Supervisory Relationships

Supervision of undergraduate and graduate student research represents an important yet not often discussed component of an academic’s workload. Following are some factors to consider when you assume supervisory duties.

Consider how you view student research

Is it an opportunity for adding to the scholarship of your discipline or is it more of a training exercise for students to learn valuable skills? Should it entail independent work or collaborative work? Should students work alone or as team members? Is the research project part of an apprenticeship to learn about the academic profession or is it more a form of employment? Differences exist across disciplines but may also exist within individual departments.

Reflect on your own research experience

How positive was your experience as a student? Would you like your relationships with your research students to be similar or different? How do you currently engage in research? How much of that experience are you willing to pass on to your own research students?

Decide on a supervisory style that you are comfortable with

Will you be very structured in your relationships with students or will you be more free? How flexible can your style be to meet different students’ needs and styles? Keep in mind, too, that supervisory roles can change as the research progresses. Consider the following roles and their fit with your supervisory style: director, facilitator, advisor, teacher, guide, critic, freedom giver, supporter, friend, manager, and examiner.

Make your expectations clear and explicit

Let your students know your schedule. Indicate what you expect to get out of meetings. Explain the criteria for the finished product. Finally, encourage your students to be open and honest with you. You need to create, at minimum, a working relationship or else your students are unlikely to make progress and your time will not be well-spent.

Learn to identify common problems for research students

  • Poor planning and management of project
  • Methodological difficulties in the research
  • Writing up the project
  • Isolation from the university community
  • Personal problems outside the research
  • Inadequate or negligent supervision

Avoid common criticisms of supervisors made by research students

  • Too few meetings with students
  • No interest in students or topic
  • Too little practical help given
  • Too little direction
  • Failure to return work promptly
  • Absence from department
  • Lack of research experience
  • Lack of relevant skills and/or knowledge

Learn to identify warning indicators for students at risk

  • Postponing meetings
  • Making excuses for unfinished work
  • Focusing on the next stage of the project instead of the current task
  • Frequently changing topics or methods
  • Filling time with other projects or tasks not related to the research project
  • Resisting advice or constructive criticism
  • Procrastinating on writing
  • Intellectualizing practical problems
  • Blaming others for shortcomings
  • Failing to integrate earlier work

Consider your role at meetings

As the supervisor, you need to be questioning your students regarding their work, listening even beyond the information they give you, pushing students to make decisions and set goals, providing explanations for material or methods they do not understand, providing feedback, and helping to plan and monitor the project. You should also consider keeping written documentation about decisions and follow-up activities that stem from each meeting.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

Selected bibliography

The following bibliography identifies key resources available in the CTE Library, MC 4051. CTE Library codes appear after each book resource.

  • Brown, G. & Atkins, M. (1988). Effective Teaching in Higher Education. London, UK: Methuen & Co. (LB 2331.B717)
  • Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., & Parry, O. (1997). Supervising the PhD. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. (LB 2386.D45)
  • Holdaway, E., DeBlois, C., & Winchester, I. (1995). Supervision of Graduate Students. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 25 (3), 1-29.
  • Matthews, L. (1994). The Process of Supervising Dissertations. (Red Guide Series 8). Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: University of Northumbria at Newcastle. (LB 2369.H37)
  • McMichael, P. (1993). Starting Up as Supervisors: the perceptions of newcomers in postgraduate supervision in Australia and Sri Lanka. Studies in Higher Education, 18 (1), 15-26.

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Supervisory Relationships. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.