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Make or Break? The Impact of Student-Supervisor Relationships on Graduate Learning

Word Frequency Query

Figure 1: A word cloud with the topics related to the student-supervisor relationship. The most visible terms are supervisor, student, discussion, and learning. (Majid, 2017b)

“’Mentoring is best when it is free of pressure, and when it feels reciprocal’ (Cullingford, 2006, p. 9, emphasis added) … Both the mentor and mentee are learners in the mentoring relationship, and therefore are bringers and givers of knowledge. ‘Reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connection, and shared values’ (Straus et al., 2013, p. 1) characterize successful mentoring relationships.” (Majid, 2017a, p. 5)

We are in full swing of the semester! I commend you for your progress until now.

In this blog post, we will discuss a very important aspect of the graduate learning experience: the student-supervisor relationship.

Many of us have supervisors who are professionals in our field of interest to guide us through the graduate student journey. The first meeting with your supervisor can be intimidating and daunting because you discuss your career objectives, research interests, values and beliefs about academia, and more. This meeting can also be exciting because it represents the time you will spend with your supervisor doing some amazing work. For some of us, however, the reality of working with our supervisor is becoming clearer as you spend more time with them on different projects and activities.

My MSc supervisor was an amazing mentor to me during my previous graduate education. She maintained constant communication about my work and offered frequent, relevant and timely feedback that enabled me to enhance my existing strengths and address areas for improvement. She would frequently communicate her progress on collaborative projects, and ask for updates on my progress while being flexible and understanding of my other commitments. She served as an effective guide, facilitator, advisor, and role model. She cultivated a learning environment that was conducive to my personal and professional development. Despite having completed my MSc, we are still in continuous communication because of our mutual academic interests and ongoing collaborative projects. My relationship with her did not end with the completion of my MSc but it continues in my current work. She is one of the reasons why I chose to continue my graduate learning experience at Queens’ University. However, this experience does not reflect many graduate students’ experience.


I have heard of serious complaints from my peers about their experiences working with their supervisors. These issues range from miscommunication, managing competing deadlines, high expectations from the supervisor, lack of adequate guidance on tasks, the rude or condescending behaviour of a supervisor, and the list goes on.

Some of my colleagues were on the brink of a mental breakdown because of the unnecessary, negative demeanor and stress placed on them by their supervisor. To them, the graduate learning experience became a matter of completing the next assignment so that “they can breathe” until they have to meet with their supervisor again.

It must be said. Supervisors of graduate programs make or break the graduate student learning experience. Not only do I say this out of personal experience but also from the Scholarship in Teaching and Learning literature (Cho et al., 2011; Crosslin et al., 2013; Preston et al., 2014). Many of my colleagues chose to forego graduate education due to a stressful and unsupportive relationship with their supervisor. Graduate education should be the student’s opportunity for not only professional growth in academia but also personal development. However, supervisors that do not cultivate a learning environment that allows students to explore their areas of interests and develop lifelong skills become obstacles to personal and professional development.

Our discussion (and venting) on the supervisor-student relationship can continue forever. Let’s shift our focus to speaking two strategies we can use to navigate through the challenges we may encounter with our supervisors.

Open-Discussion: Before you begin your program, ask your supervisor for an open-discussion concerning your expectations and goals and your supervisor’s research interests, expectations and objectives. As a graduate student, you need to be prepared to negotiate some of your expectations and goals to match with your supervisor. For example, the focus of your graduate work, in the end, may not be directly aligned with your interests because it must be negotiated with the resources (and funding), skills and expertise of your supervisor. Moreover, your supervisor may prefer a medium of communication that does not fit with your work habits.

This discussion would allow the student and supervisor to “be on the same page.” Furthermore, this discussion may ameliorate future conflicts concerning miscommunication, and incongruent work habits or expectations. However, the objectives, goals, and expectations must be revisited at regular points throughout the student-supervisor relationship to ensure that both parties continuously reflect upon the nature of the relationship, their roles and responsibilities, and how to navigate through conflicts.

Questions students may ask their supervisor in an open discussion:

  • What is your most important objective and how I can help you to achieve it?
  • How do you determine the significance of my contributions?
  • What were some barriers and issues that prevented students in the past to collaborate effectively with you? 

Being Assertive: Communicating your needs, preferences, and objectives to your supervisor can also be very daunting because the student-supervisor relationship is hierarchical in nature where the power is naturally in control of the supervisor. It may be difficult for a student to express their beliefs, thoughts, and ideas honestly with their supervisor because of the difference in power and knowledge. However, graduate work is the students’ foremost responsibility. The supervisor is there to guide, and not drive, the student through the graduate learning process.

Assertive communication is an important characteristic of the student-supervisor relationship. This form of communication allows a student to express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs clearly while being respectful to the supervisor and their knowledge and expertise. Assertive communication acknowledges the wealth of experience and knowledge of the supervisor while also providing the student the volition to shape their graduate work as they see fit. Assertive communication is not aggressive communication, which may involve raising one’s voice in a physical confrontation, and not passive communication, which may privilege compromise over self-advocacy of thoughts and ideas.

Assertive communication is characterized by the following:

  • Clear: Be clear and concise about your thoughts and ideas
  • Honesty: Truthfully convey your thoughts and ideas to another person
  • Listening: Use active listening techniques to acknowledge another person’s thoughts
  • Alignment: Ensure that your verbal and non-verbal communication are aligned
  • Growth-Oriented: Focus on improvement for future instances instead of accusations
  • Nonjudgemental: Do not judge another person’s behaviours or personality
  • Practice: Employ deliberate practice of assertive communication in all activities

If you have any questions about the supervisor-student relationship, or if you want to further discuss some of these strategies, you can contact me at 14um3@queensu.ca.


Cho, C. S., Ramanan, R. A., & Feldman, M. D. (2011). Defining the ideal qualities of mentorship: a qualitative analysis of the characteristics of outstanding mentors. The American journal of medicine124(5), 453-458.

Crosslin, M., Wakefield, J. S., Bennette, P., & Black III, J. W. (2013). Leveraging Sociocultural Theory to Create a Mentorship Program for Doctoral Students. International Association for Development of the Information Society.

Majid, U. (2017a). An Analysis of Peer Mentorship in an Undergraduate Life Sciences Program. Submitted to the School of Interdisciplinary Science Curriculum Committee. July 26, 2017.

Majid, U. (2017b). Word Cloud: Supervisor-Student Relationship. Created using QSR N-Vivo October 28, 2017.

Preston, J. P., Ogenchuk, M. J., & Nsiah, J. K. (2014). Peer mentorship and transformational learning: PhD student experiences. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education44(1), 52.

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