Biology Graduate Program Faculty Handbook



Welcome to the Biology graduate program supervisor handbook. The purpose of this handbook is to provide support and information to faculty supervising graduate students, to codify the expectations and responsibilities of graduate supervisors, co-supervisors, and advisors, and to act as a resource.

For the 2017 external program review, we established learning outcomes and expectations for the MSc and PhD programs; these are available in Appendix 1.

The goals of the graduate student and the supervisor are ultimately aligned: The student wants to receive their degree in a timely fashion, and the supervisor wants them to be productive and efficient. As a supervisor, you are also a mentor, and that is your most important role. Indeed, successful mentoring is a hallmark of some of the most successful biologists of the past half-century.


  • Students are students and therefore need to learn. Although they will ideally be contributing to your wider research, they are not employees or technicians, and this has significant bearing on how long it takes them to do things, the way they prioritise tasks, and the time available to perform research.
  • Tri-Council funding views students as trainees (and NSERC explicitly evaluates your ‘HQP training’). Thus, your role is to help them acquire the practical and conceptual skills that allow them to perform as scientists. This includes allowing them to develop independence not just at the bench but also through reading and project development.
  • Not all students want to become academics. Helping them to identify their goals is a part of your role as a mentor. Enabling students to attend appropriate career development events, to pursue side projects and opportunities, and having conversations about careers early and often are imperative. An important component of your role is as a gateway into the broader scientific community. Make an effort to introduce students into your network and scientific discourse.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable: “your graduate students aren’t as good as you were. By the way, you weren’t as good a graduate student as you think you were, either.” – Brent Sinclair.
  • There is a significant power imbalance in the student-supervisor relationship, which you may not always be aware of. Do not abuse this imbalance, and be aware of how it can affect interactions.
  • Finally, as a supervisor, as well as your obligations to the student, you have responsibilities to the program (outlined here and in the Biology Graduate Handbook), the Department, and the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Please help the grad program to help you: respond promptly to grad program requests etc. We don’t normally ask unless we need the information!

If you have concerns about a student, or your supervisory relationship with a student, please discuss this with the Graduate Chair or Vice-Chair as soon as possible - their door is not only open to graduate students but equally their supervisors. Although the Grad Chair’s magic wand is lost, they can often provide advice, mediate conflicts, arrange alternative supervision, confidentially check on students’ mental and physical health, resolve miscommunications, provide access to additional resources, enforce graduate program regulations, grant extensions, and make referrals to other offices (e.g. the Ombudsperson or SGPS).

Some general rules

As supervisors, mentors, and members of the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, you are expected to adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional ethics. In accordance with Senate regulations, only members of the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies may be involved in graduate student education (supervision, advisory committee member, exam chair, course instructor, etc.).

