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.  

Both students and supervisors have a role to play in the quality of the supervisor relationship; students and supervisors 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. Think about your role as that of a professional. You are not just a learner, but a colleague, in a professional relationship. 

Find information below on:

Student Responsibilities

The following are examples, from the roles and responsibilities of graduate students, of what your supervisor can expect you to do or understand as a graduate student: 

  • 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.  

  • Have an awareness of the services at the University available to promote physical and mental well-being especially those listed in section 1.2

  • Discuss plans with supervisors prior to being absent from campus for brief periods (e.g. vacation); include how communications and responsibilities will be managed during the absence.   

  • 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 two to three week timeframe depending on the document's complexity is commonly applied. 

supervisor and student looking at computerWhile 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 student, you have more control and autonomy over your academic experience, but that means you also have greater responsibility.  

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.   

There are resources on campus to help you develop a realistic timeline. Including the Student Success Office, the Writing and Communication Centre, the graduate academic calendar, and content on the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs website (e.g., faculty specific PhD thesis backwards planning tools).

Supervisor Responsibilities

On the other end of this relationship, examples of what supervisors are expected to do, as found in the Guide to Graduate Research & Supervision, include: 

  • 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. 

  • Have a duty to engage in accommodations processes with AccessAbility Services, as requested, and to provide appropriate accommodation to the point of undue hardship. 

  • 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. 

For a full listing of expectations of supervisors, review the roles and responsibilities of supervisors in the Guide for Graduate Research and Supervision.  

supervisor and student in labIt is important to remember 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. It is their responsibility to make sure that you are approaching the degree in a way that is appropriate, sustainable, and meets the relevant requirements within your program.  

It is also 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. 

Conflict in a supervisory 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: 

  • Experiencing lack of guidance, feedback, or communication 

  • Differences in personal characteristics (e.g., research skills, writing style, work ethic) 

  • Differences in the expectations about the roles of 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 a certain way. 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 and miscommunication (or a lack of communication all together).  

Gatfield (2005) points out four styles of supervision that may help you understand how your supervisor operates. Cultural differences may also play a role in how you interact. Your supervisor may be laissez-faire (i.e., caring, but leaving the student to work independently), pastoral (i.e., willing to provide a high level of personal support as requested but will not proactively suggest timelines etc. for projects), directorial (i.e., will provide a large amount of structure and support on projects but will avoid personal support), or contractual (i.e., will provide a balance of personal and project guidance). Understanding which is your supervisor’s nature style, and comparing that to what your expectations of a supervisor are, may help you to identify areas of mismatched expectations that you can then discuss with your supervisor. 

Tips for Avoiding and Navigating Conflict 

  • Learn about your potential supervisor ahead of time if possible, to see what you might have in common. One way to do this may be to reach out to students who are currently supervised by this faculty member or have been in the past. 

  • Encourage an open line of communication from the beginning (e.g., request/plan a meeting timelines collaboratively, respond to e-mails in a reasonable time frame (within 24-48 hours). Responding in this time frame does not necessarily mean you have to finish the request mentioned in the e-mail; it can be as simple as acknowledging the receipt of the e-mail and mentioning that you will work on the request or be able to provide a larger response soon.  

  • Discuss concerns or issues as soon as possible. Sometimes if we try ignoring issues for a long time, they build together and create a greater amount of frustration and mistrust. 

  • When bringing an issue forward, try to avoid language surrounding blame (e.g., “It is all your fault I am not done!”). Instead try more neutral language that gets to the root of the problem and gets the message across (e.g., “When I don’t receive a response from e-mails I send you, it makes me anxious and frustrated. I feel this way because I want to make progress on the research for my thesis, and I require your feedback before moving to the next steps. I understand that you are busy with your research as well. Could we make a feedback plan that works for both of us?”) 

  • If you are comfortable, when an issue arises with your supervisor, address it directly with your supervisor first before going to other staff members in your department or faculty. In many situations, your supervisor may not know you are experiencing an issue or are frustrated with them. By not discussing the issue with them first before getting another staff or faculty involved (e.g., your department chair), you may risk damaging the relationship further. Please note that this is dependent on the issue you are experiencing. There are situations where other staff and faculty should be contacted immediately (e.g., sexual harassment).  

  • Get some one-on-one advice for how to navigate the issue. There are resources on campus that can support you. For example, the Graduate Student Association offers confidential advising appointments. The Conflict Management and Human Rights Office offers this as well. 

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. If the issue cannot be resolved with your supervisor or if you are uncomfortable discussing the issue with them, these are the people you should contact: 

  • For questions involving program requirements or administrative issues, your first stop should 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 faculty. 

  • If for whatever reason you need support or mediation from outside of your department/school and faculty, 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. Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs is always there to listen and offer information and resources to help navigate whatever situation you may be facing during your time at Waterloo. Feel free to reach out to us at gradventure@uwaterloo.ca. 

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: 

Additional resources

Gatfield, T., “An Investigation into PhD Supervisory Management Styles: Development of a dynamic conceptual model and its managerial implications,” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27.3 (2005), 311.