Clarifying expectations

I think my relationship with my supervisors…didn’t…start off the best, just because…well, …my other friends already in a doctorate seemed to have more friendly relationships, whereas mine was much more just professional, like we only ever talked once a month in my supervision. So at the beginning, it was a bit weird … (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

This student’s initial expectations of the relationship differed from that of her supervisors but there was no discussion to clarify the differences.

Each division provides a one-page Brief Guide for Research Students that outlines respective roles and responsibilities of supervisors and students. Working through this one-page guide with students can be used as an opportunity to better clarify mutual expectations.

Continuing Education: Research Supervision: A Brief Guide

Humanities: Research Supervision: A Brief Guide for Students

Medical Sciences:  Medical Sciences Graduate School: Important information - use Single Sign-On to log in to Weblearn, then click on "Supervision"

MPLS:  Supervision - Scroll down and click on "Brief Guide" link in the text

Social Sciences: Research supervision: a brief guide (Social Sciences)

Within the guidelines there are some notable differences between divisions in absolute detail. An example of an effect of this is that graduate research students responding to a recent survey indicated that 65% of Humanities students and 46% of Social Sciences students typically meet with their supervisor once a month whilst 70% of students from both MPLS and Medical Sciences typically meet with their supervisor twice or more a month. However, what is important overall is the discussion and clarification of roles, responsibilities and expectations in order to arrive at appropriate arrangements for the individuals involved.

The Education Committee's Policy on Research Degrees provides a more detailed description of expectations with regard to the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and students.


It is unlikely that a student will automatically understand the local research culture, so explanation of some of the underlying assumptions may be needed at an early stage to avoid misunderstandings or, indeed, problems. For example, implicit ideas about the following may need to be made explicit:

  • Who owns, and who may use under what conditions, empirical experimental data collected by the student?
  • In a team environment what are the different roles of principal investigators, post-docs, and other members of the lab – as primary supervisor, co-supervisors, mentors, etc, etc?
  • Is there understood to be a shared ownership of ideas developed in common discussions, whether with the supervisor or in a team?
  • What will happen about co-authorship of any publications arising from work done by the student or by members of a research group?

A few strategies that have proved to be useful in clarifying mutual expectations are:

  • Completing an expectations questionnaire. The idea is that student and supervisor complete this questionnaire separately, then meet to discuss. The Supervisory expectations questionnaire and the Clarifying expectations tool can both be modified to suit the circumstances, e.g. authorship/co-authorship. One thing that works well is to include an additional 'Other' blank section so that supervisor and students can add items for discussion that are important to each of them.
  • Developing a memorandum of understanding. This would be different for each student, and can be revised annually. There are a range of ways in which these can be structured - see the following examples: MOU template (Otago); Sample supervision mentorship agreement (Western Ontario); and Supervisor Agreement (Saskatchewan). Each can be used as a model and modified to suit different circumstances and disciplines. The Saskatchewan document may be especially useful for its coverage of matters related to research in the experimental sciences (e.g. statistical analysis, laboratory and other equipment needed, etc).
  • Using the Student Profile Proforma. This is another tool that may help students to plot their progression through the supervision experience through regular discussions with supervisors (see Aspland et al, 1999 for the source of this tool).
  • The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) recommends using a "Letter of Understanding" template (see CAGS Publications and click on Best Practices). It is noticeable that "graduate unit" is included as one of the stakeholders in the agreement. At Oxford, this could refer to the Department or Faculty, the Doctoral Training Centre, etc.

There may also be a lack of clarity surrounding the respective academic responsibilities of supervisors, students and faculty or department. Establishing a clear sense of these early on in the doctoral process may help to ensure realistic expectations about ‘who does what and when’. Details of these responsibilities are laid out in the Policy on Research Degrees: see Responsibilities of the student and Responsibilities of the Supervisor.

