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Graduate Supervisor Questionnaire

This Graduate Supervisor Questionnaire is intended to be a guide to help incoming students in finding out important information about essential characteristics of graduate studies, and identifying potential supervisors and research groups that will ensure the most beneficial partnership between all parties involved. This questionnaire is based on feedback received from current Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) graduate students at McMaster University, in particular, what they thought was important when choosing a supervisor, what they wish they asked before making a decision, and what advice they would give to incoming students. We believe that, after modifying some questions to reflect your particular area, these questions will be applicable to applicants to most of theresearch programs as well.

Overview

Choosing a graduate supervisor that best fits a student’s research interests is an important part of graduate work, but there are other aspects of supervision that are essential to the graduate student experience as well. The following questionnaire is intended to be a guide to help incoming students in finding out important information about essential characteristics of graduate studies, and identifying potential supervisors and research groups that will ensure the most beneficial partnership between all parties involved. This questionnaire is based on feedback received from current Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) graduate students at McMaster University, in particular, what they thought was important when choosing a supervisor, what they wish they asked before making a decision, and what advice they would give to incoming students.  We believe that, after modifying some questions to reflect your particular area, these questions will be applicable to applicants to most of the research programs as well.

 

When considering a particular program and a graduate supervisor, it is very important to gather as much information as possible before making your final decision. We highly recommend that after narrowing down your preferences you ask your potential supervisor to meet with you in person and have a tour of their lab.  If you haven’t studied at McMaster, it may be a good idea to spend some time on campus and get a feel of it and its surrounding areas. Check out the libraries, Athletic Center, McMaster University Student Center, places to eat, etc. Stop by at the program office and meet office staff: connecting names to faces will be beneficial for both parties. If possible, make it a day trip and see what Hamilton has to offer (a tip: a lot! It is a wonderful city and most key places are easily reached by public transportation). If you cannot come for a visit, arrange for a Skype meeting with your potential supervisor, or, at the very least, try to talk to them by phone. The following questions will help you find information about many important aspects of your future studies and succeed in your career as a graduate student.

Expectations and Supervisory Style

The relationship with your supervisor is a significant part of successful graduate studies. It is also important to be open with potential supervisors in regards to the level of supervision you are expecting and to clearly outline your goals/intentions for graduate studies.

  1. In your opinion, what kind of student will succeed in your lab?
  2. What are your expectations in regards to workload, number of hours worked per week, meeting frequency, etc.?
  3. How many other students would you consider taking at this time?
  4. How much time do you spend in the lab? (i.e. what is your availability?)
  5. How would you describe your mentoring style? (e.g. hands-on vs. laissez-faire)
  6. What is your preferred mode of communication (e.g. face-to-face, email, etc.)?
  7. If accepted, will I be working mostly individually or as a member of a team?
  8. Do you prefer to be involved in all stages of your students’ research projects (i.e. editing drafts versus just editing the final version)?
  9. Do you expect your students to have publications in order to complete their degree?
  10. How much will you be able to help in terms of developing my project or later revising it as necessary?
  11.  What kind of exposure will the project give me in terms of common techniques and more specialized techniques, etc.?

Current Lab Members

Some of the most valuable information about a potential supervisor is acquired through speaking with current lab members. Many graduate students agree that current lab members are quite candid about their experiences and opinions of the lab and the supervisor(s). By speaking with the lab members you will also get a sense of the dynamics within the group, the different areas of expertise and techniques that other members bring to the team, and what your role within the research team might be. Also, some supervisors put a lot of consideration into feedback received from the lab group when making a final decision on the successful candidate.

  1.  How many students are currently in the lab? 
  2. Are there Post Docs, research assistants or technicians in the lab?
  3. What is the turnaround time for the supervisor to edit documents (i.e. abstracts, committee reports, and thesis)?
  4. Does the supervisor travel often or have other significant responsibilities? If so, is there someone in their place to assist students, when needed?
  5.  How does training of skills take place in the lab? (Am I expected to develop these skills myself or is there a mentoring/training system in place for new skill acquisition?)
  6. Could you describe the overall atmosphere in the lab?

Funding

The size and funding status of a supervisor’s lab can give some indication to incoming students as to how productive and well-established the lab is. At the same time you have to keep in mind that having a supervisor who is not fully established yet, but is a faculty member at the beginning of their academic career and a highly motivated individual, could be very beneficial to your progress as a graduate student. Also there is a large number of well-established and highly regarded researchers that may not have large lab operations or a large number of students at any given time.

Potential questions to ask are:

  1. What grants is your lab supported by?
  2. How many of your students have external funding?

Also, it is a good idea to apply for external scholarships, such as CIHR, NSERC, OGS, etc., as many supervisors will be more willing to accept a student they do not have to pay out of their own research fund. This will increase the number of supervisors willing to hire you and also provide you with more options. Usually, there scholarship opportunities are listed on the Graduate Studies or the program websites. You may want to give a call to your program office and inquire about the details of which scholarships you can apply for as a potential new student (after checking the websites first). Keep in mind that the deadlines are usually very early.

Opportunities for Training/Advancement

It is important to keep in mind your future career and academic goals and looking for a supervisor that can help you to achieve these goals is crucial.  Ask questions that will give you a better sense of what opportunities might be available to you (e.g. opportunities to network, learn new techniques, etc.), and also what opportunities you will have to develop your written and oral presentation skills (e.g. publications, conferences, etc.).

Note that information about publications can be found on PubMed and you may want to do some research in advance before talking to your potential supervisor. You should be able to find out how many papers the lab published recently and in the last five years, and then ask question to clarify the situation further.

  1. How many students have you successfully supervised in the past? Where have your previous students gone when they finished their degrees (e.g. PhD, Post Doc, Medical School, industry, etc.)? 
  2. Will the project lead to publications?
  3. How do you determine authorship on publications? Do junior researchers (MSc, for example) in your lab often obtain first author publications?
  4. Are there opportunities to participate in conferences?
  5. Are there any opportunities for collaborations within the lab that could lead to co-authorship publications?  Are there other collaborative opportunities (e.g. departmental/national/international)?

You should consider all the answers as a whole and not in isolation, and aim for trying to find the best match for your particular needs and style, just as all faculty members are looking for the best matches for their labs and teams (there is no “one size fits all”)

Download & Feedback

Hope you will find this information helpful. We wish you all the best in finding a program and a supervisor that will be a great match to your skills, personality and assist you in your career goals and aspirations, and Good Luck!  

Feedback regarding this document is welcomed at hsgs@mcmaster.ca