  • Maintain appropriate behaviour at all times, and hold your colleagues to those standards as well. Workplace bullying, harassment (sexual or otherwise, both physically and verbally), discrimination or incivility are absolutely inappropriate.
  • The University has rules about Intellectual Property, which you are required to follow. In addition, please adhere to a high moral and ethical standard when giving appropriate credit to students for their work. In general, discuss authorship with students early and often, and communicate expectations clearly.
    • It is normal and reasonable for the supervisor to share the IP generated under their supervision with their student, and to expect students to leave originals or copies of all data (raw and processed) when they leave the lab.
  • Please avoid conflicts of interest, as they can undermine the (perceived or actual) rigour of the program, and become extremely problematic if things go awry. To a great extent, we avoid conflicts of interest because of perceived conflicts of interest, rather than an expectation of inappropriate behaviour, but we take a conservative approach nonetheless. In general, if you believe there may be a conflict of interest, be sure to declare it openly and discuss with the Grad Chair (or designate) early in the process. SGPS has specific rules about conflicts of interest on examination committees, see both the Grad Handbook and the SGPS regulations,
    • Perceived conflicts of interest can arise if (to give some non-exclusive examples) two parties have a spousal or other close personal relationship, a close familial relationship, a direct interest in the outcome of proceedings (e.g. an intention to hire a student post-graduation), or if there is a financial relationship between parties.
      • E.g. If Professor Brown has agreed to hire a student as a postdoc post graduation, it is inappropriate for Prof. Brown to act as an examiner on the student’s thesis.
      • E.g. if Prof. Brown expects to be an author on the papers arising from a student’s thesis, it is appropriate for them to sit on the advisory committee or act as a reader, but inappropriate to be an examiner of the thesis.
      • E.g. if Prof. Brown is on the student’s advisory committee, it is inappropriate for them to chair a thesis examination.
    • We do not permit a spouse (/significant other/close relative) of a supervisor to serve on that student’s advisory committee or on any examination/assessment committees (including as chair) associated with a student’s progress. It is acceptable, however, for both parties to serve as co-supervisors to a student.
      • E.g. Professors X. Jones and Y. Jones (who are married) can co-supervise a student, but it is inappropriate for X. Jones to assess a proposal of one of Y. Jones’ students, and vice versa.
    • We do not permit two spouses (etc.) to sit on the same advisory committee or on any examination/assessment committee (including where one is chair). It is permissible for a spouse (etc.) of an advisory committee member to sit on an assessment/examination committee on which the advisory committee member is not participating.
      • E.g. If X. Jones is on a student’s advisory committee, it is permissible to have a proposal assessment committee with Y. Jones as a member, provided X. Jones is not.
  • According to the Collective Agreement, if you will be absent from Campus, you are required to inform the Department Chair. It is also a good idea to communicate this clearly to your students, especially if the absence is to be for an extended period or, as in the case of parental or compassionate leave, you will not be performing your normal duties.
    • Leaves of Absence, Parental, Compassionate, Medical, etc. leaves:
      • You are required to arrange a stand-in supervisor for each of your students. These do not need to be the same person for each student, and need not be a member of the advisory committee. If they are a member of the advisory committee, please arrange a temporary replacement. Inform the Graduate Program Coordinator by email of these arrangements, and fill in and sign the appropriate forms. Be sure to inform your students of these arrangements (and ideally discuss them beforehand). In the case of an unexpected absence, the Grad Chair will make these arrangements in your stead.
      • During these leaves, you are not required to attend the exams, assessments, and advisory committee meetings for the students you supervise. However, you are permitted and encouraged to do so, whether in person or remotely.
      • Please inform students of whom you are an advisory committee member, and step down from those committees, at least temporarily. That will make it easier for the student to meet their progression requirements.
    • Sabbatical/Research leaves:
      • When on these leaves, there is usually a small portion of workload allotted to teaching, with the intent that you will continue your core supervisory duties. If you will be absent from Campus for extended periods, you are required to arrange a temporary co-supervisor (for if a student needs any forms signed), and communicate that arrangement to both the student and the graduate program. You will be expected to attend (ideally in person, but remotely is possible with permission from the Graduate Chair) advisory committee meetings, assessments, and thesis examinations.
      • Feel free to step down from advisory committees (at least temporarily) while you are on sabbatical. If you choose not to do so, you remain obligated to participate in normal committee activities, so please communicate your availability clearly to the students so they can plan milestone (etc.) meetings accordingly.

Additional Internal Resources

Department of Biology Graduate Handbook

SGPS Graduate Program regulations

SGPS Graduate Supervision Handbook

Teaching Support Centre Western Purple Guides:

SGPS Own Your Future Portal

Western Wellness Education Centre

Western’s Human Resources have prepared a Researcher toolbox, which includes notes about your legal responsibilities and also advice about ‘Developing a high performing team’ (Western login required)

The Ombudsperson can help resolve conflicts, sometimes in collaboration with the Grad Chair.

Some external resources about mentoring and supervision

McGill University Supervisor Portal

Nature’s Guide for Mentors and Nature Group Journals’ Mentoring collection

Science doesn’t have a specific mentoring portal, but its Careers section often has articles about mentoring.

