Maintaining a positive supervisory relationship

Supervision is among the most influential factors affecting the student experience. Open, supportive and frequent communication is essential to student success and satisfaction. Furthermore, a match in work values is the biggest predictor in the strength of the relationship (e.g. communication frequency, commitment to timelines, etc.).

Students have a role to play in the quality of the supervisor relationship; students who respect timelines, prepare for meetings, and are open to feedback contribute positively to the student-supervisor relationship. The goal of your research degree is to aid in your transition to an independent researcher. Things like setting meeting agendas, coming to meetings prepared, and meeting deadlines will demonstrate to your supervisor that you’re well on your way to becoming independent, regardless of how your actual research progress is coming along. Think about your role as that of a professional. You are not just a learner, but a colleague, in a professional relationship.

Student Responsibilities

As a graduate student, you are expected to…

  • Have knowledge of and meet all appropriate deadlines and regulations associated with registration, fee payment, award applications and graduation requirements, as specified by the department, Faculty and University
  • Be responsible for developing a sound research plan with achievable timelines and milestones. Students should seek the advice of and co-ordinate with their supervisor during the planning process and throughout its execution
  • Co-ordinate with their supervisor and advisory committee (as applicable) to receive feedback on all stakeholders’ perception of the student’s progress. 
  • Establish mutual expectations with their supervisors and advisory committee (as appropriate) on anticipated review times for students’ written submissions including theses, major research papers, draft journal articles and other research output. A timeframe of two to three weeks depending on the complexity of the document is commonly applied.

While your supervisor is there to act as a mentor and guide, you are still responsible for navigating the deadlines and requirements of your program. It is not their role to tell you what you need to do at any given point like an instructor might. As a graduate student, and especially as a PhD, we have more control and autonomy over our academic experience, but that means we also have greater responsibility.

It is your responsibility to put careful forethought into your research plan going forward. This is a collaborative process, but again the significant point is that this isn’t like a course, where you will be provided with assignments and deadlines. In other words, you will be expected to have a certain degree of autonomy and proactivity, doing the work and research to sort out what you need to do.

Unlike in instructor-student relationships, you are expected to collaboratively establish feedback guidelines, deadlines, and goals. This means thinking critically about the kind of feedback you need, and when you might need it by in order to keep to the schedule you’ve outlined. It also means looking ahead and developing a realistic timeline for yourself, while identifying what you need to succeed. You have a great deal of control over your degree progress, and it is important that you proactively take charge.  

Supervisor Responsibilities

Supervisors are expected to…

  • Have knowledge and understanding of University and Faculty regulations, policies, and procedures, including familiarity with student support services, and policies surrounding academic integrity and responsible, ethical research conduct.
  • Provide well-informed advice on academics and professional development. This should include advice on the development of a research topic and proposal, on the choice of courses and seminars, and on how to successfully complete other components of an academic program.
  • Ensure that you have an advisory committee, that your program of study is consistent with Faculty requirements, and that your research plan is appropriate in breadth, depth, and time to completion.
  • Arrange for regular meetings to ensure steady progress through the program, while thoroughly reviewing and providing constructive and timely feedback on all relevant written materials.
  • Communicate a fair and detailed evaluation of your progress to the school/department, while clearly informing you of any identified issues and how these can be addressed.
  • Inform you of any extended absence, during which they will not be available to communicate, and arranging for suitable communication methods and/or interim supervisors if the absence is for a period longer than two months.

It is important to remember that your supervisor is meant to be a mentor in your academic career. They are here to help you; their knowledge, expertise, and in some cases connections, are resources that you should be using. Don’t be afraid to go to them for advice on these topics. That’s what they’re here for, and it is their responsibility within this role to impart their advice to you.

Having these responsibilities does not mean your supervisor should be doing everything for you. But it is their responsibility to make sure that you are approaching the degree in a way that is appropriate and sustainable, and meets the relevant requirements within your program. It is important to recognize that many aspects of the supervisory relationships have responsibilities on both sides. It is your supervisor’s responsibility to work with you to set a proper structure of collaboration and accountability to help you succeed. They are also responsible for clearly communicating school/department expectations and their perspective on your progress. If they believe that your progress is unsatisfactory, it is their responsibility to clearly articulate what you need to do in order to address those concerns. Remember, they are there to support you.

Supervisory Styles

There are four distinct supervisory styles that emerge from the research:

Laissez-faire: The supervisor is non-directive and not committed to high levels of personal interaction. While the supervisor may be very caring, they are generally non-interfering, leaving the student to work independently for the most part.

Pastoral: The supervisor provides considerable personal support, but not necessarily in a task-driven directive capacity. They will be available to help with concerns or issues, but will rarely be proactive about setting deadlines or suggesting structural guidelines.

Directorial: The supervisor has a close regular interactive relationship with the student. They usually avoid non-task issues such as personal support, but will provide a great deal of structure and guidance on project details.

Contractual: The supervisor provides direction and exercises good management skills and interpersonal relationships. They provide a balance of project oversight and personal support.

An important feature of Gatfield’s model is that it places supervisors and students on a spectrum, using descriptors to identify what he refers to as “preferred operating styles.” This means that although a supervisor might have a propensity toward one particular style over another, it allows for movement between styles as necessary. Individuals may find themselves on different parts of the spectrum at different times during the degree or supervision process.

For instance, a supervisor may allow the student lots of flexibility early in the doctoral program as the student tries to identify a suitable topic (more pastoral), but become more directive and contractual as the student is actively pursuing the project. Later in the program, the supervisor again may become less directive or prescriptive as the student is focused on writing the thesis.

Gatfield stressed that none of the four styles should be considered inherently undesirable or wrong. Supervision strategies are only ineffective if they do not match the needs and expectations of the supervisor and student. This framing provides a helpful way to understand reasons why a supervisory relationship may become unsatisfying for both the supervisor and the student. For instance, a student seeking higher levels of support and structure may feel unsupported and neglected by a supervisor who has a more laissez-faire approach to supervision. Alternatively, a supervisor who takes a more directorial approach may lead some students to feel a lack of autonomy and trust in the supervisory relationship.

Conflict in a Supervisor Relationship

There are numerous potential sources of conflict within the supervisory relationship, and these will vary widely depending on the particular individuals or circumstances. However, research has identified some common themes:

  • Students generally report the main source of conflict with their supervisor is lack of guidance, feedback or communication. Students cite inadequate structure, feedback that does not address their main concerns, delayed responses, inconsistent availability, and similar issues. These concerns can usually be expressed as the sense that their supervisory is not fulfilling the role they expected, that they are not being supported by their supervisory in some crucial way.
  • Supervisors typically attribute the main source of conflict to students’ personal characteristics, such as research skills, writing style, or work ethic. They will sometimes claim that students did not respect agreements, or misinterpreted feedback, leading to some undesired result. These concerns generally revolve around that perception that a student is not meeting some particular obligations which the supervisor feels is implicit in the relationship.
  • Cultural expectations about the roles of students and supervisors may also differ and thus create conflict. For example, although Canadian universities typically value problem solving and analytical or critical-thinking skills, some education systems in other cultures might value tradition, history, and authority. As a result, many international students have been taught to replicate esteemed authorities’ work, rather than analyze or critique it. Similarly, in some countries, the student/supervisor relationship is much closer than in Canada and the US, so expectations can differ between students and supervisors.

Ultimately, all of these main concerns are about differing role expectations. Students expect supervisors to be providing a certain kind of support in a certain way, or supervisors expect students to fulfill certain responsibilities. In most cases, it is not that either party is inherently wrong or bad at what they’re doing. Most often, it is simply a matter of mismatched expectations, with the two parties having not clearly or satisfactorily established who is expected to do what in the relationship.

For example, if you are not getting the kind of feedback or guidance that you expected, it’s worth asking for those explicitly. Instead of simply handing drafts to your supervisor, ensure that you include an overview of the type of feedback or advice you are looking for. If your supervisor is unresponsive, consider notifying them ahead of time when you will be sending off a draft, asking whether that is a good time, and booking a follow-up meeting to discuss it. Open communication, expressing your needs and expectations, can solve a lot of conflicts before they begin.

Managing Expectations

To help bring some of these differences in expectations into the open for discussion, a possible strategy is to develop a better understanding of yours and your supervisor’s expectations, using a tool such as the Kiley-Cadman Supervisor Expectations tool (PDF).

The Kiley-Cadman tool has been designed as a discussion starter for use by advisory teams and candidates. It provides a series of actions or roles that are involved in the dissertation process. For each of these, it asks you to rate on a scale how much they are the responsibility of the student versus the responsibility of the supervisor.

The tool is especially effective when candidates recognize that there are no “right” answers to the items on the questionnaire. Responses are likely to be different at different stages of candidature.

