Finding a Supervisor

Congratulations! You have been admitted to Graduate Studies in Physiology.  Now you have to find a Supervisor who will guarantee your stipend and provide the support for your research.  Physiology is a broad subject and you first have to decide which aspect of Physiology you wish to study.  This will streamline your search to one of the Research Platforms in the Department. These platforms can be found on the Physiology website here.  Within each platform there are many professors who direct research within their own fairly narrow fields. Study these fields carefully and read a review paper on each one that may attract your interest. Even better, do a Medicine/PubMed search on each professor’s recent publications and try to look through the abstracts and introductions of the papers.  You may not be able to understand a lot of it, but the main ideas should be clear.

Next, contact a Professor.  Remember, this is your first impression and it should be taken seriously – you are competing with many other students, often for a single spot in the lab.  Do not send form letters; address the Professor appropriately.  Attach a CV or resume and a transcript to the email, so that the Professor can get a good idea of your background in science. Give reasons why you are interested in his/her field, and how you see yourself fitting in a given research program. Most important – in your letter state what your long term goals are and be honest.  If you plan to go to a professional school then say so up front.

Make sure that you pay attention to your writing and grammar – this should be considered an application for a job that requires good writing skills. Please do not hesitate to contact professors if you are particularly interested in their research. If a reply is favourable, you should schedule an interview or a telephone call as soon as possible. The Professor will respond by giving you a rough idea what your project will be, and you should do more research on that subject to make sure that you understand what will the project involve.

During the interview ask questions about the research subject and the organization of the laboratory. Laboratories belonging to individual professors differ widely in size from 3 to 20 members!  This will greatly influence the lab atmosphere and how you will learn and contribute.  Some professors supervise students daily and spend lot of time in the lab, others have separate offices and attend lab meetings only once a week or so. One size does not fit all so make sure you are comfortable with the arrangement.

You will be getting most of the technical instructions from other lab members, such as technicians, fellow students, or post-doctoral fellows.  Make sure you are comfortable with a particular arrangement before you decide on a particular lab.  It is a good idea to talk to lab members individually or contact them by email. Ask a prospective Supervisor for email addresses and/or names of some of the lab members.  Suggestions for questions you might wish to ask the lab members are given below.

Be very thorough in choosing a Supervisor.  Once a decision is made, you should make every effort to do your best to succeed in this environment.  If there are serious problems, it is your responsibility to find another Supervisor who is willing to take you into their lab.  Switching supervisors in mid-stream is very difficult, and can only be done following serious consideration of the issues confronting the Supervisor and Student.

Read the supervisor/student agreement carefully before signing.  Each supervisor will have additional lab rules that must be respected.  Be reasonable in your demands on your supervisor, be aware of what is the norm, and discuss any problems that you see arising.

Early in the program you will be asked to assemble a committee, consisting of at least 2 other Professors, who will advise you in your studies.  Choosing your committee is very important, since these are the people that will help to guide you during your entire degree program (which can last 2-6 years) and who will serve as your contacts in case problems arise in the lab or in your research program. Please be sure that the members of the committee are committed to the required meetings.  Discuss with your Supervisor if the suggested members are too busy with other obligations to find time to meet on a regular basis (normally 2-3 times per year).  The Graduate Coordinators and your Graduate Studies Administrative Assistant in the Department are also available to give advice. Never let problems fester. Be vigilant and proactive.  Regular committee meetings, 2 or 3 times a year, are a perfect forum to discuss issues that may arise.  Pay attention to departmental notices distributed by email. These may address common problems that frequently arise during graduate studies.

Questions you may wish to ask of the lab members in a potential laboratory:

  • Overall, do you feel that s/he is understanding if you are "new" at something and are unclear how to do certain things?

  • Do you feel s/he makes enough time for her students, and will s/he available be on a regular basis for me to ask questions?

  • On that note, if s/he is mostly unavailable, are the others in the lab generally very open and accepting of questions regarding protocols, new techniques, etc.?

  • Is s/he the type of person that would say for example - "go find out yourself and tell me" or "come into my office and let me explain", or does s/he use a combination of both approaches?

  • Do you feel s/he is very motivated to publish, i.e. what is the publication record for his/her graduate students?

  • Does the lab have adequate equipment for the projects that most of his/her graduate students undertake?

  • Are extracurricular activities allowed? What about participation in graduate student association (GASP) activities or attendance at scientific meetings?

  • Overall, do you enjoy working with him/her?

  • Does s/he give you the independence to do your own thing, or does s/he want to be involved in every step and know every detail?

  • Finally, how is life as a graduate student in the department - is it a good productive place to be? Will there be opportunities for me to meet other graduate students, both academically and socially?


You must be formally accepted by a supervisor before you will be permitted to register.
Supervisory arrangements can be finalized only after your official acceptance for admission by the Department of Physiology and the School of Graduate Studies.
If you are accepted for admission before you find a supervisor, you will be granted a conditional acceptance, which will be cleared when a GEMS Student/Supervisor Agreement, signed by you and your supervisor, has been approved by the Graduate Coordinator.