At the core of research-intensive graduate education is the mentorship and learning that occurs between a supervisor and student.

UBC has specifically noted in its 2018-2028 Strategic Plan, a focus on improving graduate student mentorship and supervision.  This website provides helpful information and guidance about this relationship and the roles and responsibilities of each party. It gives practical advice and insights based on scholarly principles and experience, describes the roles and practices related to supervisory committees, and outlines how to access support if needed.

The words 'supervisor' and 'mentor' may reflect different roles; however, the two words are often used interchangeably. A graduate supervisory role (that of the primary overseer of a student's research to facilitate optimal outcomes) should include mentorship (positive influence on a mentee's overall professional growth. A student ideally has several mentors beyond the supervisor, either formal or informal, and may also act as a mentor to others. 

The supervisor-student relationship is not one-size-fits-all: different students working with the same supervisor require different mentoring approaches; different disciplines often have different ways of interacting; and environmental and institutional factors are important to consider. Thus, the individual attributes of both the supervisor and student can, and often should, influence what the relationship looks like. Importantly, there is an expected shift as the student progresses through their degree, with a trend toward increased independence and focus on evolving (usually professional or career based) mentoring needs.

I credit my supervisor for making my experience and development as a scholar as wonderful as it has been through their engagement, interest, empathy, support, guidance, advice, and ways of setting me up for success. - Student

Supervising graduate students, learning from and with them, and feeling pride in their accomplishments are true joys of the academic life. - Supervisor

Roles and Responsibilities

Research and graduate education are integral to the responsibilities the university has to the public and to its students, faculty, and staff. To ensure that these commitments are met, both the supervisor and student roles come with distinct responsibilities. Both supervisors and students are expected to interact respectfully and ensure all scholarship and interactions follow the ethical norms of the discipline and university.


In joining the supervisor-student relationship, a student is expected to commit the time and energy needed to learn and engage in the research and to disseminate it in the thesis (or other venues) as appropriate. They are expected to take responsibility for their learning and completing their program. Students need to be aware of, and follow, the regulations of the degree program and university, including the deadlines associated with specific academic milestones.

  • Take responsibility for their progress towards their degree completion.
  • Demonstrate commitment and dedicated effort in gaining the necessary background knowledge and skills to carry out the thesis.
  • At all times, demonstrate research integrity and conduct research in an ethical manner in accordance with University of British Columbia policies and the policies or other requirements of any organizations funding their research.
  • In conjunction with you, develop a plan and a timetable for completion of each stage of the thesis project.
  • As applicable, apply to the University or granting agencies for financial awards or other necessary resources for the research.
  • Meet standards and deadlines of the funding organization for a scholarship or grant.
  • Adhere to negotiated schedules and meet appropriate deadlines.
  • Keep you and the Faculty of Graduate Studies informed about their contact information.
  • Meet and correspond with you when requested within specified time frames.
  • Report fully and regularly on their progress and results.
  • Maintain registration and ensure any required permits or authorizations are kept up to date until the program is completed.
  • Be thoughtful and reasonably frugal in using resources.
  • Behave in a respectful manner with peers and colleagues.
  • Conform to the University and departmental/school requirements for their program.
  • Meet at regular intervals with the supervisory committee (no less than yearly).
  • Progress to candidacy defense (including completion of comprehensive exam) within 36 months of the initiation of the program.
  • Keep orderly records of their research activities.
  • Develop a clear understanding concerning ownership of intellectual property, inventions and scholarly integrity
  • Take any required training programs that are discussed and agreed.
  • Work at least regular workday hours on their research project after course-work has been completed.
  • Discuss, with you, the policy on use of computers and equipment.
  • Complete thesis and course work within timelines specified by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and suitable for their discipline.
  • Finish their work and clear up their work space when program requirements have been completed.
  • Return any borrowed materials on project completion or when requested.
  • Explain to you their comfort with modes of communication (e.g. formal or informal, use of questioning) and independent activities.
  • Make it clear to you when they do not understand what is expected of them.
  • Describe their comfort with approaches to your academic relationship, e.g. professional versus personal.
  • Contribute to a safe workplace where each individual shows tolerance and respect for the rights of others.
  • Respond respectfully to advice and criticisms (indicating acceptance or rationale for rejection) received from you and members of the supervisory committee.
  • Inform you in a timely manner about any of their presentations to facilitate attendance.
  • Discuss, with you, their career plan and hopes for professional growth and development.

Download the Graduate Student / Supervisor Expectations document


A supervisor is expected to be available and knowledgeable to guide and help their graduate students at every stage – from advising on course selection and formulation of their research projects and methodologies, to thesis-writing, presentation and possible dissemination of their research. Supervisors must also ensure that the student’s work meets the standards of the University and the academic discipline. Good supervisors mentor the whole person in consideration of their broader intellectual development and post-graduation aspirations. 

Research and academic guidance, support, and assessment

  • Have sufficient familiarity with the student’s field of research and research methodology to provide an appropriate degree of guidance
  • Assist with identification of a research topic that is suitable for the student and appropriate in scope for the degree; continue to assist with refining and/or modifying the topic as needed
  • Assist the student in planning the program of research, setting time frames, and adhering as much as possible to the schedule
  • Get to know the student’s background and goals to be able to mentor them according to their needs, interests and circumstances
  • Provide sufficient freedom of exploration to ensure the development of the student’s independence as appropriate to the degree
  • Provide or ensure access to required research facilities, stipend and research funding, collaborators, research materials and data needed for the student’s research
  • Facilitate the student’s development of the necessary knowledge and skills for their area of research and its communication, including sharing and encouraging relevant training opportunities
  • Integrate student into any existing research groups with clear communications around shared research, authorship and intellectual property issues
  • Discuss, model, and ensure knowledge and commitment to the responsible conduct of research, and academic integrity
  • Provide consistent support, encouragement, and constructive feedback to the student as they progress in their research; keep track of progress and address concerns in a timely, respectful, and fair manner.
  • Ensure a supervisory committee is established, with appropriate input from the student, and that it meets on a regular basis (at the very least once a year) to review the student’s progress, advise on coursework as appropriate, provide guidance for planned research, and to formally document the progress and plan
  • Support the student in preparation for their comprehensive exam and admission to candidacy (doctoral students), and their thesis/dissertation writing and defence.
  • Encourage students to finish up when it is not in their best interest to extend their programs.
  • Be aware of program requirements and deadlines and assist the student as needed in ensuring they are met.
  • Support and encourage students in their engagement with activities and professional opportunities that enhance their overall development and career goals; these include formal and informal learning opportunities and occasions to present their research results

