Supervising Graduate Students

These notes are generated during an informal luncheon series for newer faculty members as part of McMaster University’s New Faculty Orientation program. The luncheons bring newer faculty together with experienced faculty on various topics of interest.

Session Notes

  1. Is supervising graduate students the same in all disciplines?

    The style of supervision seems to be different in Science/Engineering compared to the Humanities. In the sciences, students can only enter the graduate program if they have been accepted by a supervisor. Usually, they work on a thesis that is very closely related to the research projects of the supervisor. In the humanities, students usually enter the graduate program first and choose a supervisor later. It is more common to work on an area only tangentially related to the supervisor’s own research.

  2. Are students really just a form of labour to help us further our research?

    When students are not sufficiently productive, some faculty members consider it acceptable to pressure them to drop out of the program. However, students have come to learn, they have not come simply to help us get published. Students should remain in a program if they have the ability to complete it. Are they capable of the work required? If so, it is our responsibility to help the student through. A poor student can complete a program with good supervision and fail without. Similarly, a very good student sometimes succeeds despite poor supervision. Most of us are aware of examples of both.

  3. Isn’t research productivity a measure of ability?

    Yes, however it is our job to mentor students through the program and help them succeed. We have an obligation to assist them.

  4. Should I consider taking on a graduate student interested in an area outside my expertise?

    The primary consideration should be whether the student can progress through the program and complete requirements in a timely manner. Does expertise related to the student’s interest exist in our institution? If so, this may be an excellent opportunity. Perhaps there is a possibility of co-supervision, or a supervisory “committee” with faculty members from your department or from another department on campus. Can you and others connect the student with experts in the field of interest and provide the support needed to present at conferences? If you cannot provide an affirmative to the forgoing questions, you should reconsider accepting a student under these terms.

  5. Is Co-Supervision advisable?

    The school of graduate studies at McMaster does not recognize co-supervision as such. A supervisor of record must be designated. However, co-supervision does take place. One supervisor is often seen as the “primary” supervisor. It can be very helpful to team up with an experienced faculty member who has seen other students through to graduate degree completion and who can provide useful experienced-based advice and suggestions. It is always helpful to have others to provide feedback on the thesis, particularly someone who is not caught up in the day to day research details. In addition, a thesis should be intelligible to a non-expert; an “expert” in the area is often too close to the field to know if it meets this criteria. Generally, co-supervision provides more resources to students. In the sciences, one tends to work in isolated groups, having one foot in two different groups provides access to more people, equipment and resources. This can facilitate departmental or inter-departmental communication and sharing.

  6. What are the pitfalls of co-supervision?
    • A student often migrates towards one supervisor or another.
    • A student can run into trouble if the supervisors recommend different courses of action. It is probably best for the supervisors to sort out the differences between them and provide clear direction to the student. If there is disagreement, a good strategy is to have a meeting with both supervisors present so that you can discuss the differences and come to a reasonable compromise, without requiring the student to run back and forth.
    • Co-supervision seems to work best when the supervisors have previous experience working together.
    • We are often encouraged, particularly by granting agencies, to collaborate. However, when it comes to tenure and promotion you need to demonstrate independent work. It is not advisable for all your supervision to be with others, particularly not always with the same colleague.
  7. Is a Supervisory committee advisable?

    In most departments it is required. This can be a very flexible format involving a primary supervisor and 2-3 other faculty. The level of active committee involvement in a student's program can vary considerably. Choose the members that will most benefit the student, based on their expertise, cross-disciplinary knowledge, skills and personality fit. There is usually opportunity for the committee to change composition to reflect changing requirements and provide a wider range of expertise and resources.

  8. What strategies might help students get off to a good start?
    • Start a supervisory committee early, especially when you are a new faculty. If possible, include experienced faculty in the committee. This way both you and the student have the benefit of support and experience. Have regular committee meetings. The regulations may only require one meeting each year, but it may be a good idea to meet more often.
    • Get the students into the work or the lab as quickly as possible, definitely in the first semester. Students often spend the first year immersed in courses and responsibilities as a teaching assistant. They will often take some time “spinning their wheels” before they really get the hang of things and start moving forward.
    • Consider having some of your graduate students start in May before courses start. Get them doing something related to research from the beginning. Faculty are not usually teaching in May, and may have more time to introduce students to their work or the lab. You may be able to hire them as a summer student to warm them up to the environment. If you do this, you may have to look into payroll issues, so talk to the graduate secretary who will probably be able to help you.
    • Start graduate students easily, then build up your expectations. If the student has just graduated, they may not be much different than a summer student and will require some introduction to equipment, how to design an experiment, how to do a good literature search, or how to read the literature of your area.
    • Have regular lab meetings. If you only have a small lab, consider having joint meetings with another lab.
      Meet individually with the student before they come to the lab, and after they arrive. Find about their expectations and make your expectations clear. If they enter at the Masters level are they planning to proceed to a PhD?
    • Be aware that it is difficult to arrange a thesis defense during the summer .
  9. How do you pick a good project for a Masters student?
    This is a difficult question.
    • You can consider the interests of the student and try to find a match with your own expertise.
    • You may consider looking through old departmental Master and PhD theses to get a sense of the project scope.
    • In choosing a project, think about timelines, milestones, and fall back positions.
    • Try to avoid high-risk projects, especially for students in the Masters program. If a project does not work out, the student will not have time to begin again. Sometimes you start a Masters project and it turns out to be too “big”. In this case, you can’t really expect them to complete the full story, and must find ways to allow the student to wrap up. We have an obligation to help them through.
    • How can I obtain supervision information such as expectations, program requirements, and timelines?

      Most departments have a Graduate Secretary who knows everything about graduate studies in your department. The Graduate Secretary and Chair of Graduate Studies are good persons for you and your students to know. The secretary will know about all the requirements and timelines for program elements. The school of graduate studies also provides some information online:

      For Administration: The Graduate Plan

  10. How do I encourage "new" students to get involved in research early?

    There are some subtle ways to do this.

    • Hold weekly lab meetings in which one person presents some aspect of their work. This provides an informal setting that welcomes input from all attending including new students.
    • Alternatively, there are journal clubs in which each week someone discusses an important research paper. As the professor, you could present first, to communicate your expectations for these presentations to the students.
    • If students are not proactive about getting involved, you can ask them to review and present an assigned paper. Assign, then remind them of your expectations.
    • If there are problems, talk to them and try to find out what is causing the problems such as, overwork, not understanding the literature, or a lack of confidence.
    • If there is still a problem, sit down and talk to the student, individually "I think that we need to set some mile-stones." Let them know what is going well, and what needs to change.
    • You may be able to provide an enticement. For example, if a conference is coming up, indicate that it would nice to have some of the research ready to include in a poster or in a paper, and that they can go to the conference to help present.
  11. How do you get new graduate students into the literature, shouldn't they be proactive? I did not need to be told to read.

    Some students are self-starters, some have trouble knowing just how to start and where to go. You can provide a few review papers to get students started. These usually contain many important references for the student to pursue in useful directions.

  12. How do you prepare students for criticism?

    Feedback is very important. Most of us know only too well how it feels to have grants and papers rejected by our peers. Our students have not had this experience, and may feel we are being overly critical and unfair. You can help set expectations for feedback early, during the first interview with the student, even by telephone long distance. You can tell the student they can expect to be told when you are satisfied with their progress and productivity and they can also expect to be told when you are unhappy with their progress and productivity. Clarifying expectations is important. Some students are thinking about this and asking prospective supervisors to outline their expectations.

  13. A student of mine wants to transfer from a Masters to a Ph.D program, but I don't have a good feeling about it.

    Don't start a student transfer to Ph.D. if you don't feel good about it.

  14. How do I judge students applying from other cultures; they look great on paper?

    International students can be difficult to judge since we often know little to nothing about the standards at the originating institution. The quality of educational programs can vary considerably. Many professors start students off at the Masters level promoting them quickly if they do well. If a student is struggling, they may at least be able to graduate with a Masters degree.

  15. How many students can I support?

    If the student receives a scholarship from my department and obtains a T.A. position I know they will receive the minimum stipend for a student. Without a scholarship, I must plan an expense of about $8,000. I must then consider the cost of additional materials required to do their work. In my field, I must include supplies, disposables, possible equipment user fees, over the period of time they will be in my lab as well as money to attend a conference. With this total I can calculate the number of students I can support.

  16. What happens if I lose my grant?

    In the Sciences and Engineering, when a departmental offer includes guaranteed support, the university has an obligation to support students they admit. As a result, departments will, in a pinch, provide the support necessary for the student to complete. However, you should not rely on this form of support. On the other hand, if you are having cash flow problems, and know you have money coming, don’t sit silently. It is reasonable to request a loan from your department. Policies may be different in the Humanities.

  17. Should I spend some of my start-up funds on students? Can I spend my start-up money as I choose?

    Think carefully about how you use start up funds. Some grants restrict use of the money. In the Sciences, for example, the CFI must be spent on equipment. You may want to use start-up funds for expenses, like supporting students, not possible to cover with other funds. Industry grants are often fairly restrictive, so that curiosity driven work cannot be done these are often the basic studies suited to a Ph.D. Check with the Office of Research Services for any restrictions on the use of grants and start up funds.

  18. Should I pay for students through industry based research funds?

    This can be a tricky situation. You should involve others in helping make this determination since issues of confidentiality, intellectual property, and patent rights may be involved. Make sure you understand all restrictions in advance. Students will need to publicly present and discuss their research as part of their program requirements. It is important a third party is involved early on to discuss the implications with the student so they can make an informed decision.

    It is a good idea to have an agreement with your student in writing, clearly outlining the division of Intellectual Property Rights, to protect all of the parties. Information about the intellectual property policy at McMaster is available online:

    McMaster University Intellectual Property Policy

Some useful Contacts:

  • Marcel Mongeon
    Executive Director & Legal Counsel, Research Contracts and Intellectual Property
  • Check also with the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies