Conflicts between Student and Supervisor

Occasionally, the relationship between a student and supervisor can become challenging. Although currently there is not necessarily a formal public policy on how to deal with this situation, there are existing processes and procedures in place to help mitigate the situation, depending on the reason for the conflict. If a student has immediate concerns, he/she should contact the Associate Dean, Student Affairs in the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

In general, the first step that should be taken is for the student and supervisor to have an open and frank discussion about their concerns. Doing so is most desirable as tension between the parties might simply be a product of bad communication, making a potential conflict avoidable. If holding a discussion cannot resolve the situation, both students and supervisors may then proceed to follow a number of steps.

(a) For several different reasons, situations may arise where the student feels the need to seek help regarding his/her relationship with the supervisor. Such situations can include: incompatibility of research interests, work styles, or personality; funding issues (e.g. there are no longer funds to support the research); the supervisor is leaving the university, going on leave or sabbatical, and/or; the student decides to change their research topic.

In these types of situations where the student feels they must take action, he/she should speak first to their departmental supervisor (i.e. graduate supervisor), the chair or director of their department, and following this (if no resolution can be reached), the Dean of the Faculty as well as of the Department of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs.

In particular, the Department of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs notes that if it can be clearly shown that a supervisorial relationship has broken down or if the student and supervisor cannot agree on a suitable research topic, the student is permitted to seek a new supervisor (upon discussion with the departmental supervisor/chair and/or dean/associate dean, where needed), although it should be understood that a department cannot, in every circumstance, guarantee a suitable replacement.

If a conflict has arisen pertaining to whether or not the student can submit their thesis for examination, it should be noted that they are permitted to do so without supervisorial permission, so long as the work conforms to the guidelines and regulations laid down by the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, as well as of their own department.

In some situations, Ombuds Services may also be of help, as they act as a confidential and independent service that looks into matters when members of the university community do not believe they have been treated fairly.

(b) In situations where the supervisor has a dispute with his/her student, he/she also has recourse to take certain actions. If the supervisor finds the student is not displaying a reasonable effort, if he/she fails to heed advice on changes deemed essential, and/or if the student changes the agreed thesis topic without consent, the supervisor can terminate the supervisorial relationship. More information regarding this process can be found at Graduate Supervision.

Conflict between student and supervisor may also include issues and/or rights to of intellectual property. For these types of issues, refer to the sub-section “Conflicts over Intellectual Property“.