Consider as well that international students' expectations may differ in certain ways from those of some of their peers (see Ideas to help international students for a few pointers). Some cultures, such as African and Asian ones, may not be used to the rigid way Western culture is dominated by the twenty-four hour day and seven day week in which work activities and leisure are firmly structured. Consequently, international students can be surprised to discover that:

  • time is not as flexible as they had previously experienced;
  • lack of punctuality is regarded as inappropriate, sometimes insulting;
  • duration of discussions may be quite strictly managed;
  • unannounced visits may be unacceptable.

In addition, a range of other cultural factors and prior experiences can influence students' expectations.

Finally, it may be useful to remind students that the role of their College advisor is to provide them with another source of support, particularly, for example, with regard to pastoral, funding, career or accommodation issues.

Students might also like to view this video (filmed at Oxford) on Shaping the supervisor relationship and expectation setting.

A positive student-supervisor relationship is an important factor in student success. Research suggests that one of the strongest predictors of postgraduate completion is having expectations met within the student/ supervisor relationship. Unfortunately, mutual expectations are rarely discussed explicitly and this can lead to unmet, unclear and unarticulated expectations.

Barnes (2010) studied supervisor expectations of students and found five broad expectations of student engagement:

  • be committed to the doctoral process;
  • have integrity;
  • work hard;
  • make progress; and
  • be good citizens of the department.

What was unclear was the degree to which supervisors had actually made these expectations clear to their students.

Most supervisors and students enter the supervisory relationship with a sense of trust that the whole experience will be a positive one and that each party will do what is expected (usually undefined). Expectations can include the roles and responsibilities of both parties, expectations about the student's motivations for undertaking postgraduate research and supervisors' reasons for undertaking supervision; these may be similar or different.

Other work has suggested supervisors and students, while having somewhat overlapping expectations of the other’s role, still hold a few different ones.

From a supervisor's perspective the student's role is to:

  • attend regular meetings with the supervisor;
  • submit written work to the supervisor regularly;
  • take notice of the supervisor's comments and feedback;
  • produce a research proposal within an appropriate timescale.

However, the student may have a different set of expectations that might include:

  • supervisors to be available;
  • supervisors to structure meetings usefully;
  • supervisors to read the student's work in advance of meetings;
  • supervisors to be constructively critical;
  • supervisors to be friendly, open and supportive;
  • supervisors to have good knowledge of the research area;
  • supervisors to show a keen interest in the research;
  • supervisors to display an interest in the career prospects of students.

The last five items highlight the importance to students of intellectual investment in them and their work. As long as trust is maintained on both sides, the relationship flourishes. However, when one or both members of the relationship break that trust - possibly unwittingly - the relationship can quickly become fraught with difficulty. At this point, options become reduced and can lead to ending the relationship by changing supervisors (which must be done through the formal mechanisms, so as to avoid any ambiguity with regard to responsibility). Ideally, ongoing review of respective expectations can help avoid such a circumstance developing.

The above text was based on:

Barnes, B. (2009) The nature of exemplary doctoral advisors' expectations and the way they may influence doctoral persistence. Journal of College Student Retention, 11(3), 323-343. NB. Link to abstract only.

Gardner, S. (2009). Conceptualizing success in doctoral education: perspectives of faculty in seven disciplines. The Review of Higher Education, 32(3), 383-406.

Green, H. and Powell, S. (2005) Doctoral Study in Contemporary Higher Education. Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press.

Kearns, H., Gardner, M., & Marshall, K. (2008). Innovation in PhD completion: The hardy shall succeed (and be happy!). Higher Education Research and Development, 21(1) 77-89.

Kiley, M. (2003) Conserver, Strategist or Transformer: The experiences of postgraduate student sojourners. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(3), 345-356.

McAlpine, L., & McKinnon, M. (2012) Supervision – the most variable of variables: Student perspectives. Studies in Continuing Educatio, 35(3), 265-280.

Statistics on the frequency of Oxford graduate student's meetings with supervisors come from responses to Student Engagement surveys piloted at Oxford in Hilary Term 2013. For more information about the surveys, contact Dr Gosia Turner.