Finding the Right Supervisor

The process of writing a thesis begins long before one sits down to put words on paper. It begins with the choice of what to study, where to study, and most importantly, with whom to study. Although graduate students interact with many professors, their primary relationship is with their supervisor, and this relationship plays a major factor in their success or failure during their studies and beyond earning the degree. Even if readers are already enrolled in a graduate program, this chapter provides the departmental and institutional context in which the supervisory relationship takes place. For students still searching for a supervisor, this chapter provides some strategies and guiding questions to help them make their decision.

Programs have customized approaches to selecting a supervisor. Some programs require incoming students to secure a faculty member who will commit to act as a supervisor for their research. In many of these cases,    the supervisor provides them with full or partial funding. Other programs accept students and allow them a grace period to find a supervisor. In these cases, admittance is conditional and students who cannot persuade a faculty member to supervise their research are withdrawn from the program. The time allowed for this can vary from two months to several years. Other programs assign all admitted students to a supervisor. The rules and procedures for selecting a supervisor may be found in program descriptions, but this information might not be evident in their application procedures. Many universities have institutional guidelines for students, faculty, and administration. Usually, these guidelines are available from the university’s school of graduate studies and most are posted online. Graduate Program Directors (GPDs) can provide specific program guidelines concerning the procedures surrounding supervisor selection.

David Mumby (2012), author of Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In, notes that the choice of a supervisor should supersede the choice of a university. This is excellent advice in that graduate research      is closely linked to a specific researcher, not an institution. However, not  all students are in this ideal situation. Students are not always admitted to their first choice university or program. For others, personal reasons, such as family responsibilities and financial constraints, limit their choice of where to study. Many cannot leave jobs and instead elect to study part-time at a university near their home. Master’s level students, when compared to doctoral students, have less pressure to “get it right,” simply due to length of their programs. Typically, a master’s level student will spend only one or two years working directly with their supervisor, whereas a doctoral student may spend from four to seven years.

Even for programs that do not require a supervisor for admittance, having a supervisor might increase a student’s chance of being admitted because it is likely that the faculty member may speak favorably about them during the admission process. Additionally, securing an advisor early gives students a better chance of selecting their preferred supervisor. On the other hand, students might meet another faculty member with whom they would prefer to work. Changing supervisors is not a simple matter and, in some cases, doing so can have negative consequences.

Most universities and programs use a traditional model of supervision that involves a close working relationship between a student and one faculty member. The supervisor guides the research and serves as a mentor for the duration of the degree. Effective supervisors do more than help students write their thesis. They serve as role models who socialize students and help them understand and adopt the discipline’s values, methods, and ways of constructing knowledge . Successful selection means aligning one’s research interests, goals for study, and ways of working with the potential supervisor. The traditional model is well suited for self-directed students who are well prepared for graduate work.

Other programs use a blended approach that augments one-on-one supervisory sessions with group meetings and writing groups. Programs where students work in labs on common problems, such as in science and engineering, most often use the blended approach. Some programs are oriented toward the professional doctorate in which research is carried out in the place of employment and collaborative essays may replace the single authored monograph theses.

Who Are Supervisors?

In most universities, supervision is a voluntary activity for faculty members. Faculty  members  are  expected,  but  not  required  to  work  with graduate students. Moreover, students do not always get the supervisor they want. Busy and popular supervisors may not accept additional students, and it is common for supervisors to limit the number of students with whom they work. Supervisors know how many students their labs can accommodate and for how many they can provide adequate funding. Generally speaking, no supervisor is forced to work with a specific student, and in most cases, a student is not required to work with a particular supervisor. However, there are programs that assign supervisors to incoming students based on their area of research interest. This assignment method ensures that faculty members share the workload and supervision is balanced. This also means some students will work with their preferred supervisor, while others may not.

In most universities, only full-time faculty members are permitted to supervise graduate students. Others, such as part-time instructors, adjunct professors, and Limited Term instructors are contractual employees. Their employment usually is dependent on a number of factors, such as the current sabbatical or leave replacements needed and course enrollment. Full-time faculty members, on the other hand, have permanent positions and are likely to be employed for the duration of a student’s program, a plus for students who are happy with their supervisor.