Supervisor/student relationship, conditions

  • Observe at all times the principles outlined in UBC’s Statement on Respectful Environment for Students, Faculty and Staff, and acknowledge the inherent power differential between student and supervisor that may impede a student’s communication of any concerns about the relationship.
  • Come to an agreement on reasonable expectations regarding work hours and vacation time in accordance with UBC policies on student classification and graduate student vacation;
  • Ensure at the outset that mutual expectations and conditions of the research environment are discussed, negotiated as appropriate, understood, and written down (as per Policy SC6). These may be modified over time. A template is available for this purpose [link].
  • Refrain from requiring or expecting the student to perform tasks or activities that are unrelated to the student’s research progress or to the normal collegial activities that support a research group
  • Ensure an understanding of and sensitivity to students’ cultural identities and scholarly strengths and interests.
  • Be reasonably accessible to the student for consultation and discussion of their progress; the frequency of meetings may vary by area of research and the stage of students’ experience and independence.
  • Respond thoroughly and in a timely fashion to students’ work submitted for feedback or approval (e.g., manuscripts, theses, presentation materials)
  • Ensure that an environment exists for fruitful and respectful discussion of ideas and research plans and results in individual meetings as well as group settings.
  • Strive to create a a the research environment is free from inequities, discrimination and harassment.
  • Be attentive to students’ wellbeing and any barriers or challenges related to equity and inclusion, and advocate for students when necessary; become familiar with campus wellbeing resources and guidelines for accommodations as needed.
  • Alert the graduate program director or other appropriate individuals if there are concerns about students’ progress, health, wellbeing or other issues.
  • Make alternative arrangements to ensure continuity of supervision if/when there will be disruptions for extended periods.

Download the Graduate Student / Supervisor Expectations document

Program Advisor

The graduate program advisor is (preferably) a tenured Associate Professor or Full Professor. In addition to her or his own teaching and research responsibilities, the program graduate advisor agrees to take on the following responsibilities for a certain tenure of time.

The graduate advisor’s duties may vary, but they typically include the following:

  • Acts as liaison with the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

  • Ensures that graduate students working on research theses are matched with appropriate supervisors and supervisory committees

  • Compiles and coordinates information concerning deadlines, procedures, etc. and communicates these regularly to graduate students and faculty members. Ensures that faculty supervising, or teaching graduate students are aware of, and adhere to, applicable policies and procedures

Supervisory Committee

Every research master's or doctoral student must have a supervisory committee, consisting of the supervisor and at least two other individuals (for doctoral students) or at least one other (for master’s students). The purpose of the supervisory committee is to provide support to both student and supervisor by broadening and deepening the range of expertise and perspective in the research area. Some programs assign a faculty member from outside the committee as chair; otherwise, the supervisor chairs the committee. 

Committee members are normally faculty members. The committee's role is to provide support by broadening and deepening the range of expertise and experience available to you and your supervisor. The committee offers advice about and assessment of your work.

A doctoral student's supervisory committee is responsible for guiding the student in selecting any required courses, planning the research, and preparing the thesis.

Students in a master's program with a thesis will have a supervisory committee that advises them on coursework, research, and thesis preparation.

Graduate students who establish their supervisory committees early in their programs and who meet with their committees regularly, tend to complete their degree programs successfully, and more quickly, than students who wait to establish their committees.

Doctoral students: If there are changes to the composition or distribution of roles on a doctoral student's supervisory committee after candidacy, Graduate and Postdoctoral studies must be notified so that the committee can be re-confirmed. Failure to do this may result in delays at the time of the doctoral defence if there are problems with the non-confirmed committee.

The roles of the committee

The committee guides the student in selecting coursework, planning the research, and writing the thesis/dissertation, and often has helpful advice and support for other aspects of the graduate journey. Members provide constructive feedback and assessment, and at least some of the committee will be among those who determine the acceptability of the final thesis or dissertation (both before and at the examination). Committee members should be available for consultation and advice at times other than at formal meetings, and they can be valuable mentors who understand the research and broader situation. For further information on the structure of and other policies related to the supervisory committee.

Assembling the committee

In general, the student and supervisor should establish the supervisory committee as soon as possible after agreement on a thesis or dissertation topic, with membership choices based largely on the research interests and expertise of the individuals and their availability and willingness to serve. Check UBC Policies and Procedures to ensure that potential members, and the composition of the committee as a whole, meet all UBC requirements.  

Note that committee members may come from outside UBC or any university. These could include professionals or others with relevant expertise and experience (e.g. Indigenous community members).  


The committee is required to meet at least once a year to review progress (academic, research, professional) and to make recommendations as needed. Some programs have formal structures for their meetings, where the student submits a written summary of their research and academic progress before the meeting and presents their work orally at the meeting. This is excellent practice for developing oral presentation skills and allows the committee to more fully understand the progress. Most programs will also have a standard form to be filled out after the meeting that documents progress and that may summarize the committee's recommendations.  


Supervision - for students

Every UBC student in a thesis-based graduate degree must have a supervisor.

Choosing a supervisor

If you are a prospective student or an admitted student who does not yet have a supervisor, please visit Finding a Supervisor for guidance on identifying a faculty member who may be an appropriate fit for you.  

