An MSc and PhD are quite different both in terms of the length and the expectations placed on the students undergoing the program. First, let's just assume that the 'students' I reference below are hard working, want to be in their programs, and make an effort to be a good mentee.

Trying to put myself in the shoes of a supervisor, and all else equal, I would expect (in the general sense) more from my PhD students than I would from my masters students - although I recognize there are probably instances where supervisor expectations might be similar, but I doubt they would expect more of a MSc student than a PhD student.

What I am curious about is how a supervisor might approach their end of the student-supervisor relationship from a pedagogical point of view when the student is a PhD student in contrast to being an MSc student. For example, what values or attitudes might a PhD supervisor try to impart on their student that might not be warranted for an MSc student, or what type of expectations might a supervisor place on their PhD student that might not be appropriate to place on the MSc student?

I say pedagogically because I think the question can be answered without needing to reference a specific field. I'm not sure if it really matters or not, but if you think it does, one can use Canada-US as a place of context.

While some might view the question to be ambiguous, I think it is relevant enough for the forum because it can help shape a healthy student-advisor relationship.

  • It might/should be that the universities have some official document about the programs which says "The goals of the phd program are X" and "The goals of the master programs are Y". Then X and Y are the things you are looking for or am I misunderstanding your question?
    – user111388
    Jun 1, 2020 at 16:12
  • You appear to be asking two questions; pedagogy (how the teaching/instructing/mentoring is implemented) and outcome (what the desired ends are). The two are related as specific pedagogy can be more or less beneficial for various goals. Can you clarify if you are more interested in the potentially different pedagogy or the likely different desired outcomes?
    – Cardinal
    Jun 1, 2020 at 16:16
  • @Cardinal What I am asking is a combination of your comments. From your POV, what I would be asking is "how does the pedagogy of a supervisor achieve the desired outcome of producing a successful PhD student as opposed to a successful MSc student". Where success here would be defined as satisfactory completion of the program. Essentially, I want to understand supervision from the perspective of someone providing supervision, and how one provides supervision would differ ( I think ) on the class of student they have. Jun 1, 2020 at 17:00

2 Answers 2


I think that one of the largest differences between advisement of a PhD student and a MSc student is found in what the end goal of the degree in question is.

In my field (Math/CS), most MSc students are trying to augment their undergraduate education with a bit more experience and higher level topics. It is an extension of the undergraduate education. Yes, there is a research component, but that is not usually the main focus of the degree in my opinion. The focus is more on application of advanced concepts in an existing sphere of solutions.

On the other hand, a PhD student needs to learn to be an independent researcher. They need to be able to develop new and novel techniques, all with decreasing levels of guidance as they progress through the program.

Advisement of the respective degree programs would follow what I have outlined above. A MSc student should be aided in augmenting their existing knowledge; a PhD student should be guided towards independently led research.

  • I don't disagree with your answer. What I would hope you can maybe elaborate on a bit more (because this is what I am trying to get at) is how a supervisor might approach supervision when they are trying to guide their PhD students towards 'novel creation' as opposed to their MSc student who they are trying to guide towards 'novel application' of existing knowledge. I think your answer is provides a good skeleton, but could be additionally fruitful if you expanded just a bit further. Jun 1, 2020 at 17:05

I guess one way in which, traditionally, the pedagoy for a PhD student might differ from a master's student is, in some ways, the absence of formal pedagogy for PhD students.

I appraoch every supervisor-Phd student relationship as a unique relationship that will be a mutual process of discovery: what they need from me, and what I need from them. To a much larger extent, I expect PhD students to articulate to me what their goals are, and what I can do to help them achieve those goals. This is, of course, a two way process. I have goals that they can help me achieve and I need to learn with each student how best to articulate them.

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