Quality of supervision is an on-going issue; the U of T Administration does not recognize the time and effort that supervision requires on the part of faculty with the result that faculty is under tremendous pressure to research, write grant proposals, publish, teach and supervise within ever-shrinking constraints of time and money. As well, the power politics inherent in the supervisor/student relationship is fraught with peril. SGS has worked out a modest first step towards a Supervision policy by requiring that your Advisory Committee meets with you annually. They have also distributed guidelines for Supervision. If you are not comfortable with one of your thesis committee members, what right do you have to replace him/her? The quality of PhD supervision is a continuing dilemma but students now have a framework to use when trying to discover what departmental deadlines, policies, and regulations are, what personnel can help them, how to appeal a decision, and so forth. You never know when you might need to know your rights.


Choosing Good Supervision: A Faster, Cheaper, Better Education

Your relationship with your supervisor is the most important relationship you will have during your graduate education.

Depending on your discipline, you may rely on your supervisor for all or some of your income; your first publications; intellectual guidance; letters of recommendation; and, occasionally, administrative help. A good supervisor will help you get through your degree quickly, effectively, and with a minimum amount of stress, and will help you build the basis for a long and successful career. A bad supervisor may slow you down, ask you to do work that does not relate to your project, or cost you money (because a longer degree is a more expensive degree).

Here’s the problem: even if your supervisor is the centre of your universe, you may not be the centre of your supervisor’s universe. Naturally, you don’t want a supervisor who only holds his or her lab together to train PhD students, either. You want a supervisor who is dynamic and interesting, bursting with ideas (a few of which may get tossed your way), and well-known in the academic world, so the letter of recommendation will mean something to the people you want to hire you.

This is a tricky thing to arrange: a smart, active, ambitious academic who cares about what he or she can do for you as well as what he or she can do with you. Choose carefully. You have the right to expect clarity, reliability, and help – your tuition bill is the guarantee.

In 1996 all graduate units adopted a procedure for monitoring supervision. At the very minimum, by SGS standards, you should be meeting with your supervisor and committee at least once a year, at which time a report on your progress should be written, and you should be given a chance to respond to that report.

There are some things you can do. Make sure you know what your expectations should be by reading the pages in this handbook on supervision. Make sure you know your program’s timetable and supervision protocol. Help the GSU make things better by communicating any problems to us, either at Council or by phone or e-mail.

The GSU believes that good supervisory practices can go a long way to alleviating the emotional and financial stress that a graduate education can put on students. A department that establishes fair and equitable practices, that communicates its regulations clearly to students and to supervisors, and that does what it should to ensure that you get what you need, will produce more and better graduates, with more and better jobs, funding, and prospects.


Things to Consider

Selecting a Supervisor

In many departments, although not all, you will be assigned a “temporary” supervisor, someone who is to act as a mentor during your residency period, while you are taking courses and preparing for your comprehensive examinations. Your thesis supervisor will need to be chosen by the time you are completing your course work and comprehensive exams.

Use the time you have during course work to determine the various research areas in your department. Get to know the professors who specialize in areas that are of interest to you. Take a course with them if possible.

Get to know their graduate students, find out what their areas of research are. Can you work with these people? Often your greatest source of input and feedback on your work will come from your supervisor’s other students. Make sure that you are comfortable working with them and discussing your work with them. What do these students think of their supervisor?

Try and make sure that you start off with a good relationship. We’ve heard of student-supervisor relationships which sound like an unhealthy spousal relationship, where your spouse’s role in the relationship is to provide criticism of you and your work and, once in a while, to provide some moral, emotional, or financial support.

  • What do you expect your supervisor to do? What does your supervisor expect you to do?Who will choose your research topic?
  • How many students does your potential supervisor have? If a supervisor has 20 students, you can bet that he or she won’t have much time to help you.
  • Does your department have any policies on changing supervisors? Is it possible to dissolve your supervisor/student relationship without prejudice?
  • Is your funding tied to a certain supervisor?