Finalizing a supervisor arrangement is not just about whether a faculty member decides to take you on as a student.  Rather, you should also be evaluating the supervisor, and your academic and professional fit with them.  In addition to speaking with them directly, you can also reach out to current or former students to hear more about their personal experience (many programs have lists of current and former graduate students, and many supervisors have websites that list the same). 

Getting off to a good start

As for any long-term working relationship, it is critically important to invest time and energy as soon as possible to establish mutual expectations and common understanding between you and your supervisor.  

The standard expectations UBC has of supervisors and graduate students as noted above are generally non-negotiable. However, there are additional conditions of the working relationship to consider, some of which may be negotiable on either side. For example: 

  • How does your supervisor anticipate they’ll be guiding, directing and overseeing the research project and your progress? 
  • How often will you meet with your supervisor, and in what form normally (online or in person)? 
  • What are your supervisor’s expectations for the amount of time spent in research? 
  • What is the best way to communicate (e.g., email, chat)? 
  • How is funding expected to work over the course throughout the program, and what roles do you each have in securing that funding?  
  • Will there be support for travelling to conferences? 
  • What is expected with regard to research publications and presentations?  
  • Will you be expected to take on additional roles (e.g., research assistant or teaching assistant)? 
  • How much time is available for non-academic pursuits, especially professional development? 

Other, more complex points of communication might include: 

  • Especially if there are cultural differences, mutual communication and working styles, and how both of you can be clear and respectful in your discourse. 
  • If you have a disability or on-going medical condition that may impact your learning or progress, it is important to connect as early as possible in your program with the Centre for Accessibility to discuss accommodations and receive access to academic supports. Where appropriate, the graduate specialists will provide you a letter of accommodation to share with your supervisor, and offer guidance on how to discuss your needs in your unique setting.   
  • Early on is also an ideal time to talk about your particular interests or concerns or life circumstances, as well as any long-term career or related aspirations. Ask whether and how these aspirations may be supported either through your research project and/or other learning opportunities.  

So often expectations are not openly discussed, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict later on. It is UBC's policy (Scholarly Integrity, section 2.1.3) to have research environment conditions outlined in writing. Your program may have a template for documenting these, and there is also a common UBC-wide template available. It is a good idea to revisit these expectations periodically (at least annually) to ensure the two of you continue to be on the same page, and can revise them as necessary.

Download the Graduate Student / Supervisor Expectations document

The ongoing relationship

It is important to have agreed on the basics of what is expected of you and your supervisor, including how and how often you will interact, acknowledging of course that life rarely follows our specific expectations or ideal course. Remember that you are responsible for your own learning and research. You need to be proactive in asking for advice, support or clarification when needed, keeping your supervisor informed about your progress and any situations or events that may impact your work. 

Here are some tips on developing and maintaining a productive relationship, keeping on track with your research and program, and avoiding problems, or addressing them if they arise. 


Among the key origins of many difficulties in the relationship or in research progress are problems in communication. Complications in communication may be especially true when you and your supervisor are from different cultures or are more comfortable in different languages. What is intended by one person may not be received in the same way by the other. There are also often unspoken assumptions on the part of either you or your supervisor which the other is not aware of. 

It is important for both you and your supervisor to have open and clear communication. If you are about something that was said or think something may have been incorrectly assumed, ask your supervisor to clarify; likewise, be explicit with the thoughts and questions that are important for your supervisor to understand. To help ensure the two of you understand the conversation the same way, it is often helpful to tell your supervisor what you understood they said so that it can be corrected if needed. Direct conversations like these can be challenging depending on your and your supervisor's communication style, your respective cultural and social norms, the stage in your program, the subject matter, the power differential, etc. However, ensuring there is a shared understanding and mutual expectations between student and supervisor is critical to the success of the relationship, and of the research, and finding a way to communicate in a way that works for both parties should be a priority.


Factors such as the specifics of the project, where the student is in their program, and other individual student or supervisor preferences are important to consider when determining an optimal meeting schedule. It may be beneficial to meet frequently (e.g., weekly) at certain stages of the program, while sporadic meetings may be more appropriate in other circumstances. It is UBC policy for student progress to be reviewed at least once a year.  

When coming to a meeting, ensure both parties understand its purpose. Come prepared with the relevant information and/or plans, and be able to summarize your progress, questions, or concerns. It is often good to write down (even just for yourself) what you would like to discuss. It is best practice to write and share a summary of the conversation with the supervisor after the meeting (e.g. an email summarizing your understanding of what was discussed and the plan for next steps). 


Most people find giving and receiving (especially negative) feedback difficult. However, feedback is crucially important for learning, research, and a productive working relationship. Feedback should be constructive and given respectfully and with good intentions and be received with an open mind. It is good practice to specifically ask for feedback periodically or when needed, whether from your supervisor, your supervisory committee, or your colleagues. They all have different perspectives and experiences which can enrich your growth. And do not forget to provide feedback as needed to your supervisor and others, noting especially that sincere, positive feedback can be beneficial to everyone. 

Group dynamics

Many areas of research are conducted in group settings – whether the researchers are collaborating or working independently – and the importance of collegial interactions in such groups cannot be overstated. Researchers are generally expected to help one another as needed, share knowledge and ideas, and contribute to the functioning of the group. This is to everyone’s benefit, as such interactions nurture learning, the research itself, and the wellbeing of the researcher(s). The time dedicated to helping one another or the group can be a matter of judgment, and the decision involves balancing the benefits and drawbacks (e.g., possibly delaying completion time) of that time spent. 

Addressing potential challenges - conflict management

It is realistic to expect that challenges may come up over time in your relationship with your supervisor or colleagues. In general, the best way to address or resolve a problem is to identify it early, and to start by working directly and constructively with the person or people involved. There is an inherent power differential between you and your supervisor, as your supervisor has significant (but not complete) authority over your status in your program and research and may have significant influence on your future career. Although this power dynamic should not negatively affect student learning and progress, it can be difficult to openly disagree or share negative feedback with your supervisor. There are several units or individuals on campus who can advise you or help you navigate challenging situations if they occur. 

