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How to Communicate with Your PhD Advisor

In my time as a university professor, I’ve listened to hundreds of students expressing frustration about their relationships with their doctoral advisors.

Whether the issue is lack of support, unclear explanations about expectations and requirements, or simply a lack of rapport, the underlying cause is nearly always communication failure.

You can’t do much to change your dissertation advisor’s training in communications, but there are a number of things you can do to improve your own communication and, by doing so, help your advisor communicate more effectively with you.

Know Yourself

Before you begin working with a PhD advisor, it’s worth getting to know your own working preferences and needs.

For example, do you like hard deadlines and “tough love” to get work done, or do you need soft deadlines and flexibility to help you manage a busy personal schedule? Do you like lengthy explanations, or do you hate the pressure of someone constantly checking up on you?

You need to know these things about yourself so that you can communicate them clearly to your advisor. Working them out in advance will enable you to communicate them up front to your prospective advisor, helping you both decide if your working practices are compatible.

Be Prepared

Preparation is also key to good communication once you have established a working relationship with a PhD advisor.

Because your advisor has a number of responsibilities beyond supervising your work (and is almost certainly insanely busy), you want to make the most of any face-to-face meetings by determining what you want to get out of them and emailing your work and your list of objectives for the meeting to your advisor beforehand.

This early communication will help your advisor address your concerns and needs effectively, helping your meetings run more smoothly. They will also appreciate your efficiency – and appreciation is a good way to start building a positive working relationship.

Set Goals

One of the hardest aspects of a graduate degree is the level of independence expected of students – but you can work with your PhD advisor to become more effective at self-management.

Remember that your advisor’s role is that of “guide,” not “teacher” or “disciplinarian.” Work with your advisor to set goals for your work – both long-term and short-term – that meet your schedule needs and draw on your advisor’s experience of managing an academic project. Listen to their advice about how long a particular task will take or what level of effort will be needed from you to meet your goals, but don’t expect them to tell you what to do.

Finally, it helps to agree a timeline with your advisor for regular progress checks, so they know you are not expecting them to chase you for work.

Be Respectful

Regular progress meetings and well-articulated goals are not much use if you do not stick to them. Your PhD advisor is there to support you, and you can make the most of them as a resource by respecting the time they set aside for you.

Remember that it’s not your PhD advisor’s job to tell you what to do, make you do your work, or manage your project. These actions are a waste of their time and experience – both of which you are paying to access.

Instead, take the initiative to attend meetings with work completed, send weekly or biweekly check-ins via email so your advisor knows you are working towards your goals, and be clear and specific about your needs, so your advisor knows how to help you. In turn, they will spend less time “housekeeping” and more time helping you progress your project.

See Things in Perspective

As a final note, when things don’t go as planned, it’s worth taking a step back and a few deep breaths.

Try to see things from your advisor’s perspective, especially when you are hearing things you don’t agree with or don’t want to hear. Remember they have experience, but it is not the same as your experience. Try and identify how much of your reaction is based on emotional responses, such as anger or frustration, and how these can be addressed. It may be that your advisor’s advice, though unwelcome, is really intended to help you – if so, try to learn and move on.

(Of course, if you have experienced inappropriate behavior or comments, these should always be reported, so make sure you are aware of your institutions policies and reporting procedures.)

Even the best PhD advisors sometimes do not have the time or resources to offer the level of support you need. If you need an extra helping hand, coaching might be the right path for you. Find out more by signing up for a free consultation.