US National Academies’ ‘ Advisor, Teacher, Model, Friend’ and ‘ Effective Mentoring in STEMM’(available for free download with registration)

Recruiting new students

The role of the supervisor

In the Department of Biology, the onus is on the supervisor to conduct recruitment. This is because (as a broad department) a majority of our students have chosen to work with a supervisor or on a topic, rather than applying to the department and subsequently identifying a project. Recruiting good students (especially Canadian students) is a challenge, and can take work. Some hints:

  • Respond promptly and enthusiastically to email (or other) contacts, and continue to engage.
  • Leverage your networks to identify potential students and reach out to them.
  • Attend national and regional conferences, present your work, advertise that you are recruiting (e.g. with a slide in your talk), and reach out to students who appear to be a good match. Asking any of your students who are attending conferences to help with recruitment can be an excellent strategy.
  • Even if you don’t have a super-specific project in mind, advertising for a position can help. Circulate advertisements to colleagues, and via your networks on social media (especially Twitter, which has an engaged scientific community). Put your position on the department website, and on the websites of appropriate national or international societies.
    • From experience, be specific about any constraints (e.g. whether or not you can consider international students), specific skill sets, and application deadlines.

If you identify a strong potential student, reach out to the Graduate Chair, who may help to identify recruitment bonuses from the Faculty of Science or other sources (providing a CV, transcript, and a brief blurb about why you want the student will help expedite this process). In addition, although the Department has strict minimum stipends, if you have the resources and feel that it may make a difference, feel free to offer more than the minimum stipend. Guaranteed attendance at conferences or promises for involvement in specific side projects, travel, lab visits, or field trips can also be excellent sweeteners. However, don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, or can’t follow through. In particular:

  • Don’t promise students external scholarships. By all means make the student aware of the opportunities to apply for scholarships, and assist them in their application.
  • Don’t promise that the student can transfer from the MSc to the PhD program. Feel free to make students aware of the possibility, but the time to make plans is after an MSc student has defended their proposal and proven themselves to be excellent.

Make sure you actually want the student. When you agree to supervise a graduate student, you are entering into a relationship that will last at least two years.

  • Be sure to conduct a skype, telephone, or in-person interview to make sure that you know the student reasonably well. If English is not their first language, this will help you to gauge their communication skills. For all students, it will help you to determine whether they have the qualities that will help them to fit in your lab.
  • If you have the opportunity to see them present at a conference, or to read their thesis or published papers, do so!
  • Check their references. Ideally, do this by telephone, Skype, or in person (people are often reluctant to put potential red flags in writing).

Some questions to ask yourself about a potential student

  • Does this student have the practical (e.g. bench, programming, or field) skills and experience I require in my lab? If they don’t, am I willing to invest the time and energy to help them acquire them?
    • Are the skills on their CV acquired through reading, part of a lab course or actual hands-on independent experience in a laboratory. Applications can be unintentionally misleading as the student tries to portrait a best possible image.
  • Does this student have the critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills I need in my lab? If not, am I confident that they will be able to gain them?
  • Does this student have the academic background I require for this project?
  • Does this student ‘fit’ my lab?
    • Is this the right time for these skills for your research program?
    • Does the student understand your expectations and supervisory style?
    • Do you understand the student’s goals for their program?
  • Do I have the resources necessary to support this student?
    • Do I have the money and space necessary?
    • Do I have the time to invest in this student?
    • Do I have access to the appropriate samples, data, equipment, or techniques?
    • If the student needs specialised training, can you provide it? Are you prepared to facilitate the student’s acquisition of the training? Including monetary support?

Assisting the student in their application

The Graduate program staff (currently Arzie Chant) will be pleased to help a student with the application procedures. If you are concerned that an application seems to be taking a long time to process, please follow up with staff - they might be able to identify and resolve issues with a student’s application. When requested by BGEC to provide information as part of the application process, please respond promptly.

