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Clarifying expectations

Practical advice

Make a list of what you expect, then talk about it

Having different expectations is the most common cause of a troubled supervisory relationship. As such, supervisors and students should communicate their expectations in writing so that their expectations are clear. Once defined, expectations can be discussed and modified together. Both parties need to know what each expects of the other and what disagreements might exist. In cases of disagreement, try to reach a compromise, ask peers for their insights, or consider bringing in a co-supervisor. If the disagreement remains unresolved, consider whether or not you should continue to work with the supervisee.


According to Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies guidelines on Responsibilities of Academic Units:

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.


Strategies for clarifying mutual expectations

Complete an expectations questionnaire. The idea is that student and supervisor complete this questionnaire separately, then meet to discuss. The University of Oxford has questionnaires called Expectations in supervision and Clarifying expectations that can both be modified to suit your circumstances. One thing that works well is to leave a few blank items so that your students can add items that are important to them.

Create a set of guidelines to agree upon. McGill professor Bruce Shore's Mutual expectations regarding research supervision is a good example of clarifying expectations with students early in their studies. Another good example is McGill professor Tom Gleeson’s Guidelines for graduate students. In addition, the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies has, on its publications page, a template of a "Letter of Understanding for Advisors/Supervisors and Graduate Students."

Develop a letter of understanding. A Letter of Understanding is a tool to facilitate early conversations that can help avoid misunderstandings, conflicts, and bigger issues down the road. McGill’s Regulations on Graduate Student Supervision state that “A Letter of Understanding (LOU) is mandatory between Ph.D. students and their supervisor(s). GPS strongly recommends that units also implement an LOU for master’s students.” Your department and/or Faculty can provide you with an LOU template, and this framework from GPS provides a list of topics to discuss and revisit regularly.

Ideas for reflection

Who has the right to publish results of the supervisee's research?

This is a vexing question. Many supervisors believe that their guidance of a supervisee assures them of this right, but many supervisees believe that a claim to such a right is an abuse of power. Clarifying expectations often ensures that power differentials remain legitimate.


It is unlikely that a student will automatically understand the local research culture including the respective academic privileges and responsibilities of supervisors, students and faculty or department. Establishing a clear sense of these early in the process may help to ensure realistic expectations about "who does what and when." Consider explicitly asking the following questions to begin a discussion.

  • Who owns, and who may use under what conditions, empirical experimental data collected by the student?
  • In a team environment, what are the different roles of principal investigators, postdocs, and other members of the lab – as primary supervisor, co-supervisors, mentors, etc.?
  • Are there ideas developed in common, whether one-on-one or in a team, that should be understood to be co-owned?
  • What are the co-authorship procedures for any publications arising from work done by the student or by members of a research group?

If supervisors would rather not tell their supervisees that they intend to publish solely authored texts on the same research topics using results to which both parties contributed, then perhaps the reluctance to state the expectation is an indication of an ethical or moral dilemma. If the expectation can be expressed without reservation, it is likely to be fair, but even if it is disputable the supervisees can discuss the expectation or set limits to their participation in the research.

Consider as well that cultural factors and prior experiences can influence students' expectations (see Recognizing student diversity).

Research and evidence

Why supervisory expectations are sometimes ambiguous

Supervisors consistently agree with each other about expectations for their supervisees, but they do not consistently explain them to supervisees. One reason for the disparity appears to be that initial, mutual trust, which is usually positive, can lead people to accept undefined roles. Problems arising from the ambiguity can then harm the trust.


A positive student-supervisor relationship is an important factor in student success. Researchers suggest that one of the strongest predictors of degree completion is having expectations met within the student-supervisor relationship (Aspland, Edwards, O’Leary, & Ryan 1999; Barnes, 2010). Unfortunately, mutual expectations are rarely discussed explicitly and this can lead to unmet, unclear and unarticulated expectations. At McGill, the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys indicate that professors have good intentions and expectations but communicate them less often than might be ideal for avoiding problems.

Most supervisors and students enter the supervisory relationship with a sense of trust that the whole experience will be a positive one and that each party will do what is expected (usually undefined). Expectations can include the roles and responsibilities of both parties, expectations about the student's motivations for undertaking postgraduate research, and supervisors' reasons for undertaking supervision; these may be similar or different.

It has been suggested that supervisors and students, while having somewhat overlapping expectations of the other’s role, still hold a few different expectations (Aspland, et al., 1999; Barnes, 2010; Jazvac-Martek, 2009; Kiley, 2003).


From a supervisor's perspective, the student's role is to:

  • attend regular meetings with the supervisor;
  • be excited, committed, and engaged in their work;
  • be independent and take initiative in their work;
  • communicate openly and honestly about their work and progress;
  • submit written work to the supervisor regularly;
  • take notice of the supervisor's comments and feedback;
  • produce a research proposal within an appropriate timescale; and
  • have integrity and be a good citizen in the department.


From a student’s perspective, the supervisor is expected to:

  • be available;
  • structure meetings usefully;
  • read the student's work in advance of meetings;
  • be constructively critical;
  • be friendly, open, supportive, and encouraging;
  • have good knowledge of the research area;
  • show a keen interest in the research;
  • integrate and socialize students into the discipline; and
  • display an interest in the career prospects of students and assist them in their professional advancement.


The last five items highlight the importance to students of a supervisor’s intellectual investment in the student and their work. As long as trust is maintained on both sides, the relationship flourishes. However, when one or both members of the relationship break that trust - possibly unwittingly - the relationship can quickly become fraught with difficulty. At this point, options become reduced and can lead to ending the relationship by changing supervisors (which must be done through the formal mechanisms, to avoid any ambiguity with regard to responsibility). Ideally, ongoing review of respective expectations can help avoid such a circumstance developing.



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

Aspland, T., Edwards., H, O’Leary, J., & Ryan, Y. (1999). Tracking new directions in the evaluation of postgraduate supervision. Innovative Higher Education, 24(2), 127-147.

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.

Jazvac-Martek, M. (2009). Emerging academic identities: How Education PhD students experience the doctorate. (doctoral dissertation), McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.

Kiley, M. (2003). Conserver, strategist or transformer: The experiences of postgraduate student sojourners. Teaching in Higher Education 8(3), 345-356.

Further Reading

Gardner, S. (2009). Conceptualizing success in doctoral education: Perspectives of faculty in seven disciplines. The Review of Higher Education, 32(3), 383-406.

Green, H., & Powell, S. (2005). Doctoral study in contemporary higher education. Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press.

Lovitts, B. E. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

McAlpine, L., & McKinnon, M. (2012). Supervision–the most variable of variables: Student perspectives. Studies in Continuing Education, iFirst article, 1-16.

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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