Quick Links

Clarifying expectations

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

Because different expectations are known to lead to troubled supervisory relationships, supervisors and students should communicate their expectations in writing so that the expectations are definite. When they have been defined, they 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, or consider parting ways.

According to McGill’s Guidelines and regulations for academic units on graduate student advising and supervision, 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.

And 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.

A few strategies that have proved to be useful in clarifying mutual expectations are:

  • Completing 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 [.pdf] and Clarifying expectations [.pdf] 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.
  • Creating a set of guidelines to agree upon. McGill professor Bruce Shore's Mutual expectations regarding research supervision [.docx] 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 [.pdf]. 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." 
  • Developing a memorandum of understanding. This would be different for each student, and can be revised annually. There are a range of ways in which these can be structured:
  • Using the Student profile proforma [.pdf]. This tool can help students to plot their progression through the experience of supervision through regular discussions with supervisors (see Aspland et al, 1999 for the source of this tool).

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. Different cultural attitudes to power might lead to different answers to this question. Clarifying expectations often ensures that power differentials remain legitimate.

She's the perfect supervisor because she's the one who keeps you on track. She's the one who encourages you in what you are doing, makes sure you know what is expected of you at all times. And…if I were to ask her a question about anything, I know she’d respond to me and she’d help me. (Jazvac-Martek, 2008, p.94)

This student had a positive supervisory relationship because she knew what her supervisor expected of her and what she could expect of her supervisor. Understanding each other’s expectations, ideally at the beginning of graduate and postdoctoral study, is the foundation of a robust supervisory relationship.

It is unlikely that a student will automatically understand the local research culture, so explanation of some of the underlying assumptions may be needed at an early stage to avoid misunderstandings or, indeed, problems. For example, implicit ideas about the following may need to be made explicit:

  • 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, post-docs, 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 will happen about co-authorship of 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.

There may also be a lack of clarity surrounding the respective academic responsibilities of supervisors, students and faculty or department. Establishing a clear sense of these early in the doctoral process may help to ensure realistic expectations about "who does what and when."

Consider as well that international students' expectations may differ in certain ways from those of some of their peers. Some cultures, such as African and Asian ones, may not be used to the rigid way Western culture is dominated by the twenty-four hour day and seven day week in which work activities and leisure are firmly structured. 

Consequently, international students can be surprised to discover that:

  • Time is not as flexible as they had previously experienced;
  • Lack of punctuality is regarded as inappropriate, sometimes insulting;
  • Duration of discussions may be quite strictly managed;
  • Unannounced visits may be unacceptable.

In addition, a range of other cultural factors and prior experiences can influence students' expectations (see Recognizing student diversity).

Why supervisory expectations are sometimes ambiguous

Supervisors consistently agree with each other about expectations for their supervisees, but they do not consistently explain or otherwise declare them to supervisees. One reason for the disparity appears to be that initial, mutual trust, which in 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. Research suggests that one of the strongest predictors of degree completion is having expectations met within the student-supervisor relationship. Unfortunately, mutual expectations are rarely discussed explicitly and this can lead to unmet, unclear and unarticulated expectations.

Barnes (2010) studied supervisors' expectations of students and found five themes. Students are expected to

  • be committed to the doctoral process;
  • have integrity;
  • work hard;
  • make progress; and
  • be good citizens of the department.

What was unclear was the degree to which supervisors had actually made these expectations clear to their students. At McGill, the 2012-13 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.

Other work has suggested that supervisors and students, while having somewhat overlapping expectations of the other’s role, still hold a few different ones.

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

  • attend regular meetings with the supervisor;
  • submit written work to the supervisor regularly;
  • take notice of the supervisor's comments and feedback;
  • produce a research proposal within an appropriate timescale.

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 and supportive;
  • have good knowledge of the research area;
  • show a keen interest in the research;
  • display an interest in the career prospects of students.

The last five items highlight the importance to students of intellectual investment in them 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.

The text of this page was based on:

  • 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.
  • Aspland, T, Edwards, H, O’Leary, J and 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. 
  • 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. and Powell, S. (2005). Doctoral study in contemporary higher education. Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press.
  • Jazvac-Martek, M. (2008). Emerging academic identities: How Education PhD students experience the doctorate. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. 
  • Kearns, H., Gardner, M., & Marshall, K. (2008). Innovation in PhD completion: The hardy shall succeed (and be happy!). Higher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 77-89.
  • Kiley, M. (2003). Conserver, strategist or transformer: The experiences of postgraduate student sojourners. Teaching in Higher Education 8(3),345-356.
  • McAlpine, L., & McKinnon, M. (2012). Supervision – the most variable of variables: Student perspectives. Studies in Continuing Education, iFirst article, 1-16.

Regulations and guidance about expectations

The official expectations for supervision at McGill are stated in the Guidelines and regulations for academic units on graduate student advising and supervision, a document ratified by the Council of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (formerly known as the Council of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research).

Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) often has workshops on aspects of the supervisory relationship, including expectations.

Acknowledgement: original content prepared by Margaret Kiley and Gerlese Akerlind, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2012. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Shuhua Chen and Joel Deshaye, February 2013.