Policy: Allocation of International PhD students to Biology faculty


  1. The department will strive to subsidise the first international PhD student in each lab, such that the cost to the PI is not substantially more than it is for a domestic student.
  2. No faculty member will normally supervise more than two International PhD students at one time. This includes both fundable and Year X international PhD students. If there is room in the Department’s allocation of international PhD students, the Graduate Chair may (at their discretion) allow a faculty member (nb: not cross-appointed or adjunct) to take on a maximum of one additional international PhD student. That student may apply to the program at any time, and must be considered exceptional by the BGEC members evaluating the application. This possibility will not be available to faculty who do not currently supervise any domestic PhD students.
  3. Because the department assumes the financial risk for graduate students in the case of lost grants or irreconcilable supervisor-student conflict, unsubsidised (i.e. above-cap, for which the supervisor would assume the full cost) additional international PhD students will not be considered.
  4. Students on apparently full scholarships (e.g. CSC, CONACYT) that require significant departmental subsidy, are also subject to these restrictions.
  5. An international PhD student co-supervised by a full-time regular faculty member counts as 0.5 for these calculations, except in the case where that co-supervised student is primarily in the laboratory of an adjunct or cross-appointed faculty member and the faculty member is a co-supervisor by virtue of the Department’s policy requiring a co-supervisor. In this case agreeing to co-supervise a student based at AAFC will not reduce a full time regular faculty member’s ability to recruit an international PhD student). No adjunct or cross-appointed faculty member will (co-) supervise more than two Biology international PhD students at a time.
  6. If a faculty member has more than one applicant for the international PhD places, they must provide BGEC with a ranked preference and this information may be used if there are insufficient resources. A faculty member may not support applications by students that will push them beyond the limits to numbers described above (e.g. a faculty member cannot support three applications to the program).
  7. When selecting acceptable international candidates, applications to labs that currently house no international PhD students may be ranked above those that do.
  8. International students currently in labs will be ‘grandfathered in’, but labs with two or more international PhD students will not be able to recruit additional international PhD students if that will bring the total number above two.
  9. When no caps on International PhD student enrolment are in place, restrictions on the distribution of International PhD students amongst Biology research groups will not apply.

Upon a student’s arrival

Orientation and settling in

  • Once accepted (and if applicable to your situation), contact Vicky Lightfoot as soon as possible regarding desk space for the student.
  • As far as possible help the student to find the resources they need for their move and for settling in. This can be a more significant investment for international students. Point them in direction of appropriate websites, University offices, etc. Often other students in the program of the same nationality can be helpful for helping the new student to navigate the process.
  • Make a clear invitation and plan to meet with the student on the first day on campus (or as close to that as is convenient for both of you). In this initial orientation meeting, please:
    • Discuss Health and Safety requirements
    • Identify the key people they need to contact to settle in to the lab and department. Facilitate introductions to these people.
    • Finalise arrangements and procedures for Space, Keys, and Access.
    • Discuss the timing and location of lab meetings, any communication policies and methods, and any other ‘rules of engagement’ for your lab.
    • Facilitate or conduct a lab/departmental tour.
  • Plan also to hold an initial meeting about the student’s project. This is usually separate from the orientation meeting, but will ideally happen in the first week or two. In this meeting, aim to:
    • Choose stream, advisory committee
    • Discuss graduate courses
    • Define the general scope and plans for project
      • Lay out a general timeline towards the proposal assessment
      • Begin to discuss initial and medium-term goals
      • Discuss reading, protocols, etc.
    • Discuss scholarships, awards etc.
    • Revisit expectations for work hours, attendance, timing, etc.
    • Contributions to lab maintenance, stocks, collections etc.
    • Make plans for regular meetings and communication