Student Needs

Before turning attention to finding the right supervisor, it is necessary to consider what students want and need from this relationship. Tenenbaum, Crosby, and Gliner (2001) surveyed students at their California university and found three types of help students expect to receive ideally from their supervisors: psychosocial, instrumental, and networking. To their list, I would add the need for financial aid. For Tenenbaum et al. (2001) supervisors meet their students’ psychosocial needs when they convey empathy for their concerns and feelings. These supervisors allow and encourage students to discuss concerns regarding feelings they have about their competencies and academic abilities. They encourage students to talk openly about personal anxieties and fears that deter them from working and are open to sharing their own personal stories about how they overcame similar obstacles. In a narrative describing her doctoral work, Lakkala (2012) illustrates how her supervisor provided psychosocial help. She writes,

She paid attention to my feelings when she had to give feedback that demanded changes … She discretely anticipated the emotional reactions the various phases would cause. Along with the process, I had to learn that my feelings of incapability and being wounded were inevitable.  (p. 14)

Supervisors provide instrumental help when they give assistance to improve students’ writing skills, help them organize and deliver a conference presentation, and explore their career options. Supervisors can help their students find the right venue for publications, and mentor them on how      to write and submit a paper for publication. Networking help involves introducing students to other researchers in the field. It may also mean writing letters of reference for jobs and grants. Supervisors can advocate for students in departmental decisions about teaching and research assistantships, and provide other means of financial support. Many pay travel expenses, which permits their students to attend conferences and network with other researchers.

Asking themselves what they most want and need from a supervisor    and then identifying the faculty member who is best is suited to meet those needs will prevent future disappointments with a mismatched supervisor. For example, students need to understand which is most  important  to  them: personal supportiveness or professional competence. This is not to say that the supportive supervisor is not or cannot be an expert in her or   his field, or conversely, that the professionally competent supervisor is not supportive. Being a top researcher, however, takes concentrated time and the rewards usually involve travel to attend conferences and keynote speaking engagements. It takes focus to conduct research and a supervisor’s time is finite. Students who need a great deal of psychosocial support should not choose supervisors who are best suited to offer networking support. Instead, students who are highly motivated to publish and present work, and who hope to get a university position, are best mentored by active researchers.

Ideally, most supervisors would possess the skills needed to meet all three needs, but research and personal experience indicate that supervisors usually excel in one of the three areas. Some do not see it as their responsibility to support students emotionally as well as academically. James and Baldwin (1999) warn that taking on the role of a counselor is “exhausting and dangerous” (p. 34). They hold that supervisors and students should maintain a professional relationship. Students need to be clear about their expectations and supervision needs. Some students need and want a close relationship with their supervisor. Others prefer to work autonomously.

Students who attend universities in cultures or countries different from their own have greater needs than their fellow students. This is particularly the case for students who must write a thesis in a second language. These students may need more instrumental help with writing, particularly with critical analysis and argument construction. Conventions of academic scholarship may differ from their previous degrees in their own country. There may be vast differences in notions of what it means to be a good student. Those in this situation are less likely to know how to navigate university structures and may find that being a student in the new environment is quite different from that with which they are familiar. They may hold assumptions about student and teacher roles that are in contrast with the new learning environment (Zhou, Jindal-Snape, Topping, & Todman, 2008). For example, students attending North American universities from other continents may be surprised to find that they are expected to actively engage in dialogue during class, rather than simply attend lectures. Many of these students pay high tuition and fees, and feel intense pressure to succeed. Additionally, students away from home are likely to feel isolated and lack social networks. Many turn to their supervisor as their sole means of support.

Qualities to Look for in a Supervisor

Respect for a supervisor as an authority on the subject and as a leading researcher in the field will go a long way when being asked to revise a  draft for the fifth time. Those I interviewed held differing opinions on how much of a domain expert the supervisor should be and answers ranged  from “possessing a passing knowledge” to “the leading expert in the field.” Ideally, the supervisor should be knowledgeable about either the topic or research methodology the student intends to explore in his or her thesis. Supervisors with domain knowledge can direct their students to the most pertinent literature and current research. However, the match between the student’s needs and the supervisor’s ability and willingness to meet those needs may be more important than subject expertise.

The research topic is only one factor that should influence who students select as a supervisor. They must be comfortable with the supervisor’s interpersonal skills. For example, students  who  need  positive  feedback for motivation should not ask a highly critical professor to supervise. This professor is best suited to supervise students who thrive on having their ideas challenged.


Throughout their academic careers, faculty members have different responsibilities that often correspond to the rank they hold. Their time is divided between teaching, research, and service, and pressure to meet the demands of their rank greatly affects how and why they work with graduate students. Understanding the institutional context can make students aware of competing priorities, but they should note that these descriptions are generalizations. Professors at each level are individuals and approach their faculty responsibilities and supervisory roles in unique ways. In the North American context, tenure track or tenure stream professors are designated by the rank of assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor.

