Changes are coming to this website. Learn more ➜

Roles and responsibilities of supervisors



Effective graduate student supervision requires complex interactions between graduate students and their supervisors. The role of a supervisor is threefold: to advise graduate students, monitor their academic progress, and act as a mentor. Supervisors not only provide guidance, instruction and encouragement in the research activities of their students, but also take part in the evaluation and examination of their students’ progress, performance and navigation through the requirements of their academic program with the goal to ensure that their students are successful.

Supervisors are responsible for fostering the intellectual and scholarly development of their students. They also play an important role in providing advice about professional development and both academic and non-academic career opportunities, as they are able, and based upon the student’s career interests. 

While these expectations apply to all graduate students, supervising PhD students reflects a longer-term, more substantive commitment.  The privilege to supervise PhD students requires that the supervisor hold Approved Doctoral Dissertation Supervisor (ADDS) status. The intent of ADDS policy is to ensure that faculty have the appropriate knowledge to facilitate excellence in PhD supervision.

return to top

 Knowledge of regulations, policies and procedures

Effective graduate student supervision requires a knowledge and understanding of the University’s requirements and expectations.  To this end, supervisors should:

2.1   Be knowledgeable and remain updated on department, Faculty and University regulations, policies and procedures, and have these protocols guide the supervisors’ decision-making and behaviour as they interact with graduate students. Supervisors are encouraged to take the necessary steps to be well-informed with those Policies identified in section 1.2.

2.2   Be familiar with the support services available to students and faculty at the University including those articulated in section 1.2. This information is normally available through department graduate co-ordinators, Faculty Graduate Studies Offices, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA), the Graduate Student Association (GSA) or the University Secretariat.

2.3  Be informed about University of Waterloo policies and procedures that inform academic integrity (Office of Research).

2.4   Be aware of the University of Waterloo and Tri-Agency policies and procedures associated with the conduct of research.   Where appropriate, supervisors should be prepared to provide guidance to students on:

2.5   Have knowledge of the policies and procedures that govern international travel and security that can be found at Waterloo International.

return to top 

 Advice on program of study, research and professional development

As noted above, supervisors are expected to serve as mentors to their graduate students.  To this end, supervisors should be prepared to provide well-informed advice on academics and professional development.  More specifically, supervisors should be prepared to advise students on:

2.6   An academic program that is challenging, at the appropriate level for the degree being sought, and that can be accomplished within commonly understood and desirable time and resource expectations of the student and the supervisor.

2.7   The choice of courses and seminars needed to fulfil the degree requirements.

2.8   The development and construct of a research topic and proposal.

2.9   The development of a communication plan with the supervisory/advisory committee as to how the student’s progress will be assessed (including during thesis writing and completion), and the role of advisory committee members in the assessment.

2.10   The availability of internships, practica, co-op or other experiential learning opportunities as part of the program.

2.11   The availability of professional development resources for Waterloo graduate students to help advance the students’ career objectives.

return to top 


The establishment and communication of common expectations are critical elements to positive experiences for both graduate students and their supervisors.  Achieving these outcomes can be facilitated by regular meetings and/or consultation between students, their supervisors, and where appropriate advisory committees. Especially important is timely feedback on students’ written submissions. 

The University encourages supervisors to:

2.12   Ensure, especially important in the case of doctoral students, that the student has:

  • An advisory committee as required.
  • A program of study consistent with department and Faculty requirements that has been approved by the advisory committee as required.
  • A research plan that is appropriate in breadth, depth and time to completion (see Milestones in master's and doctoral programs).

2.13   Arrange for regular (as agreed by the student and supervisor) meetings (which may involve the advisory committee) with students for consultation to ensure steady progress. The frequency of such meetings will depend on the discipline/field of study, type of program, and the student’s progress. At least two, preferably more, meetings should be arranged in each academic term. Supervisors should also be reasonably accessible for meetings requested by their students. The approach to these student meetings should be individualized to reflect the needs of the student. For example, some students may need more support while other may need less.