Graduate Student Research

The research environment

  • You are responsible for ensuring that the graduate students you supervise have a safe and healthy work environment, whether in the lab, at the computer, or in the field. Adhere to legal Health and Safety standards, and remain within the bounds of acceptable behaviour.
  • Provide lab-specific training
    • It is supervisor’s responsibility to train the student in the skills they need or to facilitate this training. Don’t rely on grad courses unless you plan to teach them yourself.
    • Be prepared to provide financial or time resources to facilitate this training, if necessary, or to coordinate training by other lab members or visits to other labs/institutions.
  • Provide appropriate resources
    • It is inappropriate to expect students to pay for reasonable research expenses out-of-pocket. This includes both field and lab work. Discuss the resources that are required, and be prepared to help students to identify alternatives if necessary.
    • If you expect students to conduct fieldwork, communicate the expectations clearly. In most cases, unless a student will be living at the field site for long enough that they will not be maintaining a residence in London (in practice, >6 months), you should at least subsidise their accommodation costs. If staying at a formal field station, it is normal for the supervisor to cover the costs of accommodation. Students have to eat wherever they are, so you may ask them to feed themselves, however, be cognizant of situations where doing so will be financially challenging (e.g. remote Northern communities) and be prepared to provide appropriate subsidy. In general, ensure that you communicate your expectations regarding living costs during fieldwork well in advance of the beginning of the field season.
    • Support and facilitate students’ access to additional space or resources that may be necessary. Do not expect access to other PI’s laboratories, and please model appropriate behaviour when seeking permission. Ensure that you remain in communication with ‘owners’ of other labs and facilities regarding costs of consumables.
    • If a student is not going to be able to TA because of fieldwork or other research requirements, discuss this with them early, and be prepared to buy them out of their TA duties if they don’t hold a scholarship. One solution can be for a student to TA in the summer in lieu of the Fall or Winter terms (you would pay their ‘summer’ stipend then), or to identify a TA opportunity that can be completed in a shorter period than the entire term. Both of these options need to be arranged well in advance with the BUEC people responsible for TA assignments.
  • Students are entitled to reasonable working conditions. While many students will need to work long hours from time to time – and many students choose to – it is not appropriate to *expect* them to do so.
    • An eight-hour work day is sufficient for most efficient students during most stages of their degree. It is important to communicate what that means (i.e. surfing the web at your desk for 8 h isn’t 8 h of work!), but it is not appropriate to count hours or demand excessive time investment. It is appropriate to expect students to invest some time out-of-business-hours (e.g. for experiments that run into weekends), but not appropriate to require students to be in the lab every day of the week.
    • Students are here to learn. They are to be expected to spend time reading in preparation for their studies, to catch up on material, to prepare for courses, TAing, and comprehensive exams. Students are expected to attend seminars, and to take advantage of career development opportunities and the general intellectual life of the campus (within reason). These activities are part of their normal activities, and count as time spent in the program. It is inappropriate to demand additional lab or research work to compensate for time students spend conducting these activities.
    • In addition to statutory and University holidays, students are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year. Communicate with them about appropriate timing etc., and your expectations for communication, but it is illegal to prevent it. There is no formal number of sick days, but it is not appropriate to expect students to use vacation days for medical absences.

Facilitating graduate research success

Graduate student success comes in many forms, and as a supervisor and mentor, you have some responsibility to help students be successful. From a graduate program perspective, successful students are those that finish on time, and both the MSc and PhD programs are structured to facilitate that. Your role in this is to guide students towards projects that can be completed in that timeframe, and to help them to meet their milestones. Students differ in what they can achieve and how challenging they find graduate school, but careful mentoring can help.