Thesis Committee

A thesis committee should be set up when you do your research proposal (or your department’s equivalent). This committee will oversee, on a macro level, your work as a graduate student, often with reports and presentations by you every six months. This is an important way for you to expose your ideas to other people and to get practice in presenting and defending your work. Learn to grow a thick skin.

Degree Expectation

  • How long does your department/supervisor expect you to take to finish your degree? Is it reasonable?
  • Is there a clearly articulated timeline for your degree requirements?
  • Is it possible to complete the degree requirements and the degree within the program time limit? Have other students done it?
  • Does your department clearly list what requirements you must fulfill to complete your degree?
  • Are the degree requirements reasonable? Two years of courses, three modern languages, one ancient language, and so on.

Your First Meeting with Your Potential Supervisor

Take the time to find out what they expect from you and let them know what you expect from them. Knowing these expectations up front will help avoid problems later. What should you be asking? The list below may be helpful.

What They Expect

  • Does your supervisor expect you to be in your office every day from 8 to 4?
  • Does your supervisor expect you to have a weekly meeting with him/her or with their research group?
  • Does your supervisor expect you to publish during your studies or after?
  • If you do publish, will your supervisor fund your attendance at a conference?
  • Do they expect you to find your own topic and work completely independently of them and the university? Are you expected to be a part of a team working on a large project?

What You Expect

  • Do you want to meet your supervisor on a frequent, regular basis? In general, the more often you meet with your supervisor, the shorter your degree time.
  • If you hand in work to be reviewed, what sort of turn-around time do you expect? 2 days/1 week/1 month?
  • What sort of help do you need/want with selecting a topic? Sticking to that topic?
  • What sort of feedback do you expect on your work?

A Good Supervisor Will

  • be available
  • listen to what you’re saying and ask interesting questions
  • raise issues in a helpful fashion and make useful criticisms
  • read and return material in a timely fashion
  • suggest appropriate avenues of research
  • help advance your professional career


Choosing a Supervisor: The Policy

“A candidate for the PhD degree is expected, with the assistance of the graduate unit, to select a supervisor and, with the assistance of the supervisor and graduate unit, to constitute a supervisory committee, consisting of the supervisor and at least two other members of the graduate faculty, as early as practicable in the student’s program but, in any case, no later than the time specified by the time frame established by the graduate unit. The student’s choice of supervisor and supervisory committee is subject to the approval of the graduate unit in which the student is registered. A student who encounters difficulties setting up a supervisory committee should consult the chair/director or the graduate coordinator of the graduate unit in advance of the relevant deadline. A student who fails to constitute a supervisory committee by the required time may lose good standing.”


Changing Your Supervisor

If things are not working out with your supervisor, for one reason or another, one option to consider is to change supervisors. The happiest situation is when you and your supervisor mutually agree that this is not working and he or she assists you in finding someone else, either in the department, or in another U of T unit, to take over. If this is not the case, you will have to carefully assess the politics of changing and the implications for you if you stay or if you change. Since the PhD is a huge commitment of time, energy, and money, you want to be as careful as you can be about your course of action. The usual route taken is to discuss your options with the Graduate Coordinator in your department, after you have investigated alternatives and perhaps discussed, in a circumspect way, with a potential supervisor, the possibilities of being taken on.

Every case is different. If you would like to discuss your situation with a confidential counselor, please call the GSU. We have talked to dozens of students about this issue and are familiar with all the ins and outs of this particular predicament.


Arrangements for Return of Work

Division I (Humanities) at SGS established the following policy in May 2000 to address the problem of tardy turn-around of students’ work:

1. Supervisors receiving work from their students will tell them how long it will take to read and return that material. It is expected that, normally, it will take no more than 10 to 15 business days to read and return a chapter of average length.

2. In circumstances in which it would be unreasonable to expect a supervisor to read and return the relevant material work within two to three weeks (e.g., if the supervisor has just received a large set of undergraduate essays or tests for grading or if the supervisor is completing to deadline a research project of his or her own), it is expected that the supervisor will inform the student of the longer time that will be required to return the material, specifying a different target date.