How to use this tool

  • There are various versions of the tool online. Supervisors and students can each fill it out (likely several times throughout the degree) and can add/remove questions depending on the stage of your degree.
  • Think about the tool as a catalyst for conversation, not as a promise or commitment
  • The purpose of using the tool is to structure a fruitful discussion about the reasons why different responses may have been selected, and to decide on appropriate ongoing actions for the current participants and stage of your candidacy.

Sample Questions

Below are some sample questions you can use to start conversations about specific expectations with your supervisor, to help avoid conflict further on. 

  1. I know the frequency and format of meetings will vary, but how often should we schedule regular check-in meetings? (once a week, twice a month?)
  2. What is your preferred method of regular communication? (face-to-face, email, Teams chat, phone?)
  3. What expectations do you have regarding my attendance in the office/lab or on campus?
  4. How would you like me to schedule and inform you about time away (e.g. vacation, illness)
  5. Who will set up the supervisory committee and thesis committee? How frequently will we meet as a group and what should I do to prepare for those meetings?
  6. What time period is reasonable for me to expect for you to get back to me with:
    a) an answer to an emailed question 
    b) feedback on findings, or a question about methodology 
    c) edits on my draft chapters/thesis/publication?
  7. If you don’t get back to me within those timelines, is it appropriate for me to send along a reminder email?
  8. Do you plan to take a research leave/sabbatical during the course of my program?
  9. How will your leave affect me and your supervision of my work?
  10. How will we determine authorship (or authorship order)? Is there an opportunity for me to obtain first author publications?
  11. Will I need to complete any ethics approval processes before data collection can begin?

Seeking clarity and structure

  • When you start your program, it’s quite possible that your supervisor will say something like “come and see me whenever you need me. I have an open-door policy with all my grad students.”
  • This doesn’t help build in accountability. If you had a regularly scheduled meeting every other Friday, chances are that you will come prepared with a list of what you’ve accomplished.
  • Consider asking for a regular check-in meeting to keep yourself on track and moving forward.

Planning effective meetings with your supervisor

Once you’ve established regular meetings with your supervisor, learn how to plan effective meetings

  • Set an agenda and email it to your supervisor 2-3 days in advance
  • Take meeting notes and spend a few minutes after the meeting recording key outcomes and action items
  • Send the key outcomes and action items to your supervisor and ask any clarifying questions

Sample meeting agenda



What you’ve done since the last meeting


Questions, issues, or concerns




Next steps you will take


What you should have done by the next meeting

Sample meeting notes/outcomes

Meeting notes/outcomes





2 days before meeting on the 23rd.

Send supervisor draft abstract for the conference.


September 15

Send student sample research ethics approval form.


September 8

Follow up with Safety office re: when student can access the lab.

Key items discussed:

  • Office access during COVID
  • CHA conference attendance in 2021
  • Research ethics approval

Sample conversation request

Dear [Supervisor],

I hope you and your family are doing well.

I’m thrilled to be starting in your lab as a master’s candidate next week. I look forward to our first lab meeting on September 10.

With me just entering this new program, I was hoping we could set up a 45-minute meeting next week to discuss mutual expectations.

I am available on Tuesday (September 2) any time after noon, and all day Thursday or Friday. Please let me know your availability and I will follow up with a Teams invitation and calendar invite.

Many thanks,


Who to contact about issues

If you are having issues related to your supervisory relationship, whether the result of conflict or some other reason, it is important to understand who you can go to for help. This will depend on the nature of your issue and who you have already spoken to about it.

  • For questions involving program requirements or administrative issues, your first stop should always be the Graduate Studies Program Coordinator in your department/school.
  • For questions or concerns involving academics or research matters, your first stop should be your Associate Chair for Graduate Studies (Graduate Officer) in your department/school.
  • If your issue cannot be resolved by the above parties, your next stop should be the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies or Faculty Administrative Assistant for your program.
  • If for whatever reason you need support or mediation from outside of your department/school, you can get in touch with Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, specifically one of the Assistant VPs or the Associate Vice-President, who will all be happy to help you.
  • Support is also available with the GSA and other Academic Support Units across campus.

For issues related to your well-being, you can find additional University and Faculty-level resources that support graduate students. Concerns for which graduate students can seek support include issues of harassment, discrimination, or requests for special academic accommodations.  Common support services of interest to graduate students include: