3 Step Method Of Communicating Effectively With Your PhD Supervisor

Communicating Effectively With Your PhD SupervisorCommunicating effectively with your PhD supervisor is one of the most important factors determining your happiness in graduate school.

Having a bad relationship it’s not always your supervisor’s fault. You can dramatically improve the communication with your supervisor if you follow 3 simple steps.

In my work as PhD coach, I always advise students to choose an advisor who is a good fit in terms of their personality. Sounds easy, right? Start by understanding what type of supervision you need.

Choosing The Right PhD Supervisor For You

For example, if you are an independent researcher then a “hands-off” supervisor would suit you better than a micromanager.

Do you need more guidance? Then you would be more successful with a professor who is involved with their students, rather than someone who is so busy they have no time for personal attention to their students.

If you already chose a supervisor who is not the best fit for you, you will probably need to resolve some personal differences in order to complete your thesis. However, you can consider this challenge as a learning opportunity for you to practice professional relationship skills.

The Most Important Communication Skill For PhDs

Once you get a job (whether in academia or industry), you will most likely have to work with many different personalities and graduate school is a great place to begin practicing communication skills.

Learning effective communication skills with your supervisor to get their support on important decisions will go a long way toward improving your productivity and self-confidence.

Although supervisor personalities come in many different flavors, there are certain communication skills which will work with most professors whether or not they are the right personality fit for you.

I found that a few basic communication skills will resolve conflicts in 90% of the cases. If I had to use one word for this group of skills it would be this: assertiveness.

What Is Assertiveness?

Some people confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, but the two attitudes are worlds apart. Assertiveness is a happy medium between passiveness and aggressiveness.

A passive person likes to please others and avoid conflict. An aggressive person is focused on achieving only their own goals without consideration for other people’s needs.

An assertive person is able to communicate their ideas confidently without stepping on other people.

Effective people skills do not come naturally to most of us, and we have a tendency to be either too passive or too aggressive. In my experience, many graduate students fall on the passive side of the spectrum because they are afraid of causing conflict with their supervisors.

It is important to remember that assertive communication skills, when used appropriately, will not lead to more conflict. In fact, they will probably lead to more interesting research discussions, and more importantly, respect from your supervisor.

Assertive behavior is the foundation of communicating effectively with your PhD supervisor.

Through assertive communication you will be able to voice your opinions confidently and negotiate with others to achieve mutually beneficial goals.  Easier said than done?

Sounds intimidating? You can begin practicing assertiveness right now at the workplace and in personal situations with a simple three-part formula.

Three Step To Communicating Effectively With Your PhD Supervisor

This method is based on the teachings of Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, who was one of the first people to study the principles of human interactions.

Interestingly, the strategies described by Dale Carnegie are very similar to the suggestions of former graduate students whom I interviewed for my book, “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”.

The secret to communicating effectively with your PhD supervisor is to focus on the problems and how to fix hem, rather than your emotions surrounding the problem.

This simple three-step method will help you guide your discussions into a problem-solving mode:

  1. State the facts.  Make sure that you do not let personal feelings get into the way of research.  Focus only on work related issues, and state the objective reality that concerns you.
  2. Clarify your thoughts about the situation, and why it bothers you. Are you concerned that the project is not being completed properly?  Is it taking too long?  Is it too expensive?  Is it difficult to get along with someone on the project?
  3. Explain what your goals are and how you would like the situation to be resolved.  Before the meeting, draft a plan that will be beneficial to everyone.  If you cannot accommodate everybody, what plan do you think makes the most sense?

Let me illustrate this three-step method with an example.

Imagine this. Your advisor is asking you to complete a project that you find burdensome.

If you are a passive person, you might decide to say nothing and do the task while feeling bitter. Or, if you are an aggressive person, you might storm into your advisor’s office angrily and tell him or her that it would be a waste of time for you to work on this project.

As you can guess, neither of these approaches is ideal.

In the first case, you might feel like you are being taken advantage of and you will probably not get much out of doing the project.  In the second scenario, you might anger your advisor and jeopardize your relationship.

How can you communicate your disagreement without offending your advisor?

As an assertive person, you can express your ideas confidently, while being sensitive to the needs of others. At your next meeting remind your advisor that he or she has asked you to do this project, and ask whether he or she has time to talk about it now.

You should always begin every conversation on a positive note. Try sharing some good news about your research or thanking your advisor for their time.

As a general rule of thumb, always assume that the person you are dealing with is reasonable and will respond well if you communicate assertively.

When you get to the stage of conversation when you can discuss your project, let your advisor know the facts about the project and why you do not think completing this project will be beneficial on the long run. When your advisor shares his or her viewpoint, make sure you listen with an open-mind.

At the end of the conversation make an assessment of how you would like to resolve the situation.

Perhaps you decide to work on the project after all, share the responsibility with another student, or defer the project until later. Either way, you will have clarified the situation by using assertive communication skills. This will go a long ways towards developing a professional relationship with your supervisor.

Making It Easy for Your Professor to Support You

Professors are busy people.

Most of them teach, serve on committees, write grants, travel to conferences and in their spare time they mentor their graduate students. While your problems with your research are central to you, they are only one of the hundred items on your professor’s task list.

If you feel stuck in your research, the writing of a paper or manuscript, or you cannot come to an agreement with your supervisor then it is time to take a proactive approach to completing your thesis.

The more independent you become and the easier you make it for your professor to support you, the better your relationship will be. Furthermore, by becoming more self-sufficient in your research you will become more prepared for your career ahead.

Here are some tips to make it easy for your professor to support you:

  • Come prepared for meetings with a clear agenda.
  • If an important decision needs to be made, decide in advance how you would like it to be solved. By thinking about possible solution(s) beforehand, you will be able to present pros and cons of each possibility, and make the discussions more efficient.
  • If you need your advisor to review a manuscript or part of your thesis, illustrate very clearly on your draft where you need their help and what your questions are.
  • If you need their signature on something, ask them personally and show them where they need to sign. (If you leave it in their inbox or email it to them, it might get to the bottom of the pile). In the even that you have a long distance relationship, call them and ask them politely for their signature.
  • If you need a recommendation letter, give them a list of accomplishments/publications that they can use as a draft for the letter.

Seems like a lot of work on your part? It is, but the reality is that when you get a job after graduate school you will probably need to be just as assertive and proactive with your coworkers and supervisors.

If you package your challenges with your supervisor (and coworkers) into learning opportunities for your future career, you will become the independent, assertive and proactive person that all employers and universities desire to have.

What about those really difficult supervisors?

Yes, we all know them. The professors who have a bad reputation in the department, yet they manage to get graduate students work for them. What can you do if your supervisor is a very difficult person?

Stay tuned…in an upcoming blog I will cover “How To Deal With Really Difficult Professors And Get Them On Your Side

Do you have other tips for communicating effectively with you PhD supervisor? Share them in the comments below.

About Dora Farkas

Dora Farkas, Ph.D is a thesis and career coach for scientists. She is the founder of FinishYourThesis.com and author of the book The Smart Way to Your PhD: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates