Western Graduate & Postdoctoral  Studies

Graduate Supervision Handbook

The Graduate Supervision Handbook will help you get the most out of the supervisor-graduate student relationship at Western. It provides in-depth advice on roles and responsibilities, communications, learning styles, time management, and many other issues.




The School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies is occasionally asked to intervene in situations where a graduate student and supervisor have come into unresolvable conflict. In such situations it can sometimes be very difficult to arrange matters so that the student can complete his or her program of study with a new supervisor. Often this is because the rights and responsibilities of the student and the original supervisor have never been completely defined, and each party may have different expectations or assumptions of what the rights and responsibilities are. For example, in some disciplines the supervisor may have provided considerable input into the conception, design and conduct of the students research and would normally expect to publish the work with the student. In such cases, if the student and the supervisor come into unresolvable conflict and a new supervisor is appointed, how is the ownership of intellectual property established, and does the student have the right to continue the research based upon the supervisor's original idea? Similarly, in some disciplines the supervisor provides financial support to the student from his or her research grant. In such cases, if the student and the supervisor come into unresolvable conflict and a new supervisor has to be appointed, what are the student's rights to financial support and where does the financial liability reside?

This document has been prepared in an attempt to provide principles and guidelines, which, if understood by both the student and supervisor at the start of the student-supervisor relationship, may help prevent break down of the relationship, or prevent the development of unresolvable situations if the relationship does break down. The document also attempts to provide guidance on the rights and responsibilities of student, supervisor, and the graduate program in the event that the relationship between the student and the supervisor has broken down irretrievably. The document does not attempt to provide guidance for resolution of conflict that has developed between student and supervisor, nor is it relevant to situations where the graduate program has determined that a student's academic performance is sufficiently inadequate that the student must withdraw because of lack of progress.

A. Principles

1. Importance of Clearly Identifying a Supervisor
One of the most important aspects of graduate training is the timely, clear identification of a Supervisor for each graduate student. Although there are wide variations in the pattern of finding such a Supervisor, it is this individual who plays a key role in the direction of the graduate student's research. Although reasonable effort will be made to accommodate individual student research preferences, the graduate program cannot guarantee to provide a particular supervisor, nor to accommodate every topic of research that might be proposed by a graduate student. As one illustration, some programs may only accept students to work on specific projects that are funded by a faculty member's research grant or contract-based funding.

2. Importance of Continuity of Graduate Supervision
The relationship between the student and supervisor is one of the most important to the student's successful completion of the degree. Continuity of supervision is an integral component of this relationship, and is thus extremely important in all aspects of graduate work. As a consequence, a change in supervisor is usually made only in exceptional circumstances, based upon strong and compelling reasons (e.g., major academic disagreements and/or interpersonal conflicts that are irreconcilable), following appropriate consultation by all parties involved. It is further recognized, however, that some programs may place each new incoming student with an initial or temporary supervisor. In these cases, a subsequent timely change in supervisors, as the student clarifies research interests, is generally a routine matter.

3. Importance of Intellectual Debate and Challenge 
Intellectual debate is a fundamental component of university activity. Thus, every effort should be made by both the student and supervisor to recognize and acknowledge that a robust element of academic challenge and questioning is a normal, and indeed, healthy aspect of the student-supervisor relationship. On occasion, however, fundamental differences in academic substance, style, or philosophy may emerge between student and supervisor, rendering further intellectual debate counter-productive. Thus, reasons for supervisor change may involve substantial professional academic disagreements between a student and supervisor that, after reasonable attempts at resolution, remain unresolvable.

4. Importance of Maintaining an Academic Professional Student-Supervisor Relationship 
The relationship between supervisors and students, however friendly and supportive it may become, should always be essentially an academic and professional relationship. Relationships which are at odds with an arm's length criterion (e.g., romantic, sexual, family ties), are unacceptable between supervisors and students. On occasion, major interpersonal conflicts may emerge between student and supervisor, or there may be a substantial conflicts of interest (e.g., with supervisors involved in a dual role capacity, such as having financial and/or business arrangements with the student, as well as being the graduate supervisor). Thus, reasons for supervisor change may involve major interpersonal conflicts that are irreconcilable, or serious conflicts of interest situations that preclude the continuation of effective supervision.

5. Importance of Supervision 
It is recognized that conflict between students and supervisors may be minimized if several steps are taken to promote good practices in graduate supervision. Such practices include the establishment and maintenance of open lines of communication between the student and supervisor, and an understanding of (and adherence to) the guidelines specifying the roles and responsibilities of the various parties involved in graduate supervision (i.e., students, supervisors, supervisory committees and graduate programs). Explicit discussions with new and continuing graduate students and graduate faculty involving issues of authorship, intellectual property ownership, and clear expectations regarding academic performance and timelines for thesis progress and completion, may prove highly beneficial in minimizing the subsequent occurrence of conflict situations.

6. Importance of Resolving Conflicts at the Lowest Level Possible 
Conflicts should be resolved, whenever viable, as close as possible to the source of the problem (i.e., at the lowest level of administration). Thus, in the first instance, the student and supervisor should discuss problems frankly and seek solutions. If need be, this level may also involve the supervisory committee. If the problem cannot be resolved at the student-supervisor level, it should be dealt with by the program (i.e., typically, the graduate chair and/or department chair). At both the student-supervisor and program levels, assistance can also be sought through other sources, such as equity services, the ombudsperson, or other forms of mediation. Informal advice at each of these levels can also be obtained from the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Each level should make sure all reasonable efforts have been exhausted, prior to moving to the next level. If no satisfactory resolution can be found at the program level, the problem may be referred to the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. In dealing with conflict issues, all parties should follow procedures congruent with established appeal policies.

7. Importance of the Program Attempting to Secure Alternative Supervision in Cases where Student Performance is Satisfactory 
In cases of unresolvable conflict, and providing that the student is continuing to meet all program requirements and is making satisfactory academic progress, it is the program's responsibility to make its best efforts to attempt to secure alternative supervision for the student, and to help the student complete the program in as timely a fashion as possible. As one illustration, a change in research interests on the part of the student can sometimes be accommodated by a program finding another supervisor willing to take on this responsibility. If, however, the new area of research interest is outside of the areas of expertise of available members of the program available to supervise, it may not be possible for the program to accommodate this requested change. In attempting to secure alternative supervision for a student, the program should also consider and resolve, to the satisfaction of all parties involved, a number of key issues, including (1) a clear specification of remaining program and thesis requirements, (2) a revised schedule for the timely completion of these requirements, (3) new funding arrangements for the student where applicable, (4) intellectual property and publication/authorship issues, and (5) continuity of the former supervisor's research program. If, however, during a conflict situation, the student withdraws from the program for any reason, such as failure to register, or to pay fees, etc., then it is not the responsibility of the program to attempt to secure alternative supervision.

8. Importance of Minimizing any Negative Consequence of Conflict on the Student's Career 
Every effort should be made both during and following the conflict resolution process to ensure that a change of supervision has a minimal negative effect on the student's career. Thus, any possible negative effects relating to a change in supervisors should not be reflected in subsequent evaluations of course work, student evaluations for awards, letters of recommendation, etc., for potential employment opportunities, or in the assignment of teaching assistantships, etc.

B. Guidelines