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Graduate Matters

Finding the right supervisor-student match

Tips for forming a successful partnership.

BY NANA LEE | FEB 07 2019

The clear communication of expectations can drastically affect the graduate training environment. In many cases it can prevent a conflict management crisis. Too few students and professors work together to synthesize expectations that will work for both of them. An earlier article referred to excellent tips in finding the right supervisor. Given my experience dealing with hundreds of graduate students and dozens of supervisors, here are a few more thoughts for both supervisors and students.

Advice for students

Most universities have supervision guidelines published through their faculty of graduate studies, which can outline items such as sick days, vacation, and parental leave. In addition to these general guidelines (and after considering the professor’s research area) students should speak to the potential supervisor, as well as previous graduate students about the supervisor’s mentoring style. Was the professor engaged? Ask specific questions such as:

  1. Did they meet with you weekly or at least monthly about data and/or thesis progression?
  2. How long did it take them to return manuscripts and thesis?
  3. How long did it take for them to return emails?
  4. Did they provide feedback on presentations?
  5. Did they provide team meetings about team work and brainstorming group ideas?
  6. Did they provide you with opportunities to write grants and see budgets?
  7. Were they open to diverse career options?
  8. What were the expected work hours?
  9. What was their strength in supervision?
  10. What was their challenge in supervision?
  11. Were they open to discussing your individual development plan (IDP) on a yearly basis?

The individual development plan is a self-reflective assessment in which the student can assess their skills, interests and values and set SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant, timely) goals to help guide the student with mentee-driven mentorship. The tool helps map individual progression for research productivity and career/professional development. For example, a student may assess their own skills in communications, take the document to a mentor, and inquire how they can improve theses skills. Science students may use the IDP hosted by AAAS Science Careers or CIHR and humanities and social science students may use Imagine PhD.

Generally, a good supervisor will be interested in you having a successful career trajectory after the grad experience. But not all supervisors are as empathetic regarding life outside the lab. This is not a weakness, just a difference. As a student, take these questions as data and decide for yourself if these expectations align with your work view. For example, if you like feedback on your presentations, and your supervisor does not, then consider that condition as the expectation. In this case, you should seek feedback from other senior graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or other mentors.

Advice for supervisors

Expectations are a two-way street. For supervisors, a few suggestions would be

  1. Write out expectations
  2. Ask engagement questions at the interview and with their references
  3. Have all team/lab members interview the perspective student one-on-one and as a team over lunch. If you can display your expectations for yourself and team members, you may attract new students or employees who think the same way, which would help with the initial match.

I would highly recommend having these type of expectations as a foundation. Perhaps once a year or when new members join your team, you may also want to have a brainstorming session about whether anything should be modified.

Other tips on finding a good student match, apart from their transcripts and letter of intent, is to ask the student’s references on their level of engagement, with anything. Here are some examples to ask their previous employer or supervisor:

  1. How did the student handle conflict?
  2. Did they have any time management issues?
  3. Tell me about a time when the student took feedback and grew from it.
  4. Does the student require daily management or are they independent for the day or week?
  5. Is the student self aware to assess their competencies and seek feedback for growth?
  6. Can they work effectively on a team?
  7. How long did the student give you notice when asking for a letter or feedback on a manuscript?
  8. How was their follow-through?
  9. How is their EQ?
  10. Did they assess their own skills higher than what you would assess for them?

The latter question could also be asked a different way during the interview: “how do you assess yourself in these skills?”, using the IDP as a template. You may like a confident student, but if they over-inflate their abilities, that student may not be a good match for you.

Tools to use

The IDP is a tool for both students and supervisors in determining skills assessment, providing a foundation for questions to ask at the interview for both parties, and as a mechanism for clear communications if you both move forward with the match. Clear, written expectations for everyone in the research group, including staff, will minimize conflict within the team. Asking specific interview questions about expectations will provide some insight into the potential partnership.

Correct answers do not exist, just a good match. Students and supervisors do grow, so if both parties see potential and are agreeable to each other’s expectations, chances are you have both found a congenial, working match for the next few years and beyond.

Nana Lee is director of graduate professional development and mentorship, and an assistant professor, teaching stream for the department of biochemistry and immunology, graduate life science and education, faculty of medicine, University of Toronto and a former biotech director of application science.
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  1. Helen Miliotis / February 8, 2019 at 10:07

    The supervisor – student match is an important issue for discussion. This article does a great job at articulating clear, actionable items to begin the conversation and reveal more meaningful insights for all parties involved. This will hopefully lead to not only more effective relationships between students and supervisors, but also within the research team as a whole.