Supervisor Leaves

In May 2001, Division I adopted the following policy concerning supervision and research leaves:

1. Members of the graduate faculty of Division I graduate units are required to provide research supervision and pedagogical support for doctoral-stream graduate students, as appropriate.

2. Members of the graduate faculty are expected to continue their supervisory responsibilities while on sabbatical or other research leaves. When circumstances make it difficult for a faculty member to maintain appropriate contact with students whom the faculty member is supervising or on whose supervisory committee the faculty member is serving (in person or by mail, e-mail, or telephone), the faculty member should inform the Graduate Coordinator of the relevant graduate unit of this difficulty before the beginning of the leave period. The Graduate Coordinator will attempt to resolve the difficulty, reporting the results to the Chair/Director of the graduate unit.

3. A Doctoral student who believes that his or her supervisor, or that a member of his or her supervisory committee, is not providing a reasonable level of research supervision while that faculty member is on leave, should inform the Graduate Coordinator of his or her graduate unit or the Associate Dean of the Division.

4. Graduate Coordinators should report annually to the Chair/Director of their graduate units concerning the supervisory activities of faculty members who are on research leave.



Many departments, especially in the Physical and Life Sciences, provide their graduate students with a document entitled “Statement of Agreement between Supervisor and Student” or some such language. One department provides a very comprehensive multi-page contract which specifies detailed conditions of supervision, a very detailed overview of the funding available and information about the degree timetable. Both the student and the supervisor are asked to read, agree and sign this “Statement of Agreement”. If you are interested in this issue, and its possible benefits for your department, contact us.


Thesis Advisory Committee Guidelines

Background: Departments must have available a clearly laid out timetable or “road map” with the timing of critical steps and phases in a typical PhD program to guide students to the completion of their program. The selection of a dissertation topic or research area, and the choice of a research supervisor should happen as early as possible in the program so that the student can select courses that will support the dissertation, and get the research off to a fast start. For some departments, there may be good reasons why this step cannot occur until the second year of the student’s program.

The Advisory Committee: Within six months of supervisor and topic selection, an Advisory Committee should be set up, consisting of the supervisor and at least two other faculty members with appropriate academic interests. This committee should meet promptly to review the proposed dissertation topic, and to advise the student on his/her proposed plan of research and timetable of activity.

The continuing role of the Committee is to ensure that the student is achieving, in a timely manner, the level of academic excellence and technical maturity expected of a PhD graduate from this University. In addition, if possible, the Committee should discuss with the student her/his professional development, with a view to providing guidance toward a future career, and give advice regarding additional courses or other activities that might improve employment prospects.

The Advisory Committee has the authority to recommend termination of a student’s program if insufficient progress or scholarly achievement is observed. The student must be provided adequate warning of problems and be given a chance to correct deficiencies.

Regular Meetings of Advisory Committee: At regular intervals after the first meeting (at least once per year), the Advisory Committee should meet as a committee with the student to consider the progress of the student in the program since the last meeting. The specific format of the meeting should be designed to best suit the needs of the student and department. In many departments, it will be appropriate for the student to make formal oral and written reports to the Committee giving details of progress to date, work remaining and timetable for completion. The student could then defend his/her report very much as would be done in the final senate oral.

After the report, the progress and level of achievement of the student should first be discussed by the members of the Advisory Committee in the absence of the student, and recorded on a standard evaluation form for the record. The written comments must be explicit concerning whether research progress and the development of the student as a scholar are appropriate for the current stage of the student’s program. The Committee should then discuss its report with the student. The student should be given an opportunity to respond to all comments of the Committee, and should be encouraged to include his/her comments in the report. The chair and the student should sign the final report, and a copy should be placed in the student’s file with another copy to the student.

The approximate date of the next meeting should be established before the meeting adjourns.

Advisory Committee meetings are not intended to take the place of meetings between the student and supervisor, which should occur with much greater frequency than the Advisory Committee meetings.


Additional Information at the School of Graduate Studies

SGS webpage on Supervision