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Roles and responsibilities of departments, graduate officers and graduate co-ordinators



Graduate programs are centred in departments or schools. For most graduate students, the first link with the University is through their home department. It is there that students find much of the information and help they need.

There are several common roles that exist within a department or school that support the delivery of graduate programs.  These include:

  • A chair (director) who by University Policy acts as the senior administrator for the unit;
  • An associate chair (director) who is designated by the chair (director) to be the administrative lead for all issues related to graduate studies;
  • A program director who is again designated by the chair or associate chair to be the administrative lead for a single graduate program.  Collectively, associate chairs, associate directors and program directors are commonly referred to as graduate officers.
  • A graduate co-ordinator who is the lead staff person, working with the graduate officer, in support of students and program(s). 

Graduate co-ordinators often have tremendous institutional knowledge and an extensive awareness of Policy and practice which collectively can be enormously valuable in supporting students and faculty.  It is important that academic decisions are made by the department’s academic leads, with support from the graduate co-ordinator as appropriate.

One of the primary roles played by a department or a graduate officer is to match and monitor the relationship between graduate students and their supervisor(s), and the extended supervisory team, sometimes called an “advisory committee.” 

Students should have access to clear information on the composition and duties of the supervisor(s) and the advisory committee (as applicable). In programs without advisory committees (e.g. Master of Applied Science programs in the Faculty of Engineering) the responsibilities ordinarily performed by the advisory committee are to be assumed by the supervisor. Acceptance of a student into a program carries with it an obligation to provide supervision and/or advice to the student with the goals of ensuring academic progress and success, and avoiding the case where a student fails to achieve the requirements of their academic program.  

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Information delivery

Departmental representatives are expected to provide primary sources of information relevant to graduate students and graduate studies.  In this area, chairs, officers, or co-ordinators should:

1.1   Provide information to applicants (when appropriate) and graduate students, both newly-accepted and continuing, on all aspects of the program(s): admission requirements, funding, procedures and deadlines. Communication to graduate students should be clear, inclusive and achieved by the appropriate media.

1.2   Be well-informed on and engage in effective communication with students on key University Policies and support services.   Best practices suggest that this information should be provided at the time of enrolment through an orientation program and recurring throughout a student’s time of study.  Specifically, departmental representatives should know and communicate:

Visit the Key university policies and reference materials web page for more information.

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Supervision quality

In addition to providing important information, departmental representatives also play important roles in regulating and overseeing the relationship between research students and their supervisory teams.  In these roles, departmental representatives should:

1.3   Verify that faculty who are sole supervising doctoral students hold Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS) status.   

1.4   Within reason and consistent with Faculties’ practices, ensure that every student has a supervisor or advisor.  In some programs, it is desirable to identify a supervisor as early as possible, while in others, it is preferable to wait for the student to be involved in the thesis component of the program. In the latter case, it is assumed that the graduate officer or an appointed advisor will take on the role of advising the student until a supervisor has been identified. In non-thesis programs, graduate officers may have advisory responsibilities.

1.5   Ensure that those providing guidance to graduate students – supervisor(s), the advisory committee, and the departmental representatives themselves – are reasonably accessible when called upon for discussion and consultation regarding academic and research progress and timeliness.

1.6   Ensure that students’ progress is assessed at least once a year, and that the department provides students with clear and timely written feedback on their progress. Some departments may require that each student provide regular written progress reports to the graduate officer. Students beyond their program time limit (Graduate Studies Academic Calendar) should have their progress evaluated by the department in each term.  Additional guidance on evaluating students’ progress in a research program can be found in the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar. 

1.7   When a supervisor is absent for any significant period, ensure that graduate students receive interim supervision from an academic colleague who possesses appropriate knowledge and skills in the student’s particular area of work. The length of a supervisor’s absence and the needs of individual students will determine the duration of interim supervision required. However, no student should be left without supervision for more than two months. For faculty members that are on leave (pregnancy/parental, illness etc.), an interim supervisor should be designated for the student. In circumstances where a supervisor becomes unavailable unexpectedly, departmental representatives shall intervene and appoint an interim supervisor for the graduate students.

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The University places the utmost importance on safety, particularly in the conduct of research.  To this end, departmental representatives should:

1.8   Maintain a safe working environment and inform students of the department, Faculty and University safety protocols as appropriate to the discipline or field. 

1.9   Ensure that supervisors have completed mandatory health and safety supervisor awareness training (Safety Office) and understand the role of the supervisor as it pertains to health and safety.

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Financial support 

Research graduate students receive financial support during their studies for their contributions to the educational mission of the university – serving as graduate teachings assistants (GTAs) or sometimes sessional instructors – and in support of research – receiving research assistantships (RAs) or graduate research studentships (GRS).  Both the department and graduate students benefit when there are clear communications and expectations around financial support.  To achieve these goals requires that departments: 

1.10   Communicate clearly and in writing to the student any and all terms of financial assistance/support (e.g., amounts, length of time, conditions of the financial commitment). In some Faculties, a GTA may be offered as a component of the minimum guaranteed funding. In other Faculties, GTA positions provide students support in addition to their guaranteed minimum.  Students who are receiving the minimum funding level in the form of a GRS may also choose to assume duties outside their academic program (e.g., TAs); however, they should do so only if it does not hamper their ability to succeed in the program.  Excluding curricular work and integrated learning opportunities, the University will typically not engage full-time students  (Graduate Studies Academic Calendar) in more than an average of 10 hours per week of paid activity. Though, students may pursue additional on-campus employment beyond 10 hours per week (but not exceeding 20 hours per week, on average, in each term) having met certain conditions and following the process specified by their Faculty).

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Review of supervisory duties 

Departmental representatives play an important role in ensuring that graduate students receive appropriate quality of supervision and to intervene when there are concerns about a supervisor’s performance.  Specifically, departmental representatives should:

1.11   Work to create an environment and conditions that increase the likelihood of successful academic relationships between students, their supervisors and their advisory committees.

1.12   Take steps to address concerns identified by students, supervisors or advisory committees that are negatively influencing the achievement of the stakeholders’ academic, personal and professional objectives.

1.13  Respond promptly to requests for the replacement of a supervisor or advisory committee member. The department has a responsibility to review the case to secure alternative supervision where appropriate. If the department has reason to believe that adequate supervision is not being provided, it should provide an impartial investigation of the situation and take appropriate action that may, in extreme cases, include potential removal of supervisory status.  Affected students should be consulted during the process of identifying alternate supervision.  In cases where a student seeks alternative supervisors or advisory committee members and that request is not deemed necessary or appropriate by the department, the student may grieve that decision under policy 70 (Secretariat).

1.14   If there is clear documentation and substantive communication with the supervisor to correct supervisory issues and no change is observed, the chair or director of the faculty member’s unit can recommend to the associate vice-president, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs, that the faculty member’s ADDS status be revoked if circumstances warrant.   The faculty member can obtain the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW) support in meetings with the chair or director regarding issues surrounding supervisory capabilities. 

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Student support and dispute resolution 

The department is often seen to be the unit with which faculty and students have the strongest connections.  Moreover, the department has the greatest understanding of their program regulations, practices and expectations.  As such, the department is often the best place for students and faculty members to have concerns addressed.  It is the University’s expectation that departmental representatives will:

1.15   Serve, as appropriate, as a first point of contact in support of graduate students and faculty members who are seeking resolution to graduate-related challenges, academic and personal.  Students and faculty members will often seek guidance from the departmental representative with whom they have the most positive and well established relationship.  Students and faculty will also choose to communicate with those representatives who they believe can be most effective in achieving resolution.   As such, all departmental representatives should be prepared to hear and react to concerns in a timely way.  The University’s expectation is that departmental representatives will work to achieve resolution for challenges with which they are presented, using guidance provided by Policy (as described in 1.2), support units (as described in 1.2), these guidelines, the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar, and other sources.

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