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Discussing expectations

Unpack implicit expectations with a Letter of Understanding

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. The conversation you and your supervisor when working on a letter of understanding helps you unpack one another's implicit expectations about how you will work together and turn those implicit expectations into explicit ones by writing them down and storing them in a place where you can both refer back to them as needed.  


Two people look at a computer screen. One person is pointing out something to the second person on that screen.


Make implicit expectations explicit

Explicit expectations help to reduce attrition, time to completion, and supervisory conflicts.

  • Explicit expectations are expectations that are clear and concrete to both students and supervisors (e.g., an official McGill policy).
  • Implicit expectations, on the other hand, are the unspoken, unofficial expectations shaped by our experiences, perspectives, and values (e.g., At McGill, students will typically address their course instructor as “Professor” until explicitly instructed otherwise). 

When you start a graduate program, especially if you are starting at a new university or in a new country, it can take some time to learn how to navigate the unofficial or unspoken “rules” of your program. Your supervisor, who has likely been at the institution for longer than you have, might not realize or remember all of the unspoken rules they had to learn when they first arrived. You may arrive with a set of unspoken expectations and assumptions based on how things worked at a previous school, in a previous research lab, or with a different supervisor, and only realize you had these expectations when something unexpected happens.


Get it in writing : a Letter of Understanding establishes mutual expectations

To bring implicit expectations to the surface, discuss expectations with your supervisor directly, early on in your program.

Take notes during this discussion and review those notes with your supervisor to check that you both share the same understanding of what you’re each expected to do. By the end of this process, you’ll have a Letter of Understanding that you and your supervisor can both refer back to when you need to re-clarify or modify an expectation down the road.

If you are a PhD student, you will be required to upload a record of this conversation to myProgress to satisfy the Letter of Understanding milestone. A template will be available from your department to guide you through the conversation. Most Letter of Understanding templates recommend discussing the following questions:

  • How often will you and your supervisor meet? Who will set up the meetings?
  • How will you communicate between meetings?
  • What can you expect in terms of feedback (e.g., how often, turnaround times)
  • What support is available for your professional development? (e.g., conferences, workshops)
  • What will your research responsibilities be? (e.g., working hours, hours in a lab, lab etiquette, safety training, etc.)
  • Will there be opportunities to co-author research? If so, what is your supervisor’s policy on authorship? What is their policy on intellectual property and data ownership?

All of these are worth discussing with your supervisor because starting with clear expectations can help you build a strong supervisory relationship that avoids misunderstandings or unmet expectations down the road.

This comic strip from Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Chan highlights a conversation between a student and a supervisor. Supervisor: "I think you will be ready for the next step in your degree completion in the coming months" Student: "Can you be more specific?" Supervisor: "In the next year." Student: "That's not very specific" Supervisor: "Let's say the spring term" Student: "Can you give me an exact date?" Supervisor: "June." Student, writing it down in a notebook: "OK, that's" Supervisor interjects: "Plus or Minus Six Months"

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


Know your responsibilities as well as your supervisor’s responsibilities

Not everything is up for discussion in a supervisory relationship. 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 recommend creating a letter of understanding with your supervisor. These letters can be revised annually.

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; 

  • 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 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.

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.



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.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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