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The relationship between students and supervisors is often described through an oversimplified dichotomy: it’s ideal or it’s tumultuous. As former graduate academic and career advisers, we’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of graduate students whose experiences confirm that the most students and supervisors are somewhere between these extremes. Beyond our distinct scopes of advising, we’ve discovered a bundle of strategies that can be applied in both the academic and career spaces. In this piece, we offer our tried and tested ways of working with graduate supervisors, which translate beautifully across academic and professional domains.
One of our shared observations is that grad school can feel like an intensely personal experience, especially as you may be pursuing a niche area or novel contribution, or carrying the weight of pressures or expectations from your family, community or employer. In many of those situations, students share that they truly benefit from turning toward techniques and strategies that strengthen the integrity and process of working with a supervisor. Grad school is challenging by design, but ideally those challenges involve pushing into new areas of learning, skill development and exploration rather than difficult interactions with a supervisor.
First and foremost, we encourage you to know yourself, tap into your strengths and reflect on how your experiences up until grad school can inform a way forward with your supervisor. We simultaneously recognize that North American universities have much work yet to do in supporting an equitable and inclusive learning and mentorship environment. Ideally, work is happening at all levels in your institution to support the best possible experiences for graduate students and supervisors.
Our recommendations span three broad themes and respond to some of the most common areas of advising with graduate students. In each theme, you’ll notice that a focus on strategies improves the experience in both academic and career spaces. Depending on your career stage, you may read the tips for working with a supervisor and then gain some insights into how they’ll serve you beyond grad school, or you may read the career advice and find that it jogs your recollection and sense that you already possess many versatile skills that you can deploy in your work with a supervisor. Consider these ideas, and then adapt and calibrate them to your context and situation.
Starting Strong: Getting to Know a Supervisor
In the process of unpacking a challenging situation with their supervisor, many students remark that the first inkling or hint of an issue appeared during early conversations—often during a video or phone interview or perhaps due to a lack of a call or interview. Those red flags may have materialized through conversational dynamics (being interrupted, difficulty relating, lack of active listening), substantive topics (ambiguity around the potential research projects or areas), or a description of the research environment (unrealistic expectations or uncomfortable norms in the space).
I recall a student sharing that their research interests didn’t prompt any questions or conversation with a prospective supervisor, but they were assured of the availability of funds and related projects. It is extremely valuable to be aware of your deal breakers at this stage: What things signal to you that this may not be the right supervisor or program? If you are at the stage of approaching a prospective supervisor, consider asking questions about their mentorship style or their routine approach to supporting students.
And keep in mind that many things change from one stage or milestone to the next during a grad program. Your supervisor may be relatively hands-off while you are deep in coursework or fieldwork, yet you may be more frequently in touch or seeking feedback at other times (e.g., as you approach your candidacy exams or prepare to submit your thesis to a committee). Any questions or expectations you establish at the start can be revisited and recalibrated to the demands and realities of each stage of the program. In the academic space, strong supervisors have shared that they appreciate the dynamism of adapting their approach to each student and checking in to adjust or correct course along the way.
Similarly, as you enter a new workplace, it is essential to get to know your new manager. This individual is, in many cases, your first contact for asking questions, understanding workplace culture and navigating challenges, unspoken rules and opportunities. Engaging in this relationship with care is a vital and integral part of professional success. Asking probing questions for clarity early on can set you up for success and build credibility. Many managers, similar to your graduate supervisor, juggle multiple priorities. Asking about those priorities and how your new role connects and contributes to them can provide insights into how you navigate your first few months. You should also explicitly discuss expectations and goals.
Such dialogues will safeguard you from veering off course in accomplishing your tasks and duties, as well as contribute to building trust. One of my graduate students, who became a top performer at their workplace, attributed their success to the skills gained during grad school. Specifically, they commented on those skills developed through managing a challenging yet successful supervisory mentorship relationship. Understanding each other’s communication and leadership styles can provide deep insight.
This conversation is not the most intuitive, as it requires both people to self-reflect. Asking questions such as, “How would you describe your management or leadership style?” or “What would be helpful for me to be aware of as it relates to our communications?” and reflecting on the answers through the lens of your own style can go a long way. It will allow insights into what might work and what might not. Some managers like structure and to manage a tight ship, while others provide lots of freedom. Most fall somewhere in between. These reflective dialogues can contribute to a great start to your relationship and help temper any future misunderstandings.
