How did you pitch your project to your prospective supervisor?:
There is a simple answer to this question: After class one day halfway through the second term of my third year, I walked up to the professor I was interested in working with, briefly explained my research goals and my academic career goals, and asked her if she had the availability and interest to be my thesis supervisor. I followed up with an email with a more descriptive explanation of my research interests, some references to backup my topic, explained why I felt like she would be a good fit as my supervisor (referring to some of her work) and I told her how much I would appreciate having her guidance throughout the thesis process. Although this process was straightforward in my case, there was a lot of reflection that came before I made the pitch: I had been thinking of my potential research topic throughout my undergrad, which I know is not the case for everyone in choosing a topic, but no matter what your starting point is I would suggest to do a really basic review of the literature before pitching an idea to the professor you are interested in working with. I was interested in environmental sociology topics, so I asked my professor for SOCI 420 – Environmental Sociology. Asking a professor I already had experience with through class made the process easier because while I was unsure if my desired supervisor would have the time to supervise me, I knew she would have the interest and a breadth of knowledge in my general area of interest, as well as a fairly similar worldview.
Ella Kim, Honours student, 2020-2021
The honours program gives you the opportunity to work and develop a relationship with a faculty member. At the start of my search for an honours thesis supervisor, I will admit the mere thought of approaching a faculty member left me feeling anxious and very intimidated. I was lucky enough to have approached a supervisor I was already familiar with as I was taking one of her classes at the time, which made me familiar with her background and previous research. This definitely made help ease my nerves when I first approached her to talk about the honours program and asked her to be my supervisor along with sharing my research topic.
Working with Dr Qian was a wonderful experience, despite most of our communication occurring over Zoom. She was such a supportive supervisor, who encouraged me and gave me advice on certain aspects of topics I was stuck on. During our meetings, it was wonderful to be able to have this relationship where I could bounce potential ideas and themes I wanted to explore, which made drafting an outline for my thesis easier. The honours program gave me this opportunity to develop this relationship with a faculty filled with mutual respect and trust, which not only fostered and fuelled my passion for my thesis but helped to push my intellectual boundaries and strive for more.
Nichole Goh, Honours student, 2020-2021
In the honours program, the supervisor is an essential tether to our project. Without their approval to aid and evaluate our amateurish attempts at a thesis, there would be no thesis. For this reason, particularly the evaluation part, there is a tendency for students to over-rely on their supervisors: to expect that they will be available at every crossroad in your thesis, and, even worse, to feel slighted when they are not. On the other extreme, this feeling of intrusion can lead some students to never reach out to their supervisor, to make decisions alone and be left to worriedly wonder whether it was the right choice, or to fail to make decisions at all out of uncertainty. As per the rhetorical (and hopefully sagacious) tendency of manuals, the prudent path between either extreme will be advocated. A successful supervisor relationship will involve mutual respect which clearly negotiates your needs with your supervisor’s availability.
Box 4.9 – Three Steps for a Healthy Relationship with Your Supervisor
- Reach out over email and schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Introduce yourself, your project, and get to know their work.
- Get to know their boundaries and agree upon your working relationship. Ask about their work schedule and figure out what work they are comfortable giving feedback on. Take this time to figure out which mode of communication is best for them.
- Thank your supervisor for their help and offer to help them with anything they may need. Be respectful of their time when they do go out of their way to help. Email when it seems they are more available and seek out alternatives at busy times of the year.
As supervisors have a ton of other responsibilities, they will tend to be less available for you as you would like. This fact also tends to make the process of even finding a supervisor a tough task. Often the student will have to respectfully conform to the working style of your supervisor, keeping in mind that they are doing you a favour by helping you to achieve a thesis. You should therefore go into honours with the expectation that most of your project will have to be figured out through the use of your own judgement in combination with resources such as this manual. This is not, however, the case with all supervisors. Some supervisors will expect you to complete parts of your research project on specific dates. They may even offer feedback and allocate time for asking questions.
Either style will attract different students. But what matters is that you are able to negotiate clearly with your supervisor in a style that works positively for both of you. It is your responsibility to initiate this process. As soon as your research project starts, we suggest sending an email, thanking them for their support and asking if there is a time you can meet to get to know one another and figure out a working strategy that is effective for them. If you think you will have a lot of questions, ask if you can bring them to your supervisor (depending on the answer, it may spare a lot of further question-asking). Likewise, figure out which times work for them and which communication methods are best. You should aim to establish boundaries early on, so that later, when you’re in the thick of it with deadlines, you can know when to rely on your supervisor and have the time to create other supports (like this manual) for the things you cannot expect of your supervisor.
After initial boundary-setting, make sure to offer to return the favour. If there is anything you can do to support your supervisor, they will likely be more willing to extend more support in return (however, this is not to say you should expect more support because you offered to help them). As in many healthy relationships, the attempt at reciprocity is key.
The next section is directed at tapping into peer support as a self-care strategy.