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Graduate Matters

How to build a relationship with your supervisor before the thesis work begins

Starting the lines of communication early will lighten your emotional load by having someone already in your corner once the writing starts.


The most important relationship you’ll have throughout your graduate school career is with your thesis supervisor. Your supervisor is the person who shepherds you through your thesis project, checks in on your progress and gives you advice on the direction of your research. However, it is important to start developing a relationship with your supervisor early on – before your thesis work even begins. You will be facing a lot of new hurdles as you begin your graduate career that are difficult to tackle alone. While other students can, and should, be a strong support network, your supervisor is the one who can support you in all areas of your program.

Determine what you need from the relationship

Before you meet with your supervisor, and before your studies begin, it is useful to determine what you need from your supervisor-supervisee relationship. This will vary depending on your field, program and thesis project type. If your work is in a natural scientific field and is lab-based, you will likely be working closely with your supervisor from the beginning. However, if you are in a humanities program that begins with courses (and thesis research starting later), then you may not need to be in frequent communication with your supervisor for a while.

However, a supervisor can still help you with more than just your final project. Ideally, your supervisor can also guide you through all aspects of the graduate experience. For example, some supervisors will advise their students on what elective classes to choose to best complement the research they will be doing for their thesis. Your supervisor will know the research being done by their colleagues within the department and can recommend courses so that you have the most stimulating classwork possible.

The next potential step of your academic process you will need to discuss with your supervisor is grant applications. If you are applying for a federal or provincial grant such as SSHRC or FRQSC, you will likely require your supervisor’s guidance to put together a well-written proposal. As these grants require an explanation of your research project, it is important to keep your supervisor up to date on your thesis plans. Even if the initial proposal in the grant application is subject to change (as many of these grants allow) your supervisor can help determine what information needs to be included. Further, since these grants require reference letters, your supervisor may want to sign off on what you are proposing, putting them in a better position to write a more robust letter for you.

Plan the initial meeting

Next, when planning the initial meeting, you’ll want to determine whether you would like a face-to-face meeting or a Zoom call. A Zoom call may be best if your supervisor is stretched between many responsibilities such as field research, running a lab, instructing, etc. However, you may not get as strong of a sense of their communication style and the conversation may be a bit more stilted. If this is a concern for you, you can instead try to request an in-person meeting. While this will may be harder to organize before the semester starts, having your initial meeting face-to-face can help you feel more comfortable around your supervisor if you are nervous about starting this relationship.

Discuss your communication style

The next step is to figure out what your academic communication style is. While understanding this will help you in all manner of academic and professional settings, it is especially important to make sure the expectations of your relationship with your supervisor are clear to both of you, which will help avoid any problematic miscommunications down the road.

Would you like a more sporadic email relationship? Longer monthly meetings? Determining this will help you and your supervisor know the best ways to contact one another. For some, a more informal email chain is useful for quick questions, but it can also feel overwhelmingly constant. Others like scheduled meetings to debrief, as it can help you feel more productive to reflect on the work of an entire month. However, this may also be too infrequent at certain points of the graduate process. Discuss what will work best for both of you.

Plan a tentative timeline for your thesis

Even though you have just started your program, it can still be helpful to discuss, in broad strokes, what you want the next few years to look like. In this conversation, you can talk about when you would ideally like to have major milestones of your project done (i.e. proposal defense, data collection, final defense). Even though nothing is set in stone, and research tends to take longer than you imagine, your supervisor can help set healthy expectations for how your process will look. Knowing your ideal schedule will help both of you orient where your work efforts should go. Further, in this conversation, make sure your supervisor knows your weekly schedule so you can coordinate with each other over the entirety of your degree.

It is important to start building a strong supervisor relationship early, when you are less bogged down by thesis work, so once that time comes, they know how to support you. Starting this line of communication early will lighten your emotional load by having someone already in your corner once the thesis writing starts.

Aviva Majerczyk is a graduate student in the MA program in media studies at Concordia University.
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