During my graduate education, I had two great supervisors and never any problems with communicating our mutual expectations. Their PhDs in English literature certainly helped. But a PhD of any kind is no guarantee that communication will be good enough to prevent misunderstandings.
Although professors are often intelligent and articulate, their attention to communication is often directed outward instead of inward. They are busy experts called upon for critical opinions; they speak and people take note. And students who feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information they receive, and the high expectations of graduate education, sometimes stop listening so they can manage the stress. That’s a form of communication too—but not one that serves both sides.
I wonder: How would their supervisory relationships be different if students and their supervisors reflected more often on themselves as senders of messages, implicit and explicit?
When a supervisor tells a supervisee that the office door is always open, but the student discovers that the door is often shut, the supervisor is both sending a message and closing off communication. Maybe he or she was speaking metaphorically, or perhaps the supervisor spoke without thinking about how busy the term was becoming.
This sort of problem is not only the fault of supervisors. When a grad student goes AWOL for five weeks (not to imply too seriously that the supervisor is a drill sergeant), the message could be received as “I don’t care whether my supervisor knows I’m okay.”
Defining unambiguous expectations at the beginning of the supervisory relationship, especially the plan for communication, is a way to avoid problems. How often will you meet? When can you expect to get a response to an email? How will you talk when there is a sabbatical or holiday? Will the office door really be open, or only before the term’s frenzy starts?
McGill’s Supervision website has a research and evidence-based page on clarifying expectations that every supervisor of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers should read. The practical advice is simple: “Make a list of what you expect, then talk about it.” There’s a page on discussing expectations for supervisees too.
Internal research at McGill confirms that clarifying expectations about communication is important. The 2012-13 Supervisory Surveys sponsored by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies found, for example, that “around 95% of responding supervisors reported that they informed their supervisees about short and long-term commitments away from the university; in contrast, only 68% of supervisees said that their supervisors informed them about being away.”
I still remember the funny emails that one of my supervisors would send to me in Canada from Hungary, where he was living during a sabbatical—hilarious because the foreign keyboard didn’t always produce the alphabet as he intended. He had told me about his trip in advance and jokingly commented on the technological issues by asking me not to worry if his emails looked like swearing (#^@%!). I don’t think he was swearing. My supervisor worked hard to imagine how his messages might be received, and to take time with them, and he helped both of us in the process.
This kind of attention to communication can establish and preserve rewarding supervisory relationships.