What to discuss

It is important to develop a strong professional relationship with your supervisor. To facilitate that, the following is a list of topics which should be discussed early in the development of a working relationship between a student and a supervisor.

These questions will not be relevant to all disciplines and do not need to be asked verbatim, but exist to prompt consideration, discussion and agreement on important topics that otherwise may not come up. Departments may have policies or practices in place to address some of these issues, so it is strongly recommended that students become familiar with their department’s policy before raising these issues with their supervisors.

Managing expectations together with your supervisor can help to ensure that these issues do not develop into an unanticipated hindrance at a later point.


In general, you will need to have a thorough understanding of how your funding arrangement is meant to work. Consider starting with a global question: Could we talk about my funding so that I will understand what I can expect and what is expected of me?

  • What is the source of my funding?  What is the amount committed?  For how long is the funding committed?
  • If I receive additional funding from other sources, perhaps a scholarship, what happens to the funding that has currently been committed to me?
  • If I take a leave, including a medical leave, how will that affect funding that has been committed?
  • How would changes to my supervisor’s funding affect me?
  • What is the potential that these committed funds will become unavailable?
  • What sort of expectations does my supervisor have of me when giving me this funding?  Are there conditions that must be met to ensure continuity of funds?
  • Am I required (allowed) to participate as a teaching assistant?  As a teaching assistant, will I receive funding in addition to the funding already committed to me?
  • Am I encouraged or expected to apply for scholarships and externally supported grants? Are you, as my supervisor, willing to provide supportive letters of reference?
  • Will there be an opportunity to present my research at a conference?  What financial support would be available to support travel, meals, lodging and registration at conferences?
  • Is there funding available to support the research activity?  What is the process for my being able to access those funds for my research?
  • Is there a desk or study space assigned to me?  What other resources are available to me as a graduate student?
  • Can I lose funding as a result of a lack of progress on my research and studies?  If I am asked to withdraw from my program, what happens to my funding?

Research responsibilities

In general, it is important that you understand what the expectations are with regard to research responsibilities. Start a discussion by asking:  How do you typically function with regard to the research responsibilities of your graduate students?

  • What expectations are there regarding my office hours, lab or on-campus availability? 
  • Am I expected to be present certain times of the day?  Certain days of the week?  Am I expected to be available on weekends and holidays if need be, even if I’m not expected to be on-campus?
  • Are there a certain number of hours per week that I am expected to be on-campus and/ or engaged in research activities?
  • Will I be responsible for the maintenance or upkeep of any equipment or lab or office space?
  • Will I be responsible for the wellbeing of any animals?
  • Do these responsibilities exist year-round, including over summer and during the time between Christmas and New Year’s?
  • Can I take a vacation?  If so, when, and what sort of notice do I need to give my supervisor?
  • What resources and support personnel do I have access to that can facilitate my research?
  • Will I be asked to do work that is not related to my research?

Working relationship

You need to have a clear understanding about how the student-supervisor relationship should be working (as well as the student-committee relationship) and what academic obligations are in place.  A conversation on this topic could start with something like:  What are your expectations with regard to how we will work together as student and supervisor? For example, how often will we be meeting?

  • How often and by what means should I be in communication with my supervisor?  How often will I meet with my Advisory Committee? 
  • Am I responsible for initiating communication with my supervisor? 
  • What sort of information does my supervisor expect to get from me on a regular basis?
  • Is my supervisor likely to be on leave (parental, sabbatical, or administrative) during my graduate program?  What will be my relationship with my supervisor while s/he is on said leaves?
  • What happens if my supervisor decides to leave the university?

Program management

In general, you must have a thorough understanding about the management of their research, writing, and their graduate program. This is a broad topic including such things as how your supervisor manages collaborative projects and what their expectations are with regard to the exchange of written drafts. Consider starting this discussion with an opening question like: When it comes to writing up research and publishing, how do you typically work with your graduate students?

  • How often, and what kind of updates should I be providing my supervisor on my research?
  • When I send my supervisor a document for review, how soon should I expect a response?  What kind of critical response should I expect?
  • Who determines if I am ready to start writing my thesis/ dissertation?
  • How will the order of co-authors on scholarly articles be determined?
  • What are the process and expectations of me, regarding committee meetings?
  • Can my supervisor use my research, written work, and/or take first authorship on articles or presentations using that research or data if, after some fixed amount of time has passed, I have not used the research or data myself?
  • Who has access to my research or data?
  • Am I expected to publish my research or findings, in addition to writing my thesis?
  • Could you tell me about how you manage collaborative projects in terms of such things as who has access to data?
  • If I take a leave, can my supervisor or other students or members of the department use my data for their research or graduate program?