November 06, 2018

Tips for Communicating with Your Advisor

tl;dr: When in doubt, over-communicate.

However, there are more and less effective ways to communicate.


You can read excellent advice in many places! For example:

Be polite and considerate, but be direct. These are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t let your advisor’s position and title get in the way. Some examples:

  • It’s important to you to take an industry internship in the summer to supplement your family’s income, but you’re afraid that that isn’t a “good” reason and don’t want to bring it up.
  • You’re not sure if your advisor has a really good reason behind the research decision/statement that they made or whether they weren’t really paying a lot of attention.
  • You’re not sure if your advisor didn’t reply to your email because they’re mad at you for turning something in late or because they missed the email or because they didn’t think it needed a reply.
  • You think that your advisor might be wrong (e.g., there’s information in a related paper you read that they may not know) or that you might not have effectively presented your argument.
  • You would prefer to work on research that you care more about/have more of a role in shaping a new project direction. Conversely, perhaps your advisor is giving you too much freedom to find a project that you feel passionate about and it’s overwhelming and you’d really rather be assigned a specific task in a preexisting project (or you don’t care what you work on as long as you graduate as quickly as possible).
  • You don’t feel that you’re getting enough feedback and interaction with your advisor in order to work optimally. If you’ve brought this up before, maybe you want to propose potential solutions: for example, suggesting a strategy for weekly email reports that you read about, or asking about the possibility of bringing another faculty member or senior graduate student onto the project to get more hands-on interaction.

Ask! I’ll say it again: ASK. They may not be able to accommodate you, or they may only be able to accommodate you if you can accept the tradeoff/consequences (e.g., oversee an undergraduate research assistant, later graduation date, finding alternative funding), but you have a higher chance of being on the same page.

Conversely, before you send an email, stop to consider whether the tone says:

  • “My priorities are more important than yours/you don’t have any other priorities.”
  • “I’m definitely correct about X and you’re wrong.”
  • “It’s not my fault.”
  • “You made a mistake/did it wrong/it’s your fault.”

Any or all of the above might be true, but it probably isn’t actually helpful to the conversation. It’s more important to send a message with content and tone that will help you get what you need.


Make it as easy as possible to help you.

This probably means that you’ll save your advisor time and that they’ll be quicker and happier to respond to you. You’ll also get more practice with articulate communication and taking initiative.

Some examples:

  • If you want a meeting, be specific as to why (or at least provide some context). Different types of meetings have different levels of urgency and require different levels of time and preparation. There’s a big difference between “I just found out that I really really need this signed today and it should take 5 minutes hey you could probably also sign it electronically” and “I read this cool paper and want to have a fun chat” and “I want a specific answer to a technical question that you may or may not be able to answer on the spot and I can’t continue with the project until then” and “I’ve decided I want to leave graduate school.” Along the same lines, proactively listing the times you can/can’t meet (and checking your advisor’s public calendar, if they have one) saves everyone time with the back and forth.
  • If possible, give options. Maybe you’ve looked into 3 different ways to do research task X and aren’t sure which approach you should use. As appropriate, consider clearly indicating/reiterating what task X is, the three ways you’ve found (with further references/pointers?) and their pros and cons, and which you’re leaning towards and why. “How should I do X?” is a question that makes sense, but it doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ve looked into how to do X at all, let your advisor quickly respond, or share any of the insights that you might have from working more closely with the project.
  • Is it actionable? If you’re asking your advisor to do something, do you clearly and obviously do so?
  • Give your spelling and grammar a check. “when can i meet u?” does not instill confidence or convey professionalism.


Can you be more concise?

More is not necessarily better. If you cannot say what you want concisely, you might not be sure what you want to say.

  • A lot of people don’t read beyond the first couple of lines of an email unless they really, really have to. I personally don’t mind long emails BUT the same idea holds — with the subject and one or two lines at the top I should have a very clear idea of the rest of the email. Am I supposed to be doing something? Is something time-sensitive? Is this email useful only because I might search for it sometime in the future to remind me what happened in a meeting? Long emails should only be supporting whatever is happening at the top and never be rambling journeys that get to the point at the bottom.
  • Some of the principles behind pyramid approaches (e.g., here) can be useful either in writing or in conversation.