2.14   Communicate their evaluation of student progress to the department once a year or more often if required. The report should clearly indicate the status of the student’s progress (i.e., satisfactory or unsatisfactory).  In the latter case, the report must include a clearly articulated set of conditions that if satisfied will restore the student’s status to satisfactory. Where the supervisor feels that the student will have serious difficulties finishing the program, the supervisor, in consultation with the advisory committee as appropriate, will inform in writing, both the student and the graduate officer of the nature of the problem(s), suggested remedies and may recommend withdrawal from the program.  More information on assessing students’ progress can be found in the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar.

2.15   Thoroughly review and provide constructive feedback on all written materials relevant to the thesis or research paper submitted by their students. The supervisor and the student are encouraged to establish in writing expectations on what constitutes timely feedback; a timeframe of two to three weeks depending on the complexity of the document is commonly applied. However, this can vary depending on various circumstances such as travel or vacation.  These circumstances should be discussed between the supervisor and student.

2.16   Have knowledge of the guidelines for evaluating students’ progress in a research program (Graduate Studies Academic Calendar).

2.17  Inform students about the broad spectrum of resources available (Writing and Communication Centre) to facilitate development of oral communication and writing skills.

2.18   Be active and supportive in promoting students’ well-being.  This may include:

2.19   Complete as appropriate the University requirements for Sexual violence awareness, referral and support training (Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion Office) to understand how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence and refer students to the appropriate supports.

return to top 


The University recognizes that supervisors will be away from the University for extended periods of time (e.g., sabbatical, satellite campus, visiting professorship).  Being physically away from the University does not preclude a supervisor from remaining engaged with their graduate students.  In cases where the supervisor will not be available either in person or via electronic communications, the supervisor should:

2.20   Inform students, prospective students and the department of any anticipated extended period where communication will not be occurring. In cases when the absence is for a period of two months or more, supervisors should arrange for suitable communication methods. Interim supervision also must be arranged, for example, using members of advisory committees. Supervisors must inform the student’s department (chair/graduate officer) of the arrangements made for the period of absence, including supervision of laboratory or field work where graduate students continue to work during the absence.

2.21   Ensure students know that in situations where a supervisor works away from campus for two months or more and where their students can accompany the supervisor, the decision to remain on campus or to follow the supervisor rests entirely with the student. Students shall face no pressure (explicit or implicit) or consequences when making this choice and are not required to provide any reason.

return to top 


As with the departmental representatives, supervisors have responsibility to advance safety.  More specifically, supervisors should:

2.22   Ensure a safe working environment both on and off campus (working alone, field work) by assessing hazards and implementing appropriate controls. This must be in accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Policy 34 (Secretariat) and department and Faculty regulations.  All supervisors must complete mandatory health and safety supervisor awareness training (Safety Office) and must ensure that graduate students complete both mandatory and work-specific safety training.  More information can be found on the Safety Office website.

2.23   Ensure that students obtain additional training when new safety risks arise and ensure training is kept up to date.

return to top 


Inherent to graduate education are the dissemination of knowledge and the participation in scholarly activities away from the University campus.  Travel (domestic and international) can include fieldwork, conferences, course work and other work related to the thesis. Supervisors are encouraged to support students’ travel to accomplish these important objectives.  Supervisors should:

2.24   Follow or encourage students to follow Policy 31 (Secretariat) that governs University-sanctioned travel.

2.25   Categorize and report risk associated with travel. Low risk (Safety Office) are activities for which it is expected that participants will encounter hazards that are no greater than what they encounter in their everyday lives. Examples of significant risk (e.g. industrial sites, remote regions etc.) are noted on the Safety Office website.  Travel or field work that involves significant risk must be documented using the Fieldwork Risk Management Form from the Safety Office.  For low risk activities off campus, supervisors should:

  • Provide advice on preparation for pre-departure orientation and planning for any travel and including associated risk, as they are able;

2.26   Document the student(s) location and duration of travel, including personal and emergency contact information. Review the material provided by Waterloo International to understand how to best mitigate risk and ensure safety for international travel.