Here are some general pointers that may help you to navigate challenges with your supervisor:

  • You have a right to share your concerns with your supervisor. The book Crucial Conversations offers helpful guidelines to do this which include:
    • Acknowledge your shared goals and values and demonstrate that you understand your supervisor’s constraints
    • Share your facts, including how you feel or felt about the issue; when it is a communication issue, it might be helpful to indicate what 'you heard' your supervisor say
    • Tell your story, and the context behind your concern
    • Ask for their view and listen carefully
    • Suggest or discuss together a potential solution or trial solution
  • Seek support from different individuals as appropriate:
    • The other members of your supervisory committee
    • Your Graduate Advisor/Chair of the graduate program
    • Your fellow students
    • Other faculty members
    • Graduate Student Society (GSS)
    • Ombuds Office
    • Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (G+PS)
  • If the problem is such that you are considering a change of supervisor, consult the Conflict Resolution section. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, ensure as much as possible that the nature of the relationship is clarified at the beginning (see Getting Off to a Good Start), and that the best ways of communicating are discussed


Here are a few specific challenges that sometimes arise:

Difficulties in meeting or responding

At times, your supervisor may be too busy with other requirements of their academic position to meet when or as often as you would like or be slow in responding to correspondence. This can be frustrating, especially when you need their help or advice on the next step in your research. Here are a few points to consider: 

  • As always, it is best to talk about these issues at the outset. How often should you meet? Are there times that they will be away or will be expected to be less responsive? What can I generally expect for turnaround times for emails or submitted material?  
  • Faculty are incredibly busy, with many other responsibilities in addition to supervising graduate students. Often, a lack of or delay in response may not reflect any intent to ignore you, but rather competing priorities - reach out with an open mind, follow up as necessary and have realistic expectations for response.  
  • When communicating by email, make sure you are as clear and concise as possible, and that you provide sufficient information for a well-informed response. It is also extremely helpful to state the main point(s) or question(s) of the email at the beginning with further details next, and for complex information, an attachment might be best. All this helps your supervisor to make a quick estimate of how urgent the subject is, how much time they will take to answer it, and whether or not they need further information to be able to respond appropriately. 
  • A gentle reminder after a reasonable period of time is usually fine. A general rule of thumb is 1-2 weeks, depending on the nature of the request and the time of year. 

If you continue to have trouble connecting with your supervisor, contact your Graduate Advisor for advice or assistance.

Breaching boundaries

The relationship between a graduate student and their supervisor can be complex. Healthy boundaries with regard to issues such as expectations, availability, and the friendly nature of the relationship can be challenging to define or address when they are perceived to be breached. 

As a student, you have a right to expect respectful and professional interactions with your supervisor, and a duty to demonstrate those yourself. Breaches in those boundaries might include being asked to perform work that’s not related to either your research or to the standard mutual support that occurs within a research group, or to be available to a degree you feel is unreasonable. Of course, some offers may be welcome (e.g., helping out on a grant application, giving a lecture), and you have the choice of agreeing to the request or not. If you feel that it is justified, yet too difficult to say no to these requests, speak with your Graduate Advisor or an experienced colleague for advice.  

There may be situations when you feel uncomfortable in the relationship with your supervisor. While it is usually best to communicate your concerns directly, you may not feel that you have the capacity or are able to have that conversation directly. As always, your Graduate Advisor or G+PS are available to support you in the situation if needed. Note that any sexual or intimate relationship between faculty and students at UBC is strictly prohibited (Policy SC17). In general, other types of relationships that give rise to perceived or actual conflicts of interest (i.e., in which the supervisor has personal or other interests that may influence how they assess or guide you, either positively or negatively) need to be declared to the Department Head, and handled as appropriate.  

Supervisor is away

There may be times in your program when your supervisor is away from the University for extended periods, which is often the case when faculty are on a study (sabbatical) or other leave. For leaves extending beyond two months, it is University policy that an arrangement be made for continuity of supervision. This may be simply a mutually agreed-upon mode of communication (e.g. regular video meetings), but it is also common for an interim co-supervisor to be appointed, especially if your supervisor is unable to offer sufficient interaction. 

If your supervisor leaves the university for another position, it may be possible to continue under their supervision, but a UBC co-supervisor must be appointed. These arrangements must be approved by the program and the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. If it is not feasible to continue with your original supervisor, you will (with your program’s help) need to identify a new supervisor. 

If your supervisor retires, they are eligible to continue to act as your supervisor if the program agrees to it. 

Ending the relationship

Though it is rare, there are a variety of circumstances and events that might lead you and/or your supervisor to consider ending your supervisory relationship. Given the potential for substantial ramifications for both parties, it is important to carefully consider the decision before taking action.  

A graduate student is expected to have consistent supervision throughout their degree and are not permitted to be without a supervisor for an indefinite or prolonged period. Students without a supervisor will be required to withdraw from the program if they are not able to find an alternative supervisory arrangement within a short period of time, normally a maximum of six weeks. If students are proactive and resourceful during this period and are still unable to find someone new to supervise, we have found it to be highly unlikely that additional time will be of benefit. A period of inactivity and lack of progress lasting longer than six weeks is sufficient grounds for a program to recommend withdrawal for inadequate academic progress. Finally, it is unfair to allow a student to remain registered, pay tuition, use University resources, and continue losing time on a degree which, as above, is unlikely to be completed if a supervisor is not identified in the initial six-week window. Short extensions may be possible if concrete progress is being made on the search within the allowed period. 

