Constructively Ending the Relationship

Though it is rare, there are a variety of circumstances and events that might lead a faculty member and/or a research graduate student to consider ending their supervisory relationship.  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.

In cases where a supervisory relationship ends and the option to continue in the program is available (i.e. there is no recommendation for withdrawal), a maximum of six weeks is normally allowed to identify a new supervisor, with short extensions possible if concrete progress is being made on the search.  If a new supervisor is not secured, the student will be provided with the option to withdraw voluntarily, or will be required to withdraw from the program.

If a graduate student finds themselves in this situation, they should contact their Graduate Advisor and/or G+PS immediately.

Information for Supervisors

A desire on the part of a supervisor to end the relationship may be related to, among other factors, unmet expectations for progress or the working relationship, personal or intellectual conflict, funding or other circumstantial issues. Sometimes a change in the student’s research interests will spark a mutual agreement to part ways.

For situations involving conflict and/or unmet expectations, it is critical to keep in mind the UBC Principles of Excellent Graduate Supervision, and the need to have (and to continue to review) mutually agreed-upon expectations for the working relationship. If your program does not have a template for establishing or re-establishing these expectations, consider using the G+PS Student/Supervisor Expectations document. If clearly stated expectations remain unmet once documented and agreed upon, additional or alternative steps should be considered (see below).

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 whether to end the relationship. Guidance on this process is outlined below.

Faculty must be mindful of the fact that when supervisory relationships end, supervisors are able to move forward with greater security than students, who are 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 international students, 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 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?

  • A co-supervisor should always play a meaningful academic role, but can also bring a new interpersonal dynamic and perspective to the supervisory relationship. Review any applicable policies regarding co-supervision within and outside of the program.

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 (visit the Policies section 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.

Make a communication plan.  Communication with a student should be discussed with the Graduate Advisor (and if appropriate, G+PS) before a decision to withdraw from supervision is formally communicated. This allows for a more coordinated, accurate, and supportive process, and reduces the pressure placed on colleagues (e.g. Graduate Advisors and Department Heads) compared to direct communication to the student without a clear plan in place.

Set a deadline.  Students are normally provided with six weeks to secure a new supervisor. During the six-week period, students are 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 a student is unable to find a new supervisor within the six-week period, and no extension is approved, they should be offered the opportunity to withdraw voluntarily. If they decline, the program must move forward with a recommendation for required withdrawal.