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Establishing Positive Communication with your Supervisor

Our VSPL, Denise Ferris, shares some tips on establishing positive communications with your graduate supervisor.


Communication with your supervisor is the single most important aspect in an academic relationship for graduate students completing a thesis. If you and your supervisor have different expectations of your output, and the two of you haven’t spoken in several weeks, this lack of communication will hold you back from success.

Once settled into their projects, graduate students often work things out on their own. Much of graduate education is focused on having students develop the ability to meet problems head on and solve them on their own. However, you supervisor can provide guidance throughout your thesis. Keeping regular communication will give you an opportunity to voice concerns and facilitate information sharing with an experienced academic.

Some people are born good communicators, others are not; but don’t be afraid: positive communication skills can be learned. When communicating with your supervisor try to understand and relate to their communicative approach. Some individuals are more relaxed and enjoy free and easy communication while others like more structure.

Strengthening your communicative relationship with your supervisor enables many opportunities for discussions, formal and informal. One of the most valuable things you can do is to make an appointment face-to-face whenever possible. At a distance-based university this is sometimes impossible, but with current technology such as Skype face-to-face communication can occur even if you can’t be in the same room.

In absence of face-to-face meetings, a phone call still provides the ability to hear verbal cues and develop a rapport between the individuals. Email communication is best for quick updates. Email and other electronic forms of communication don’t convey the complex crucial information associated with verbal cues that facilitate the development of trust.

Another important aspect in positive communication with your supervisor is to have regular meetings. Plan to meet monthly or bi-monthly, to discuss your progress or issues. This also creates an opportunity to learn more about what your supervisor is doing in their field, or to discuss upcoming conferences or new developments in the field. It is wise to suggest a time of day when a meeting is most likely to be successful such as mid-morning or after lunch keeping in mind different time zones.

Once you have established regular appointments with your supervisor it is important to come prepared. Have a written list of questions and/or concerns. Make the questions specific and keep them brief. Meeting frequently and regularly with your supervisor, asking relevant questions, and using communication methods that help establish a rapport like Skype, the telephone or in-person meetings will assist in providing positive communication.