  • Help students to design experiments, identify and solve problems, and interpret data.
    • The supervisor is the primary teacher of these skills, and although students are expected to do these things independently, it is important to assist them in doing so. The advisory committee meetings should not be the only time you critically assess your students’ work and provide feedback and troubleshooting help.
  • Meet with students frequently
    • Numerous studies of successful mentors have identified face-to-face time as a key ingredient for the most successful mentors. It is up to you how you facilitate this, but expect to meet one-on-one with each student at least once per month at a minimum, and more often during project development, and the proposal and thesis writing stages. These meetings should be in addition to lab and advisory committee meetings.
  • Provide regular, fast, constructive, and specific feedback
    • SGPS has a rule that feedback must be provided to a student within two weeks – we would propose that a fixed timeline is not necessary, but that communication is of the essence.
    • Acknowledge receipt of written work from students, and communicate about when they may expect your feedback. An excellent strategy is to plan the timing for receiving and returning drafts in advance (and to communicate changes in that timing). This has the auxiliary benefit of setting informal deadlines for the student.
    • Feedback is a two-way street – it can help to establish rules and expectations with students about how to provide feedback.
    • Remember that students are students. Expect several (sometimes many) rounds of feedback on any written document. This is part of the process of being a mentor.
  • Successful students are engaged students.
    • Encourage (and allow) students to get involved in leadership and service activities in the Department and University. These activities are often the difference between successful and unsuccessful fellowship, scholarship, and award applications.
    • Many successful students engage in side projects – not always within your lab. Communication is key here: Be up-front about what lab resources can be used on this, and your expectations about authorship.
    • Guide the student to make sure that side activities don’t prevent progress on their core project – and their likelihood of an on-time completion.
  • Successful students attend conferences.
    • Help students identify appropriate meetings, and provide guidance on their preparation for conferences, and how to get the best experience. When at a conference, take the time to show the student around, guide appropriate people to their poster or presentation, and introduce the student to your network.
    • Be up front about what financial support you will provide. Different supervisors have different approaches to this financial support, and it is important to be up-front about what you expect. It isn’t unreasonable to expect students to invest at least something personally in conference attendance, but bear in mind that graduate students usually have limited financial resources. Some models for conference funding for graduate students from Biology:
      • Professor Moneybags pays for each of her students to attend one international and one domestic conference per year, covering all of their travel, accommodation, registration, and meals.
      • Professor Doeshisbest encourages his students to attend a national conference annually, and pays airfare, registration, and accommodation, but does not cover other expenses. Students may substitute two of these meetings for one international meeting.
      • Professor Budgetyourself provides each of her students with a budget of $1000 per year for conference attendance (i.e. $4000 for PhD students, $1000 for MSc), and allows them to budget that money among meetings as they choose, encouraging them to supplement this budget with applications for travel funds form department and other sources.
      • Professor Givesalittle will pay for accommodation and registration at any conference his students attend, but does not cover travel costs or expenses (although students can apply elsewhere for funds to support that).
      • Professor Oneisenough fully funds each student to attend one conference during their degree. Any additional attendance needs to be funded from other sources.
      • Professor Showmethemoney will match any travel awards students raise to attend conferences, but no more.
    • Support students in applications for travel funds etc. Help them to identify and understand opportunities.
    • You can’t stop a student attending a conference! You do need to discuss what and when it is appropriate to present, and authorship on those presentations. It is also inappropriate for students to present data at conferences without your knowledge, so communication is key.
  • Career development is key to student success, and an important responsibility of supervisors and mentors.
    • First and foremost, don’t impede students from attending career development events. PhD students at Western are required to participate in the Own Your Future program, and other opportunities will arise that students may wish to attend. Ideally, encourage attendance!
    • Discuss students’ career goals early, and provide advice and contacts as appropriate. If their goals are in a direction with which you are unfamiliar, help the student to identify appropriate networks, individuals, or opportunities to develop in that direction. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions or lay out uncomfortable truths about a student’s career goals, but at the same time it is not your job to crush their dreams!
    • Provide students with access to networks via introductions. This may be the most useful contribution you can make, particularly if they are aiming for academia.

Supervisor role in student progression

Supervisor’s role as facilitator

As a supervisor, you are not responsible for the student’s progression… but you are expected to facilitate it as best you can.

  • Remember that time can be of the essence for graduate students. Causing delays such that a student rolls into Year X, or rolls into another term, can have substantial tuition (and other) cost consequences. Clearly communicate your expectations, availability, and timelines, and be sure to meet your requirements to the graduate program promptly. Keep in mind that you incur some moral responsibility to provide financial support for a student if your (in)actions or unavailability force them into a position where they have to pay more tuition.
  • Students are responsible for meeting deadlines and milestones in their program. However, supervisors generally have considerably more experience in both the structure of the program and the timelines needed to succeed. Supervisors are expected to keep abreast of student progress, and provide timely reminders (e.g. about committee meetings) where necessary. Regularly review student progress to ensure that they have allowed adequate time to organise milestone meetings, assessments etc., and to allow you to provide adequate feedback.

Advisory Committee meetings

Help students prepare for advisory committee meetings. Discuss the student’s goals prior to the meeting, remain engaged, and informally chair the meeting (including ensuring that the report form is filled out and signed).

  • It is inappropriate for the supervisor to use the committee meeting as a venue to attack a student.
  • The student and supervisor should have discussed the student’s progress before hand such that the advisory committee meeting is not a substitute for student-supervisor interactions regarding quality and nature of data. Consider a practice run of a presentation, or a discussion about the questions a student might expect.
  • Remember that a lack of progress is a very good reason to hold an advisory committee meeting – not a reason to avoid it!
  • After the meeting, help the student parse the elements of the discussion and make adjustments to their research (/writing/defense) plans as needed.

Proposal Assessment

The proposal assessment is an important milestone for the student.

  • Provide discussion, feedback, and assistance with the structure, context, content, and timely completion of the written proposal. Remember that a student doesn’t necessarily (yet) understand the scope expected of a PhD or MSc project, and you are responsible for helping them to develop and appropriately-scaled and feasible proposal.
  • Provide feedback and advice to the student as they prepare for the proposal assessment. This includes the presentation, and approaches to the discussion component.
  • Remain engaged during the proposal assessment. You are expected to be the primary note taker (and to share those notes with the student afterwards). It is inappropriate to spend the time checking your email, reading other documents, etc.