Assistant professors are newly hired into tenure track or tenure stream positions. They are most likely to have recently completed their doctoral or post-doctoral work. Many are teaching for the first time in their academic career. Assistant professors are given a probationary period, usually around five or six years, to prepare for consideration to be promoted to the associate level. To be promoted, assistant professors must show evidence of successful teaching and research. Evidence of research includes successful grants, peer- reviewed papers, and sometimes, books.

Tenure procedures vary among universities, but most involve a peer review process. At the end of the probationary period, assistant professors prepare a performance dossier, which will be read and assessed by a number of committees, usually starting at the program level. Those who are not awarded tenure usually leave the university. It cannot be understated how stressful the tenure process is for faculty members. Assistant professors are sometimes referred to as “junior faculty” and feel scrutinized at every turn. Adding to their stress, many assistant professors have young children and other family obligations that compete for their time.

As supervisors, assistant professors are likely to be current with research being done in their field and might be more accepting of originality and innovation. They are in a good position to help students select a relevant and timely research topic. This is particularly the case in fields driven by innovation and where technology is always in a state of flux. Assistant professors are often funded by university start-up grants and government grants specifically targeted for new professors. They are highly motivated to publish and are likely to encourage students to publish with them. Supervising master’s students is sometimes required to achieve tenure. At the very least, tenure committees look upon supervision favorably, and success is measured by the completion rates of their students.

During the first few years in the tenure track position, the assistant professor will likely have very little experience in supervising students. They are only a few years from their own graduate work, and research shows that the supervisor’s previous experience as a doctoral student is a key influence on how they, in turn, supervise (Delamont, Parry, & Atkinson, 1998; Lee, 2007). They may have unrealistic expectations for the students they supervise or be disappointed when their students do not possess the same skill level or work ethic they believe themselves to have had as a student.

Some assistant professors may be unfamiliar with their program’s supervisory cultures and university policies. This may be a disadvantage in that they may be unable to help their students navigate complicated university administrative structures. However, starting fresh can be an advantage in that they may be optimistic and may consider new approaches to supervision. The biggest disadvantage to working with an assistant professor is that they are busy, and in some cases may place their own academic success over that of the students they supervise. In a worst-case scenario, the assistant professor will not receive tenure, and the graduate students he or she supervises will have to find another supervisor.

Associate Professors are usually tenured and may hold this rank either for their entire career or until they are promoted to full professor. Most associate professors are well established in their universities and field of research. Publishing and presenting papers are still important for promotion to full professor and to garner competitive research funding. As one professor recounted about tenure, “Tenure is like winning a pie eating contest and the prize is more pie.”1 Associate professors are usually expected to provide graduate student support and publication success is a condition for securing additional research grants. Scientists need money for labs, and those who are not successful in garnering grants and contracts are assigned extra teaching duties, or are assigned to teach large lectures at the undergraduate level. In some universities, associate professors are eligible for six month or yearlong sabbaticals. A sabbatical may mean students will rarely see the supervisor, and may not receive feedback.

Once tenure has been attained, the pressure to publish and apply for research grants may be less than for the assistant professor. As a result,  they may have less funding to provide for their graduate students. On the other hand, they are in a good position to help students navigate university structures and have more time to devote to them.

Professors refer to all faculty members who teach courses, but not all hold the rank of a full professor. In this case, the title is used as one would use that of “teacher.” Only those who demonstrate sustained quality teaching and research over a period of years may be promoted to the rank of professor. Sometimes they are referred to as full professors. To achieve this rank, those at the associate level go through a peer-review process similar to tenure at the assistant professor level. In many cases, professors outside of the university evaluate their dossier.

At their best,  professors  have  supervised  many  graduate  students,  and importantly, remain active researchers. However, stereotypes of the curmudgeon and absent-minded professor abound. In some cases some professors may be less current in their fields and their network of colleagues may be older and retired. This may be detrimental to their students’ ability to network and gain future employment and they may be less open to innovative methodologies and ideas. With less expectation to publish, and even less incentive to do so, the demands on their time may be less. In addition, if they have children, they are most likely grown, and as a consequence may have more time to devote to their students’ academic and psychosocial needs.