2.27   Encourage students to register using the Pre-departure Travel Form at Waterloo International.

2.28   Consult the Government of Canada Travel Advice and Advisories web page for the international destination and discuss the mitigation of risk with the students to the destination.

return to top 

 Financial assistance

Supervisors regularly provide financial support for their graduate students.  Both the supervisor and the student benefit when a clear understanding exists of the value of funding, and the academic outcomes that should occur from the supported activities.  Specifically, supervisors should:

2.29   Be informed about the spectrum of funding opportunities available through the department, Faculty and Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA) for students in financial need and to communicate these sources to student.

2.30  Communicate clearly and in writing to their students the terms (e.g., amounts, length of time, conditions) of the financial commitment being made when financial assistance is to be provided from research grants or contracts under the supervisor’s direction.

2.31   Support students’ understanding of their funding, including a consideration of student expenses (primarily tuition and housing) and taxation, if appropriate.  

return to top 

Intellectual property 

Increasingly, students and supervisors enter into their academic relationships with previously established intellectual property (IP).  Moreover, students and supervisors may have an expectation that their collective work may produce new IP.  Best practices include the articulation of students’ and supervisors’ understanding of IP relationships at regular intervals throughout the students’ academic program.  More specifically, supervisors should: 

2.32   Discuss issues related to intellectual property such as patents, software, copyright, and income from sales and royalties, and inform students of University policies about intellectual property and the conduct of research. It should be recognized that, in accordance with Policy 73 (Secretariat), intellectual property normally is owned by the creators. However, the University retains a royalty-free right to use, for educational and research purposes, any intellectual property created by faculty, staff and students. Ideally, supervisors and students should enter into a written agreement that expresses IP owned by either party prior to beginning the research relationship and the default way in which IP created by the researchers’ joint activities will be owned.  A common example is an assumption in the absence of an explicit agreement of joint IP ownership, with each researcher owning an equal share.

2.33   Ensure that students are aware of implications and/or obligations regarding intellectual property of research conducted under contract. If appropriate, discuss with their students and any research partners the protection of intellectual property by patent or copyright. Any significant intellectual contribution by a student must be recognized in the form of co-authorship. Supervisors must convey to students, in advance of publication, whether they intend to recognize the student as co-author for work under contract.

return to top 


Academic outputs – in various forms – document and demonstrate ownership of creative research and other scholarly activities.  These outputs are important for advancing knowledge and catalyzing additional scholarly activity in these areas and should be encouraged.  When supervisors and graduate students work collectively on these academic works, it is important for both that their relative contributions are represented appropriately.  To achieve these goals, supervisors should:

2.34   Discuss with their students, at an early stage of their program, authorship practices within the discipline and University policies about publications (Policy 73 on the Secretariat website). 

2.35   Discuss and reach agreement with students, well in advance of publication and ideally at the outset of collaboration, the way in which authorship will be shared, if appropriate, between the supervisor, the student and other contributors for work conducted under contract.

2.36   Encourage the dissemination of students’ research results by publication in scholarly and research journals, presentation at conferences (domestic or international) and seminars;

2.37   Motivate the dissemination of research through non-traditional or non-academic avenues (e.g. Open Access resources, public presentations, and popular media).

return to top 

Withdrawal of supervisory duties 

In rare cases supervisors may determine that they are not prepared or able to continue in a supervisory capacity.  When this occurs, the supervisor is required to:

2.38   Follow the guidelines in the Graduate Studies Academic Calendar regarding University Responsibilities Regarding Supervisory Relationships that outlines the steps for dissolution of the supervisory relationship.

back to top 


The University is eager to establish conditions that maximize graduate students’ likelihood of success.  To this end, supervisors:

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

2.40   Remain informed of their roles and responsibilities with respect to accommodations.

return to top 

<<previous section: Roles and responsibilities of departments, graduate officers and graduate co-ordinators

>>next section: Roles and responsibilities of graduate students