MSc -> PhD transfer

The department now has rules about the process of transferring from the MSc to the PhD. Do not promise that a student can do this, because the process is out of your hands (by all means encourage students and facilitate the process). Please help students:

  • Assess whether a transfer is right for them. This opportunity is aimed at excellent students. A majority of students will benefit from completing their MSc before embarking on a PhD.
  • Interpret the rules and expectations for transfer. Note that the eligibility rules are non-negotiable.
  • Prepare their proposal and for the assessment.


Graduate students need to complete graduate courses (2 for MSc, 4 for PhD) as a requirement of their degree. It is not the supervisor’s role to dictate the courses a student should take, but it is appropriate for the supervisor and advisory committee to provide guidance.

  • Bear in mind the student’s needs and goals. It may be appropriate for them to take an apparently off-topic course, because that will provide them with an additional set of skills or experience of value to their career aspirations.
  • Grad courses can be useful to help a student develop the skills they need to complete their research. However, it is not obligatory for graduate courses to directly relate to a student’s research, and , as supervisor, you should be supportive (and even encouraging) of students who choose to take a broad range of courses.
  • Graduate coursework is not intended to be the main pathway students use to acquire specialist skills. If a student requires specialist skills for a project in your lab, you are expected to facilitate their acquisition of those skills.

Milestone committees

Organising milestone committee meetings is sometimes the biggest challenge students face. Be prepared to provide advice for students (especially starting out!) In general, students are responsible for setting up committees, but you should provide advice. Note that many supervisors arrange the MSc examination committee, and supervisors are required to arrange the PhD examination. The various roles in organising committees are elaborated in the table below.

Graduate Student Milestones
Milestone Organised by Supervisor responsibilities Notes
Advisory committee meetings Student Supervisor availability; deadlines
Proposal Assessment Student Make-up of committee Supervisor has a better understanding of conflicts of interest than student.
Comprehensive exam Student Supervisor availability. Matching with other research expectations and timing. Help to choose useful committee and topics. Provide introductions where necessary Aim for topic choice that challenges the student’s depth and breadth. Consider the student’s goals and what gaps they may have in their knowledge.
Thesis Reader Student/Supervisor/ Advisory committee Consider availability of committee members and potential conflicts of interest for exam This should be discussed at the final term meeting at the very latest.
Thesis defense - MSc Student Discuss potential members. Provide introductions or insight for University examiners.
Thesis defense - PhD Supervisor It is appropriate to discuss potential make-up with the student. It is not appropriate for the student to be the primary contact with the examiners.

The Thesis

The ultimate output for a graduate degree program is the thesis. For many students, it will be the most substantial piece of writing they have attempted, and all students require the cooperation, guidance, and mentorship of their supervisor to submit a strong thesis in a timely fashion.

  • Help the student choose the format of the thesis (MSc theses are often monographs, PhD theses in Biology are usually integrated article format). Assist the student in structuring the thesis, choosing the scope and detail for any general introductions and discussions, navigating the requirements for authorship statements and copyright permissions.
  • Be realistic about how long writing will take. Expect multiple rounds of revision, and remember that most students won’t write as efficiently as you do.
  • The thesis should be more-or-less perfect when it goes to the reader. It is inappropriate to expect a reader to have to conduct detailed copy editing, or to deal with an incomplete or poor-quality thesis. Although the thesis is the student’s responsibility, it is the supervisor’s responsibility to help the student to understand and attain the appropriate standard.
  • The thesis is not the same as a publication. Although it is often possible to write publications and the thesis simultaneously (especially in the integrated-article format), the completion of the thesis is the priority. It is inappropriate to delay submission of the thesis to force the student to complete manuscripts for submission for publication. The responsibility for turning the thesis into a publication (or publications) is shared between the student and the supervisor.
    • If the supervisor is tasked with overseeing revisions after a defense, the supervisor is expected to respect the recommendations and expectations of the committee, and provide appropriate turnaround and feedback for the student.

