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No More Second Guessing

Expectations documents improve the advising relationship

Have you ever felt like you wasted time or energy guessing what someone else—a peer, teacher, or student—wanted from you? The easiest way to avoid this confusion is to develop mutually defined, clear expectations. Aligning expectations early in the relationship can help graduate students and advisors work together more effectively.

Effective Advising

Reba Rosenberg
Reba Rosenberg, PhD ’08, is director of The Advising Project.

Effective advising is correlated with a greater sense of belonging and self-efficacy, increased persistence and productivity, and greater career satisfaction. These findings plus further exploration of best practices and practical advice for students, faculty, and departments can be found in the 2019 National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM and in the companion interactive online guide. The core advising skills described in the report are relevant to all fields within GSAS. One of the more straightforward ways to foster effective advising is by establishing explicit expectations for advisors and advisees alike.

Aligning Expectations

One common challenge I hear from graduate students is that they are unsure how to manage aspects of their relationship with their advisor, such as how often they should meet or check in or how long they should wait for feedback on written work. The longer a student waits to ask, the more anxious they can become, and the more time they may spend needlessly worrying about what their advisor is thinking. If the advisor and advisee had simply laid out their expectations from the beginning, they could have avoided misunderstandings, paving the way for a smoother, more productive advising experience.

Written Compacts

Among the recommendations from the NASEM report is the use of a written document or compact to make expectations clear from the start. You can find examples and guides on The Advising Project website, including suggestions for how students can initiate discussions about expectations. These are not contracts in the legal sense, but written documents that spell out what the advisor should expect of the advisee and what the advisee should expect of the advisor. Faculty and students may even choose to write these together, using this as an opportunity for both advisors and advisees to reflect upon, and articulate, their expectations and bring them into alignment.

Compacts can address a range of issues, from preferred methods of communication, typical times for written feedback, attendance at department meetings, authorship policies, standards for team projects, and more. They should be revisited and revised over time as needs change, serving as a shared reference point when questions arise. Their use can help empower students to ask questions based on topics that have already been raised. Importantly, written compacts help level the playing field so that regardless of a student’s prior experiences or socialization in academia, everyone has equal access to what is expected.

Whether or not you choose to use a written document, the amount of grief that can be saved by making sure your expectations are aligned early on can lead to more positive interactions and a much brighter outlook for any advising relationship!

If you have experience using documents that lay out expectations for the advising process, please feel free to share them with The Advising Project.

Photo by Tony Rinaldo

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