The Role of a Supervisor

Fundamental to the idea of “supervision” is that a graduate faculty member (or occasionally more than one) takes primary responsibility for assisting you learn the craft of research and proceed successfully to your degree. Supervision can take many forms, depending on a variety of factors: for instance, the program you are enrolled in, the approach used by the supervisor, your needs and learning style, your discipline. 

What You Can Expect of Your Supervisor?

In general, you can expect your supervisor to assist you in these areas:

  • Planning. Guiding you in the selection and planning of a meaningful and appropriate research topic that can be successfully completed within the normal time limit for the degree program; helping you establish a realistic timetable for completion of your program, preferably including a number of milestones to measure progress along the way.
  • Guidance. Providing you support and resources to help you understand the relevant theories, knowledge, and background literature, and the methodological and technical skills necessary for the research; providing adequate opportunity and a positive environment for discussion and constructive criticism of ideas, research plans, research results, and thesis drafts as the research progresses.
  • Feedback. Providing sufficient and appropriate guidance and commentary on progress to help ensure successful completion of the program; keeping track of progress and investigating any concerns; being open, honest, and fair with you when your academic performance is not meeting expectations. Sometimes, the most helpful feedback a supervisor can give you is that you are not making sufficient progress and what is required of you for improving your academic performance. While dealing with inadequate academic performance can be difficult, it is in no one’s best interests to prolong a program of study when success is unlikely.
  • Accessibility. Establishing regular meeting times for discussion and review of progress; being reasonably accessible for unscheduled meetings; making arrangements to ensure continuity of supervision during leaves or extended periods of absence.
  • Assistance with setting up a supervisory committee. Check your program requirements, but this should be done as early as possible in the program, and no later than the end of the second year. Ensuring that you have a meeting with your supervisory committee at least once a year, that the meeting is meaningful and helpful, and results in a written report of your progress for inclusion in your academic file. You should be given the opportunity to include your own comments in the report.
  • Awareness of policies and regulations. Being aware of, and ensuring that you are made aware of, all relevant policies and requirements for both your academic program and research.
  • Ensuring academic and research integrity. Ensuring that you understand the need for and meaning of the highest standard of academic and scholarly integrity both in coursework and research.
  • Support and encouragement. Assisting and encouraging your wider professional development through such means as: participation in seminars and colloquia, attendance and presentation of work at local, national, or international conferences; publication of your work in appropriate journals; encouraging authorship or co-authorship on publications as appropriate; taking advantage of the numerous offerings provided by the University for professional development, including the Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) program through the School of Graduate Studies; assisting you in the transition from degree program to employment by, for instance, providing advice on various career options, how to prepare a CV/resume, and strategies for launching an academic or other professional career, introducing you to professional colleagues and assisting in establishing a network of contacts, being willing to write letters of reference and communicate with relevant contacts.
  • Health and safety. Ensuring that the research environment in the lab or research group is safe, equitable, and free from violence, harassment and discrimination.
  • Avoiding conflict of interest. Avoiding personal or business relationships that may constitute a (perceived) conflict of interest.

The Role of Supervisor vs. Mentor

We also believe that a good graduate supervisor will incorporate both roles of supervisor and mentor.

Your supervisor will guide you through the requirements of the academic program, set out expectations, provide evaluations and assessment of your work, and generally assist you in meeting and completing the various milestones and tasks that are part of your program.

As a mentor, your supervisor can be more focused on your long-term development and on providing personal support, not just with regard to the academic requirements but also regarding your development as a scholar and researcher. As a mentor, your supervisor will support you in aspects relevant to the academic process, including but not limited to time managements, conflict resolution, gaining familiarity with the scholarly or research culture in the particular discipline, exploring career options and providing advice on how to prepare for a career, etc. 

The supervisory relationship is only one of many opportunities to have a mentorship experience. We encourage you to explore other mentorship opportunities within your graduate unit or across the university.