Discussing expectations

Discover the implicit expectations that might come with the explicit

Your success has many factors, but one of the most important is the set of expectations that helps define your success. Some expectations are explicit, such as McGill policies and departmental policies. Other expectations are implicit; also known as unwritten or unspoken rules.  You should ask your supervisor and others in the department about the implicit expectations so that they can be defined and acted upon. Discuss these with your supervisor(s). One of the mutual benefits of discussing expectations is the avoidance of supervisory conflicts.


Comic courtesy of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com


Implicit expectations can include "politics, myths, history, and ethos" (Klomparens et al., 2008), as well as deadlines, your methods of communication, and responsibilities in the lab or as a teaching assistant. All of these are worth discussing with your supervisor, and potentially your department, because they are not official. Recent research suggest that implicit expectations should be discouraged in graduate education, and explicit expectations should be favoured, because the latter help to reduce attrition, time to completion, and supervisory conflicts.

However, not everything is up for discussion. Supervisors tend to expect you to be committed to the educational process, have integrity, work hard, make progress, and be a good citizen of the department (Barnes, 2010). Many of your degree requirements, for example, are typically set by departments and will not be modified for individual students. Some requirements, however, such as coursework or language requirements, can differ from student to student based on prior learning and experience.

To help set your expectations, McGill’s Regulations on Graduate Supervision recommends creating a letter of understanding with your supervisor ( see the GPS Letter of Understanding Framework). These letters can be revised annually. If you wish to view other examples from other institutions consider, Oxford's Memorandum of understanding (adapted from Otago University), Oxford's Sample agreement (adapted from the University of Western Ontario), The University of Saskatchewan's Graduate student - supervisor agreement.

McGill’s Responsibilities of the Academic Unit outlines expectations for supervisors and supervisees, as listed below.

Supervisors should

  • uphold and transmit the highest professional standards of research and scholarship;

  • provide guidance in all phases of the student’s research;

  • meet with their students regularly;

  • provide prompt feedback when work is submitted including drafts of the thesis, and; and

  • clarify expectations regarding collaborative work, authorship, publication and conference presentations.

Students should

  • inform themselves of program requirements and deadlines;

  • work within these deadlines;

  • communicate regularly with the supervisor and committee; and

  • submit progress reports to the supervisor and committee.


Students may find more information about their rights and responsibilities in relation to their supervisors in the Handbook on student rights and responsibilities.

What do I expect of my supervisor?

Expectations that are common for graduate students to want to clarify with their supervisors include: frequency and mode (i.e., email, phone) of communication; turnaround time for feedback; how involved your supervisor will be involved in your research; and to what extent they will help you publish, attend conferences, and develop your academic and professional skills.


When uncertain of what to expect, try considering both your perspective and your supervisor’s perspective.

  • What is in my best interest? What is in my supervisor’s best interest?

  • What is under my control? What is under my supervisor’s control?

  • How do my actions affect others? (e.g., my supervisor, peers, or department)

  • How do my supervisor’s actions affect me?

  • How are others likely to act given their histories?

  • What may I do to avoid negative outcomes?

(Klomparens et al., 2008)

Discussion vs. argument and negotiation

Discussions are not arguments or negotiations. The goal is not to apply power but to reveal what people need from their graduate programs, what they expect, and what options exist for avoiding conflicts. Differing expectations remain one of the main reasons for supervisory conflicts at McGill and elsewhere.


Comic courtesy of “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com


In McGill's 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys, differing expectations were the second most common explanation from supervisors of conflicts among supervisors and supervisees. Supervisees tended to blame supervisors for ambiguity in expectations. Regardless of who may be at fault, the conflict can be avoided partly through communication. Be sure to engage your supervisor in a discussion of expectations; if conflict arises, strive for negotiation rather than argument. The table below shows the difference between an argument, a discussion, and a negotiation.





When two or more parties present differing points in disagreement or opposition to one another, each party trying to persuade the other

Talking about a problem and exploring solutions together

A mutual discussion towards an agreement to solve a problem


Klomparens et al. (2008) observed that discussions about expectations in graduate education have a role in "mentoring; that is, a process that permits productive, principled discussion between faculty and their students, even when students are the subordinates in the power relationship" (p. 16). The ideal is "open discussion" (p. 67) that can reveal and determine the interests, expectations, and options involved in supervisory and student-department relationships.



2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Barnes, B. (2010). The nature of exemplary doctoral advisors' expectations and the way they may influence doctoral persistence. Journal of College Student Retention, 11(3), 323-343.

Klomparens, K. et al. (2008). Setting expectations and resolving conflicts in graduate education. Washington: Council of Graduate Schools.