Supervisors, Mentors, Sponsors: Your Advisory Circle
Occasionally, a graduate adviser will be an academic mentor, a perfect pedagogical and epistemological fit—someone who champions your interests and amplifies your successes. In most situations, however, supervisors will offer some combination of research expertise, supervisory skills to support your progression through program requirements, warm and responsive mentorship, and a willingness to tap resources and networks to bring visibility and celebration to your accomplishments.
Students often feel best supported when they are able to leverage the full might of a supervisory committee or to have mentors beyond their formal supervisor with whom they may discuss interests, career ideas and the like. For instance, your supervisor should provide excellent guidance on your project and thesis writing, but they may not have experience in your intended career field. Consider asking your supervisor: Who else should be in my corner? With whom would you recommend I touch base about X, Y, Z during my time here? Accessing a diverse group of mentors within and beyond an institution can truly enrich your professional and intellectual opportunities.
Mentorship is also crucial for personal and professional growth and development. As a new employee, you could be navigating a whole new workplace culture, politics and unspoken rules. A mentor can help you navigate those spaces and set you up for success. When starting a new role, asking your manager about their approach to mentorship and the possibility of being connected to other seasoned professionals, as mentors in the workplace can be a potent tool.
Mentorship can come in many forms. Some mentors are masters of their craft, and they can give you a deep understanding of the specifics of a role. Like your academic supervisor, they may have honed these skills over years of experience and can guide you to achieving success. Other mentors can be champions for you. They will open doors and act as sponsors for your work and career advancement. They will show care and interest in how you succeed and may even pave the way. Finally, there are mentors that act as anchors and ground you in your work. They provide sage advice, act as sounding boards and provide coaching when you are navigating challenging situations at work. Cultivating networks of mentors early on in your graduate degree or in a new professional role can be a game changer in overcoming the inevitable challenges we all face.
Setting the Agenda and Co-creating the Narrative
So much of the important work between you and your supervisor is relational. From that first contact via email to a recruitment conversation, every interaction can help shape the rapport. Many students often express anxiety and uncertainty about negotiating or discussing challenges with their supervisors. Our advice for such situations is to create simple structures that increase your ability to create agency in a relationship characterized by its power differential.
Those strategies include: developing a meeting agenda that can be shared ahead of time, following up afterward with meeting notes or minutes that capture all agreed-upon actions and deadlines, and checking in with follow-up questions or updates. Whether this materializes as a visual document, through a spreadsheet or chart, or in a voice recording, such tools are key to helping you establish and retain partnership not only in setting that agenda but also in moving forward successfully. Agendas and meeting notes create opportunities to ask questions and clarify information outside of the meeting itself. As Dinuka has so often advised students, “Let the process pick up some slack!” Dozens of our students have shared that these before-and-after touch points significantly decrease their stress around meetings.
This is a great way to get clear on inconsistent feedback and to capture those extras that become papers, presentations and other gems down the road. When needed, it can also have the effect of depersonalizing issues or processes when conflicts arise or major delays are impacting progress. In the best cases, you’re drawing on the experience of your supervisor and co-creating a process that reflects the specifics of your way of working and creates some mutual accountability. It helps you keep organized together and provides a shared record to revisit when needed. Chat with your supervisors about a way to capture the discussions and decisions that will best serve you as a team.
Success also is relative in many ways and is impacted by many factors. However, regardless of your grad school or professional role, you are always in the driver’s seat. Knowing that you have agency in managing your success allows you the ability to influence and define that success. Taking on multiple projects and managing competing priorities, tasks and expectations is very common at work. This also may not be any different from your experience in grad school. By exercising your skills in communication, prioritization, persuasion, planning, problem solving and strategy, you can negotiate success. Each of those skills works together in synergy.
For example, suppose your manager asks you to accomplish multiple tasks or projects with competing deadlines. In that case, you may need to discuss a prioritization strategy grounded in good communication and problem-solving skills. You may also need to ask for support and negotiate additional resources. Help seeking is an important part of your professional practice and can be a great opportunity to solve problems together.
In this article, we have provided a series of tips and narratives from both the academic supervisory mentorship relationship and the employer-employee relationship. We hope it is evident that the skills you develop throughout your academic career are directly related to the professional world, and vice versa. Your dexterity with those skills is the bridge between your education and career—and in both directions. We hope you feel inspired to connect the not-so-obvious dots and develop your own best approach to being mentored and finding success in your work with an academic supervisor and beyond.