Skip to content

Starting your graduate research is an exciting time, and something that most of us have looked forward to since the moment we thought about the prospects of entering a graduate program. Graduate research, however, is confusing. Setting expectations with your advisor right off the bat is essential to a functional advisor-advisee dynamic. That is to say, though, that every advisor-advisee relationship looks different. Many of the ones that do not work out or turn toxic can be due to a mismatch of expectations between the student and the advisor. If you and your advisor are explicit about expectations this puts you at a great starting point to have a productive student-advisor relationship.

How do you begin these discussions? Do we as students have the power to address these issues, or is it up to the advisor to bring these up and set expectations? In an ideal world your advisor would be the one to walk you through this process, and in fact in most graduate handbooks there is a section on setting expectations when you first arrive, for example the one for WHOI can be found here. Many advisors, unfortunately, have little to no formal experience or training in mentorship and so do not have the tools or skills necessary to begin a structured conversation about expectations. Regardless, this conversation is expected in most programs to take place, which means this is something that you as a student can initiate.

Have conversations early and write everything down!

It is best to have this conversation as early as possible, and to make it as structured as possible. One of the best ways to come prepared for these discussions is to have a predetermined set of topics or questions with reasons for why those topics are helpful to you. This kind of document can be sent prior to the meeting with your advisor and can give your advisor time to think through their responses to the questions. Additionally, it provides a kind of “third party” with the document facilitating the conversation rather than either you or your advisor bringing up all the questions. Simply, say something like “Okay moving on to question 2 …” Here is an example of a pre-made document that you can use or modify to fit the specific dynamic between you and your advisor. Your department may have their own version of this kind of document which will be a great starting point to go off with your advisor.


How to set yourself up for success in these conversations

  1. Go in viewing it as a way of determining what kind of advisor you have and not trying to get your advisor to be the mentor you have in your head. Additionally, treat it as a way of formally defining the terms and dynamic of the relationship. This may mean that the version of the advisor from your first impression will change.
  2. Know that every advisor reacts differently. What you are trying to do here is match expectations with your advisor, which means you may have to compromise on some things that you were ideally looking for in your advisor. If your advisor is not equally compromising then this may be a larger issue, and keeping notes and sending recap emails at the end of the meeting can help you keep track of how the dynamic between you and your advisor evolves over time.
  3. Know that your advisor does not have to be the one-stop-shop for all your mentorship needs. If your advisor is not able to or not willing to give you what you need, then start asking other professors or older students for advice on classes, conferences to go to, or to help with a problem you encounter in your research. These are easy ways to start developing a relationship with other faculty members and finding a mentor elsewhere while staying with your advisor as your research point of contact.
  4. Know that your relationship and mentorship dynamic with your advisor will evolve over time. What you need in your first year is very different from what you will need in your final years. Revisit these conversations over time with your advisor and make sure to explicitly communicate your expectations along the way and give them opportunities to convey their expectations to you.

Advice and anecdotes from the twitterverse

When to know it’s not the right fit

These conversations are valuable in that they can show you the true nature of your advisor. Oftentimes, if you don’t have this conversation early you can “trick” yourself into thinking that your advisor is good for you when in fact the dynamic is unbalanced. Setting expectations can make you confront these issues head on … which is scary! But, it is better to address these potential issues earlier rather than four years down the line. If you leave a meeting like this feeling as if the advisor you have is not the same advisor you signed up for, you have options!

    1. Try seeing if you can find mentorship in other faculty members. See if there is a way that you could add a co-advisor.
    2. Follow up from your initial conversation with more targeted questions that address gaps that came up the first time around.
    3. Give it some time and see if you can work around the gaps in your professors' mentorship style. Oftentimes (even when your advisor is a great mentor) it is beneficial to have an extensive network of mentors that serve different roles in aiding your success. If you can find other professors, older grad students, or technicians to fill these gaps in your professor’s mentorship it may end up proving even more beneficial for your future career and building your network.
    4. Finally, sometimes advisee-advisor relationships are not meant to be. Discuss with the administration how to switch advisors. Switching advisors is a tough decision but can be the right choice for some. Go through all the steps above in trying to foster a fruitful advisor-advisee relationship and if the dynamic is still not working then you can feel confident in your decision to switch!

Oftentimes advisors are more than happy to have these concrete conversations about expectations, and often they are just not aware enough about mentorship to bring it up. So, they may be appreciative of you taking the initiative. All-in-all talking early, writing down everything, and keeping an open mind is a recipe for great success in creating a healthy and balanced advisor-advisee relationship!

Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #7

Learn more about Through the Porthole

Learn more about the MIT-WHOI Joint Program