Before deciding on ending the supervisory relationship

Identify for yourself (list out) the reasons why you are considering ending the relationship. Then:  

  • Consider an alternative or modified approach. If the current project is not a good fit, could you reach a milestone with it before stepping away? Would a co-supervisor or change in the supervisory committee help? 
    • A co-supervisor should always play a meaningful academic role, but can also bring a new interpersonal dynamic and perspective to the supervisory relationship. If applicable, familiarize yourself with the policy regarding co-supervision within and outside of the department. 
  • Seek consultation and support. Speak with your program's Graduate Advisor, G+PS (Associate Director, Student Academic Support), or other members of your committee. You may also wish to speak with the Ombuds Office, Equity & Inclusion, International Student Advising (if applicable), and/or the Graduate Student Society. These resources can provide a confidential space to explore options.   
  • Seek clarity on potential consequences. If you do not already have a new supervisor willing to work with you, you will normally have a maximum of six weeks to arrange for one. Your program is expected generally to advise or assist you with this, but they are unable to simply appoint a new supervisor. Note that depending on the circumstances, you might have to limit your choice to those who have funding for you. If a new supervisor is not secured within the six-week period, you will have to either withdraw from your program voluntarily or be required to withdraw.

    Starting with a new supervisor has ramifications, including significant delays in program completion. You may also not receive the same financial support.

    All of the above has the potential to impact your academic, professional, personal, and financial circumstances, as well as your international student status if applicable.
  • Understand your responsibility. Ultimately it is a student's responsibility to secure a new supervisor, though the Graduate Advisor is expected to make their best effort to support the process. "Best effort" may include a meeting to discuss potential supervisors to approach, reviewing a portfolio of work to present to potential supervisors, offering introductions, and advising on applicable policies. 

If you do decide to end the relationship, you should do so in a professional manner and, if appropriate, be open to compromise in terms of timing or the future relationship. This would be particularly important if your supervisor is dependent on you to reach a critical research goal. G+PS and the other resources listed above can help you in preparing your communications with your supervisor. 


Supervision - for supervisors

As a supervisor, you are the key person in your student's graduate degree program and have considerable influence in helping them achieve their full potential academically, intellectually, and professionally. Most faculty would agree that it is also one of the most fulfilling aspects of academic work.  

It is important to recognize the responsibilities that come with this role and to ensure that these are met to the best of your abilities with each graduate student. Key foundational elements of successful graduate supervision include: 

  • Mutual respect 
  • Clear and frequent communication 
  • Agreement on mutual expectations 
  • Mentoring tailored to the needs, attributes and aspirations of each student 

See below for more detailed guidelines on the nature of excellent graduate supervision pedagogy and practical advice on developing a mutually beneficial and productive relationship with your student: 

Principles of excellent graduate supervision pedagogy

Graduate supervision is a nuanced and complex form of pedagogy and is evolving as the nature of the university and its students are changing. The UBC Guide to the Principles of Excellent Graduate Supervision Pedagogy was created to support faculty in their roles as educators in this domain. It was written by a group of experienced mentors, drawing from scholarly literature, and was endorsed by the Graduate Council and the UBC Senate. You are encouraged to review the guide and to reflect on how these principles might relate to your own practice and situation.

Recruiting and choosing a student

Especially in your early years as a supervisor, you will likely need to be proactive in your search for graduate students. For advice and best practices around recruitment, see the comprehensive resources on recruitment in the Faculty and Staff Intranet. 

Your choice of student has long-lasting implications for you, for your research group if you have one, for the student themselves, for the program, and for all those the student interacts with and influences at UBC and in their future career. Among the questions it would be important to ask yourself are: 

  • Is there an intellectual fit between the student’s research interests and your research program? 
  • Will you be able to provide the necessary resources to this student? (e.g. infrastructure, equipment, access to data as appropriate, your time and expertise) 
  • Will the student thrive in your research environment? 
  • Will the student ask insightful research questions and conduct impactful research; do they have intellectual spark and curiosity? 
  • Will the student be collegial, helpful, and collaborative? 
  • Are they committed? 
  • Will they contribute to the diversity of the program or research group (e.g., diversity in demographics, expertise, ways of thinking)? 
  • Does the student have the experience and/or motivation necessary to be successful in the program with you as their supervisor? 

In addition to academic grades and evidence of research expertise or promise, answers to these questions will need more in-depth assessment, best gained through an interview and communication with the student and their referees. Ideally, the student is also evaluating you as a supervisor and it is a good idea for them to meet with your research group or past students, if applicable and feasible.

Getting off to a good start

The quality of the student-supervisor relationship is crucial to effective learning, to success, and to the wellbeing of both parties and beyond. It is extremely important to get started on the right foot, and to ensure both you and your student share and agree on the expectations of the working relationship. This can prevent problems and misunderstandings down the road, and lead to a more open and productive relationship. 

Mutual expectations

Having a conversation at the start of the supervisory relationship is essential, and written confirmation of the understanding is best (or required in some cases). Important issues to discuss include applicable funding, meeting frequency and mode, practices around authorship and intellectual property, preferred modes of communication, and ways of interacting. Clarifying expectations and surfacing assumptions are important because of the diversity of experiences, backgrounds and personal circumstances that may or may not be shared between you and the student. . There should also be mutual understanding of the amount of time the student will spend on their research, what additional requests or opportunities may be asked or available to the student, and how long the program is likely to take.  

So often these expectations are not openly discussed, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. It is UBC's policy (Scholarly Integrity, section 2.1.3) to have research environment conditions outlined in writing. Your program may have a template for documenting these, and there is also a common UBC-wide template. It is a good idea to revisit these expectations periodically (at least annually) to ensure the two of you continue to be on the same page, and to revise them as necessary. 

Graduate Student / Supervisor Expectations document

Although not all points in the document may apply to your situation, and additional elements may be important, they reflect the responsibilities UBC has articulated for both the supervisor and student. G+PS views these generally as hallmarks of a positive, productive, and respectful relationship between a student and their supervisor. This document may be modified according to circumstances. We encourage signing by both parties to indicate a high level of mutual commitment to the principles laid out. The template letter we have provided may be used by the supervisor to expand on the expectations/conditions associated with supervision or to place the expectations document in context. It is highly recommended to revisit this document occasionally (e.g., annual review meeting), as student needs and circumstances evolve. 