Other responsibilities within the Biology Graduate Program


There are two kinds of co-supervisor in the Biology Graduate Program (note that these differ subtly from the terminology used by SGPS – fear not, the Graduate Program staff are adept in SGPS-Biology translation for these purposes).

Joint supervision refers to a situation where there are two supervisors on a students’ project. Joint supervisors share all of the responsibilities of supervisors listed above, and are both expected to be in attendance at all student meetings and exams. It is generally useful to have regular meetings with both supervisors and the student to prevent miscommunication or conflict in priorities. The joint supervisors share financial responsibility for the student, unless otherwise arranged.

Co-supervisors usually take a more ‘back-seat’ role to a primary supervisor. The Biology graduate program requires co-supervisors for new graduate supervisors, for a majority of supervisors cross-appointed from departments outside of Biology, and for all Emeritus faculty and adjuncts based off-campus. This role does not absolve the co-supervisor from responsibility.

  • Co-supervisors are expected to be in regular (i.e. face to face meeting at least once per term) contact with the student to discuss progression.
  • Co-supervisors are required to attend all student meetings and exams.
  • The point of an on-campus co-supervisor is to make sure progression etc. meets departmental standards. Co-supervisors therefore need to take an active role in facilitating student progression in the program.
  • Co-supervisors share responsibility for ensuring that written documents, including the proposal and the thesis, are of a quality appropriate to the program. This responsibility is especially acute for the thesis, when the co-supervisor’s input substitutes for that of the reader. Thus, the co-supervisor also bears the responsibilities of the reader (below).

Advisory committee

Each graduate student has an advisory committee. The purpose of this committee is to provide advice on the project, and general oversight of the student’s progression. As a member of the advisory committee:

  • Respond promptly to meeting etc. requests, and be reliable in your attendance.
  • Be prepared and willing to provide critical advice on any aspect of a student’s progress, ranging from data to communication, to progression plans. Be honest if a student’s performance is unsatisfactory, or their goals too ambitious or modest.
  • Be prepared to meet with a student (and supervisor) outside of formal advisory committee meetings to provide additional advice, especially if you are on the committee because of specific skills or tools you bring to the table.
  • Have conversations about authorship expectations early on, and be aware that this may introduce conflict of interest that might make it inappropriate to act as an examiner or assessor. (In these cases, it is still appropriate to act as pre-submission thesis reader).

The Thesis Reader

Having a pre-submission thesis reader (the ‘reader’) is an important component of the thesis submission process that (ideally) allows us to maintain rigour, and ensure that students submit theses of sufficient quality.

  • The reader is not an editor or de facto supervisor. Readers are expected to read through a thesis once, and provide the student (and supervisor) with appropriate feedback at a useful level of detail. It is up to the student and supervisor to choose how to act on this feedback, and the reader is not held accountable for the quality of the thesis.
  • Be honest. If in your estimation a thesis does not meet the bar for submission, please record this on the form. A written record of such advice is important in the event that a thesis fails.
  • Two weeks is a reasonable maximum turnaround time for MSc theses, and three weeks for PhD. Ideally, communicate with student beforehand to set a deadline, and have the time available in your schedule. Communicate with a student about when they can expect to receive your response. It is inappropriate to agree to be a reader, and agree to a deadline/timing, and then renege on that.

Examiners and Assessors

Examiners and assessors are essential for maintaining the rigor and standards of the Biology Graduate program.

  • Judge students’ work objectively, not relative to other students, or with reference to whether they are nice (or not!), whether the supervisor is supportive of them, whether this will irritate the supervisor, or whether there are extraneous excuses for poor performance.
  • Keep the student’s level in mind – you can’t expect an MSc student to perform like a faculty member (nor should you find it acceptable for a PhD student to put in a performance appropriate for an undergraduate).
  • Don’t judge the student by their supervisor (and vice versa).
  • Strive to provide honest and constructive feedback.
  • Remain engaged in the process. You are expected to evaluate the student’s overall performance, not just their responses to your questions. Make sure you have read the thesis or proposal before submitting the assessment of the written document; do not spend time in the examination or assessment checking email or working on other tasks.

Examination/Assessment Chair

  • Be fair and effective. Bear in mind the faculty-student power imbalance.
  • Be engaged. You will need to summarise the exam and report on its outcome. It is inappropriate to spend time as chair checking email or working on other tasks.