Cultural Diversity

In addition to the rank, communication style, expertise, and ability to provide help, other issues such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and  age can affect the student-supervisor relationship. Since the 1990s, a great deal of research has been conducted about gender and graduate studies.  This research was generated, in part, in response to statistics that show    that women are more likely than men to drop out of graduate school, to  take more time to complete, and are less likely to obtain a research position after graduation (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). Since research indicated that the relationship between the student and supervisor was key to a student’s completion, researchers turned their attention to the impact of same-gender and cross-gender supervision. In an extensive literature review, Smeby (2000) found evidence both for and against same-gender student and supervisor relationships. Some studies suggest that female students are more satisfied with female supervisors because the supervisors understand the issues that concern female students. Chapman and Sork (2001) support this notion and write that female students who have male supervisors do not have “the same opportunity to ‘bond’ over a beer or at a hockey game” (p. 101). They hold that female students are not afforded the same opportunities to have close personal relationships with male supervisors, as would a male student. This suggests a certain (acknowledged) stereotype that may not be the case. It infers that as a female, I would enjoy shopping with my students, which I do not, and that I do not watch hockey and drink beer, which I   do As a mother, I am aware of the difficulties women face when trying to write a thesis and at the same time, manage a young child. However, my colleague, a sleep-deprived father of two toddlers, may have greater insight.

Research indicates that female supervisors provide more psychosocial help to female students than to male students and that male supervisors provide less psychosocial help than their female counterparts. (Tenenbaum, Crosby, & Gliner, 2001). They found that male students published more with their supervisors than did women across all disciplines. Other studies suggest that supervisor’s gender makes little difference because senior female faculty members gained entrance into the academy and thrived there because they share the same values as their male counterparts (Smeby, 2000).

For Chapman and Sork (2001), the issue is not simply the lack of buddy relationship, but that these relationships bring with them access to power. This is a problem in the life sciences where studies show women are provided less funding, given less access to elite laboratories, and that women with children are less likely to be hired for tenure track positions than men with children (Sheltzer & Smith, 2014). Women are underrepresented in prestigious laboratories. Sheltzer and Smith found that elite male faculty employ fewer female graduate students, but found no comparable gender bias in elite labs supervised by female scientists. However, with fewer women receiving the faculty positions there are fewer opportunities for female graduate students to have female supervisors.

This same vicious cycle is reflected in discussions about how race impacts student-supervisory relationships. It is a well documented fact that faculty of color are vastly underrepresented in most programs (Felder & Barker, 2013; Felder, Stevenson, & Gasman, 2014). This paucity of diversity means students have few choices of supervisors. Students of color report racial discrimination and perceive the exclusion in the life of a department (Felder & Barker, 2013). Doctoral students of color note that faculty inaccessibility is a barrier to forming meaningful and effective connections with the faculty (Felder & Barker, 2013). They receive less research and teaching assistantships than their white counterparts (Felder et al., 2014). Some students report faculty members do not support their research when it involves racial or cultural topics. Perhaps the faculty member had no background in understanding of the work, or as reported by Felder et al., there was an “endemic departmental insensitivity and racial stereotyping” (p. 36). Having same race peers and faculty as support is important.

It is clear there is a systemic problem that prevents faculty diversity, starting with faculty discriminating against perspective students. Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh (2013) conducted an experiment to determine if gender and racial bias started before students were admitted to graduate programs. Their study involved 6500 randomly selected professors from 258 institutions in 89 disciplines across the United States. The researchers sent each professor an email request from a fictional prospective student for an informal meeting  to discuss their doctoral program. All emails were identical except for the student’s name, which was validated to signal gender and race (p. 5). They found that professors were more likely to respond to Caucasian males than to women and students of color. Asian students experienced the most bias, with Asian women experiencing the worst discrimination. Discrimination is more extreme in higher paying disciplines and in private institutions. Business disciplines exhibited the most bias, whereas Fine Arts exhibited a reverse bias. Milkman et al. (2013) found that perceived minority students received a better response from professors from the same background.

The emergence of the professional doctorate degree has highlighted how age may impact the supervision relationship (Malfroy, 2005). Students who return to graduate study after extensive professional careers may find it difficult to work with a younger supervisor who has less field experience, even when the supervisor is deemed to be an expert in their field. These students may sense that theory and practice are disconnected and may rely on their own experience to argue points. Malfroy, in her ethnographic study of a research centre that focused on environmental health, management and tourism, found that some of the 11 doctoral students who were assigned there reported feeling awkward about their status as students in contrast to their status in their work place. According to Malfroy, these professionals are “having a profound impact in altering traditional hierarchal models of expert/novice” (p. 166).

Clearly, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture, religion, age, and a host of other factors affect the student-supervisory relationship, and the ideal supervisor may not exist. Before selecting a supervisor, it is vital to know that they are supportive of students and respect them. Is the supervisor open and interested to learn about their students’ cultures and values? Or does the potential supervisor appear to be sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise unethical? The student-supervisor relationship is long-term and intense, and often lasts beyond the completion of the degree. It is worth taking the time to find the right supervisor.


Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation. Springer.

Comments are closed.