Getting to know one other

It is important for you to get to know your students - their learning preferences, interests, background, and career or other aspirations - as those should ideally influence your mentorship approach with them (see Supervision Excellence Principle 1). Likewise, it is helpful for your student to know more about you, including your values, experience, challenges and particular excitement about your work. 

Potential ways to support your student’s interests and their career exploration and aspirations might include: 

  • Discuss career issues with them as they evolve, and work with them to identify potential professional development opportunities and experiences. Opportunities for students to gain additional competencies are available through Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and other units at UBC and external to UBC.  
  • Encourage them to use an Individual Development Plan to help with their goal-setting and achievement. 
  • Consider at least a partial alignment of their research subject, approach, and research outputs (including their thesis format) with their interests. See Emerging Dissertation Approaches and Designs for the scope of possible thesis formats and content. 
  • Include your students as appropriate in your professional life and introduce them to your broader intellectual community. 
The ongoing relationship

Every relationship between a student and their supervisor is different, and each one changes over time and as circumstances evolve. There are a number of principles and good practices, however, that are universally relevant, or that are helpful to be aware of in different situations or times. The following expands on the list of supervisor responsibilities listed above and offers guidance and tips on promoting a positive and effective relationship with your student over time and in varying circumstances. 

Mentorship, not employment

Although the language of employment ('boss', 'hire', etc.) is often used in describing the student-supervisor relationship, it is NOT an employer-employee relationship, regardless of the funding arrangement for the student. A Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) stipend is considered a scholarship and its payment does not impart any employment-related duties, expectations, or requirements on the student. If a student is receiving a Graduate Academic Assistant (GAA) salary (which is taxable, unlike the GRA stipend), that must be for work that is not intended to contribute to the student's thesis, and it represents a distinct employment relationship separate from the student-supervisor relationship. 

While there may be instances where these funding mechanisms - appropriately used - can be beneficial to the student, it is imperative to remember that the primary objective during their time in graduate school is education, not employment. There is a substantial difference between a mentoring/advising relationship and an employment relationship in terms of the mutual expectations, parameters of authority, and fundamental purpose and nature of the interactions. For example, an employer may justifiably ask an employee to perform work unrelated to their primary focus, or to insist on strict work hours and breaks, or even prohibit participation in outside activities during those work hours, etc. Although there is some overlap with these in the expectations in the mentoring relationship, the degree of justifiable restrictions, and the inherent authority and tenor of the interaction are entirely different. Check the Boundaries section below for more guidelines. 

Accessibility and meetings

Supervisors are expected to be accessible to their student for discussion and feedback on their research and academic progress. The frequency of meetings or other communication will vary depending on the discipline, your student’s stage in the program and the progress of the research among other factors. It may be beneficial to at least begin with a regular schedule of meetings, with the frequency changing according to the situation. This should be discussed with the student at the outset, including any other accommodations, accessibility or health related needs; responsibilities, such as childcare or family commitments; or other factors such as commutes, etc.  preferences that will support the student to be successful.  

Students commonly cite frustration with long times to receive feedback on written work or to reply to emails (or not receiving a response at all). It is certainly acknowledged that faculty can be very busy and may struggle to ensure prompt responses. However, your student does have a legitimate expectation of timely responses, as slow response times can negatively impact their research and completion times. It is best practice to at least acknowledge your student’s emails if there is an expected delay, indicating when your response is anticipated. These issues and normal response times should also be discussed at the outset and revisited as needed.  

If you are absent for an extended period (e.g., are on leave) you must ensure that arrangements are made with your student(s) to provide them with continued supervision. These may include regular virtual check-ins or the assignment of a co-supervisor during your absence. 

Communication and cross-cultural engagement

Clear, thoughtful, and respectful communication with your student is critical to effective supervision. Active and empathic listening is equally important – listening to what they understand, their questions, ideas, and concerns. 

The power differential in the relationship may make it difficult for your student to discuss disagreements or concerns, and it is important to promote an open and respectful environment that encourages them to discuss these without fear of reprisal or shame. 

Among the key origins of difficulties in the student-supervisor relationship or in research progress are problems in communication. Complications in communication can arise in the best of relationships but especially when you and your student do not share common lived experiences (e.g. personal, cultural, educational) or are more comfortable in different languages. For example: 

  • There may be a misunderstanding or unintended interpretation of what you or the student has said. 
  • There are often unspoken assumptions on the part of either you or your student which the other is not aware of. For example, the student may not be aware of normal expectations or processes, while you may assume that they “should know how things work.” 
  • Direct criticism is uncommon in some cultures, especially in public, and may be interpreted by the other party as insulting or belittling. Conversely, indirect criticism may not be fully understood. 
Tracking Progress

Keeping track of your student’s progress is one of your core responsibilities. Regular assessment is an opportunity to provide encouragement and positive feedback and helps to identify and address potential problems or misunderstandings, whether in the research project itself, in the student’s scholarly development, or in personal, environmental or program issues that are hindering effective advancement. A fair and supportive approach to monitoring and facilitating progress is essential. 

If and when any problems in your student’s progress are not resolved after several attempts and any legitimate contributing factors have been considered and addressed, it is important to be more deliberate in documenting the issues and timelines if that has not been done. Specific advice on how to do this fairly and compassionately is outlined below (Research progress concerns), as are possible consequences for the student. 

While regular assessment is usually an informal process, it is essential that it is done formally at least once a year and is reviewed by the graduate program (see UBC Policy on Academic Progress).  

Funding issues

Most students rely on some form of funding throughout their degree, yet the sources and amounts can change over time which can sometimes cause some distress and confusion. For any students on GRA stipends, it is important to be very clear about the parameters of these (e.g., How long will they be paid? Will the stipend change in value? Will they be expected to seek other sources? If so, will the GRA stipend be affected if the student is successful in securing other funding?) A student may feel uncomfortable discussing funding, and clarity and openness on your part to the subject is important. 

Boundaries, conflicts of interest

The relationship between a graduate student and their supervisor can be complex. Having healthy, professional boundaries concerning issues such as work expectations and availability can be challenging to build and for a student to identify or to address when they experience a breach of such boundaries. 

Students have a right to expect respectful and professional interactions with their supervisor, and a duty to demonstrate those attributes themselves. Breaches in those boundaries might include supervisors: 

  • asking a student to perform work (paid or unpaid) that's unrelated to either their research or to the standard mutual support that occurs within a research group,  
  • asking a student to be available to a degree that could be seen as unreasonable (e.g., weekends and evenings) 
  • asking a student to do tasks for the supervisor of a personal nature 
  • exerting inappropriate control (e.g., improperly restricting their non-research activities or insisting that they complete research above and beyond what is needed for their thesis) 
  • threatening a student with a mediocre reference letter, reduced funding, or withholding of academic approval if they refuse to carry out the supervisor's wishes 
  • interacting with a student in an inappropriate way (e.g., becoming too intrusive in their personal lives, or entering into a sexual or intimate relationship - note that such relationships are prohibited at UBC - Policy SC17

Of course, some offers of tasks or activities may be welcome (e.g., helping out on a grant application, giving a lecture), and but it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that students feel free to agree to them or not. Given the power differential, however, it can be very difficult for them to say no to these requests, and it is incumbent on the supervisor to be sensitive to that dynamic. 

Sometimes perceived or actual conflicts of interest may arise, and these must be managed. Apart from the inherent potential conflicts of interest (e.g., the supervisor’s career interests vs. the student’s learning needs), examples include a supervisor’s financial interest in the research being performed by the student, the supervisor and the student having a familial or other close relationship, or any personal or other interests that may influence how the supervisor assesses or guides the student. The student may also have their own conflict(s) of interest. If and when these arise, it is critical that they be disclosed to the appropriate people (e.g., the student, the department head, and the graduate advisor and/or the supervisory committee), and in the RISe COI declaration. The department head or equivalent manager may require a management plan. It should be remembered that a conflict of interest can exist whether it be actual or perceived. 

Addressing potential challenges
Research progress concerns

Helping your students maintain good progress through to the successful completion of their program is one of your key roles. Students can run into problems in their research or coursework, or simply lose momentum at any stage of their program for a variety of often interrelated reasons. Frequent and open two-way communication, clearly defined expectations of progress, and ongoing assessment (with the help of the supervisory committee as needed) will help you identify when a student is experiencing difficulty.  

For a student experiencing challenges for primarily personal reasons (e.g., life circumstances, mental or physical health, etc.), check advice and guidelines below for how you can help or who to contact. It is not uncommon for a student to experience both academic and personal challenges, and for these and any other complex situations it is advisable to contact your graduate advisor for assistance. 

When a student is unable to make progress for primarily academic-related reasons after all reasonable support has been offered, it is in everyone’s best interest to address the problem directly and expeditiously. It is essential that principles of fair and supportive performance management are followed. These include: 

  • The identification of specific, measurable tasks with individual deadlines, that are clear and preferably mutually agreed upon. They should be written out, especially if the academic status of your student is at stake. If your student believes the tasks and/or timelines are unreasonable, they can contact their supervisory committee members or graduate advisor for advice. 
  • Provide reasonable guidance to support the completion of tasks. 
  • As the situation calls, communication in writing of the consequences for not meeting the tasks. In cases of clearly unacceptable progress, these might include remedial work (e.g., coursework), a change in the research project, transfer to a different supervisor or program (e.g. to a master’s from a doctoral), or withdrawal from the program (following G+PS policies and procedures).  

If a student is considering withdrawal or transfer, ensure that you coordinate with the program's graduate advisor and G+PS personnel to ensure due process is followed.

Ending the relationship

Although rare, sometimes the student-supervisor relationship becomes untenable for any number of reasons, and sometimes student’s research interests change to a degree that they would be better supervised by another faculty member (or be co-supervised). Sometimes, conflicts arise and the supervisory relationship becomes unhealthy and unsustainable.  Given the potential for substantial ramifications for both parties, it is critical to carefully consider the decision before taking action. Importantly, students are expected to have consistent supervision throughout their degree and are not permitted to be without a supervisor for an indefinite or prolonged period. They will normally be given six weeks to secure a new supervisor, and if unsuccessful, will have to leave the program.  

If you are considering this step, you should consult with your graduate advisor before taking any action. In cases of concerns about inadequate student progress, the supervisor and supervisory committee must address this in a fair and well-documented way before deciding to end the relationship. 

Faculty must be mindful of the fact that when supervisory relationships end, supervisors are able to move forward with greater security than a student, who is in a more vulnerable position. As noted above, withdrawal of supervision often leads to withdrawal from the program as students cannot continue with their program without a supervisor. To better understand the short- and long-term consequences of the decision, consider the following that may result from withdrawal of supervision: 

  • negative impact on student's finances; 
  • drastic changes to academic and/or professional trajectories if a student is withdrawn from a program; 
  • unexpected delays or gaps in education and professional experience if a student has to change supervisors or projects, or transfer programs; 
  • negative impact on mental health; 
  • for an international student, having to leave Canada and potentially abandon plans to remain in Canada post-graduation; and 
  • for students with families, needing to re-locate and secure new family-friendly housing, childcare, and schooling. 

Before ending the supervisory relationship: 

  • Document and communicate your concerns. As above, concerns about inadequate student progress must be documented and communicated to the student, along with a fair opportunity to respond to those concerns and address them and/or improve, before recommending withdrawal from the program. This may include, for example, email evidence that (1) specific, measurable tasks with individual deadlines were agreed to by all parties, (2) reasonable guidance was offered to support completion of those tasks, and (3) a formal, scheduled check-in took place at the end of the planned assessment period to provide feedback on the work completed. In general, it is important to document any concerns about student performance and progression, any verbal or written conversations with the student to address these concerns, any recommendations for improvement, and any consequences for failure to mitigate these concerns. 
  • Consider an alternative or modified approach. Given the significance of the decision to step down, alternative arrangements should be considered. Could the project be modified? Could the relationship be improved through direct communication or the support of a third party? Would a co-supervisor or modified supervisory committee improve the situation? 
  • Seek consultation and support. Speak with the program’s Graduate Advisor, G+PS, or other members of a student’s committee. 
  • Collaborate to determine next steps. Consideration must be given to whether a student (1) will be given an opportunity to identify a new supervisor with whom to continue their studies, or (2) should be withdrawn from the program. Only when a student has previously been advised of existing academic concerns in writing and given an opportunity to improve is a recommendation for withdrawal appropriate (see here for more information on the withdrawal policy and process.) 
    • If a student is permitted to continue with a new supervisor, a continuity plan should be established including consideration of whether they can continue with their existing project, incorporate their work thus far in their thesis, or publish the work, etc. Potential authorship and/or intellectual property issues need to be clarified. 
  • Consider funding implications. If a student is still receiving funding when a supervisor steps down, and particularly if a student is still under the Minimum Funding Policy, the program must ensure funding is continued for the maximum six-week search period or until a new supervisor is secured (whichever comes first). If the former supervisor is unwilling or unable to fund the six-week search period, the responsibility sits with the program. Depending on the circumstances of the termination, it is ultimately the responsibility of the program to ensure the minimum funding level is maintained for the student throughout the required funding period of their program. 
  • Set a deadline. A student is normally provided with six weeks to secure a new supervisor. During the six-week period, the student is encouraged to reach out to potential supervisors to discuss their research interests and work so far, communicate their timeline to commence work with the new supervisor and liaise with their Graduate Advisor regarding decisions and outcomes. The program must make their best efforts to support a student in this search. 

If after these steps, you still decide to end the supervisory relationship, check in with your Grad Advisor as they might be able to provide you with helpful information on the manner and timing of your communications with the student.  An invite to a face-to-face meeting, notifying the student that you would like to discuss the decision you have reached, giving them sufficient notice of the meeting and inviting them to bring along a support person is good practice. You should be prepared to explain to the student the factors you considered and weighed to come to your decision and offer contacts and resources to help them with the transition. Helping the student understand why the relationship is ending can support the student to move forward.



Problems & support

Despite our best efforts, issues and conflict can arise. It’s realistic to expect that challenges will come up in the course of your working relationship. The best way to handle a problem between you and your supervisor is to identify it while it’s small and manageable and communicate openly and collaboratively on finding a solution.

For particularly sensitive or complex challenges however, you may feel the need for some additional support to help you navigate the situation. The Faculty of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies offers confidential services to support graduate students in these circumstances.

Here are just some examples of the situations that can arise.

Changing circumstances

A supervisor may leave, retire or go on sabbatical for an extended period of time. Or a student may change their area of research or change fields entirely.


Sometimes two individuals simply don’t get along or cannot work together due to differing working styles, even after honest efforts to do so.

Changing supervisors

Graduate students should contact discuss changing supervisors with the Graduate Advisor for their program, unit or Faculty. For particularly complex challenges, reach out to G+PS for support in constructively ending the relationship.


Support resources Check out some frequently asked questions regarding supervisors, committees, and resources you might need

Life happens while in grad school.  You may experience challenges with relationships, marriage, parenting or other family issues. Health problems or other unexpected situations can add to the stress of academic work. If you are needing support, from counselling to taking a leave of absence, there are resources to support you.

  • UBC Ombuds Office is an impartial and confidential resource for students to obtain assistance when they feel they have been treated unfairly in the university setting.
  • The Equity & Inclusion Office provides a range of services to support equity, diversity and inclusion; offers consultation services to help members of UBC community navigate and resolve conflicts; and assists with human-rights related discrimination concerns.
  • Graduate Student Society Peer Support Specialists provide confidential assistance to individual fellow graduate students experiencing difficulties.
  • Faculty of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies (G+PS) Associate Director of Student Academic Support can meet with you to confidentially to discuss your concerns, how UBC policies may apply and resources that may be beneficial, and steps to work towards a resolution.



Frequently asked questions

How often should I meet with my supervisor?

Supervisors should be available for consultation and discussion of your academic progress and research. The frequency of meetings will vary according to the discipline, stage of work, nature of the project, independence of the student, full- or part-time status, etc. For many, weekly meetings are essential; for others, monthly meetings are satisfactory. In no case should interaction be less frequent than once per term.

Can I provide my supervisor with written work?

Yes, Supervisors can provide constructive suggestions for improvement and give input on continuation of work. Supervisors should respond in a timely manner, with the turnaround time for comments being less than 3 weeks maximum.

Is it possible to change supervisors?

The procedure for changing supervisors is specific to individual programs at UBC; therefore Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has no formal role in the process. Programs are primarily responsible for ensuring that each graduate student has a supervisor. However, there may be times when Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies is consulted and can play a supporting role.

If the supervisor leaves the university due to retirement, resignation, sabbatical or extended leave, the program or unit has a responsibility to make their best effort to appoint a replacement. The program/unit will then inform Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies of the change.

If you are considering changing supervisors:

  • Discuss this with the Graduate Advisor for your program, unit or Faculty. 
  • Attempt to resolve the issue through discussion with the Graduate Advisor and the original supervisor. 
  • Ensure that both "old" and "new" supervisors are part of the decision and consult with the full committee when appropriate. 
  • Ensure that your program approves the change. As appropriate, your program will then notify Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. 
Who can be a supervisor?

For complete information, see Policies and Procedures / Supervision

Any faculty member who is a member of the UBC Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies is eligible to serve as a graduate student supervisor.

The UBC Calendar has the full Senate policy on membership in the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.

Can I have a co-supervisor?

Supervision of a student can be shared by two co-supervisors. At least one co-supervisor must meet the criteria (a member of the UBC Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies). Other appropriately qualified individuals may be approved to serve as co-supervisors.

In all cases where the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies must approve a supervisory role for a non-member, the request must be made when the committee is formed.