Identity development and mentoring in doctoral education. Harvard Educational Review, 79(1), 49-70.

Harkin, B., Webb, T. l., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, C., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142(2) 198-229.

McAlpine, L., & Amundsen, C. (Eds.) (2011). Doctoral education: Research based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators. Amsterdam: Springer.

Sambrook, S., Stewart, J., & Roberts, C. (2008). Doctoral supervision. a view from above, below and the middle. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32(1), 71-84.

Stagg, A. & Kimmins, L. (2014). First year in higher education (FYHE) and the coursework post-graduate student. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 40(2), 142-151.