Oct 17, 2022

Setting expectations for advisors-advisee partnerships during a research-based graduate program

Overview: The advisor-advisee relationship is critical to thriving in graduate school and leveraging that experience into a career that you love.  While you may know that, cultivating the partnership can be tricky.  As scholars who have been on both sides of that partnership, we know that the same tactics will not necessarily work for each pairing.  We were lucky both as graduate students who had wonderful dissertation advisors and, as advisors ourselves, to have worked with outstanding graduate students. We also learned the hard way that, while some graduate students thrive when working with us, others would have been better served by a different advisor.   Below is our attempt to outline some expectations for graduate students to open conversations with their research advisors (or potential research advisors). 



Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Ulf Schiller



Photo by Keiron Crasktellanos on Unsplash
The advisor-advisee relationship is critical to thriving in graduate school and leveraging that education into a career that you love.  Graduate students will spend a significant portion of their time collaborating with their research advisor and other researchers in their advisor’s group.  As faculty members, it is our goal to provide our students a similar experience so that we gained with our advisors - one where we were allowed to learn, take chances, make mistakes, and ultimately develop into an independent researcher.  However, if you asked us then what the ideal partnership with an advisor looks like, we would find it difficult to conceptualize it in general.


While running seminar series about graduate school and listening to graduate students chat before the onset of classes, Dr. Kennedy has heard students express anxiety about finding the “right” advisor, struggles with communicating effectively with advisors, etc.  Fortunately there are a lot of great resources about this monster of a topic!   For example, Constance O’Connor’sHow to find a good graduate advisor and make the most out of graduate school” is a great resource.  In this article, O’Connor outlines the attributes of a good advisor and how to find a faculty member who will be a good advisor for you.  She also tackles the question of how to make the best out of graduate school if you already have an advisor.  It was so well written! Everyone should read it.


Another good resource is the book Project Management for Research: A Guide for Graduate Students by Adedeji B. Badiru, Christina F. Rusnock, and Vhance V. Valencia (CRC Press 2016). As the title suggests, it looks at graduate studies from a project management perspective and includes a chapter on managing your research advisor. One of the most important factors for success in graduate school is understanding expectations. Here we think it is worth noting some common misconceptions. Although you will enroll in graduate school to pursue your degree, graduate studies are not like school at all. Pursuing research will be very different from taking classes. The main purpose is no longer to be a consumer of information, but to become a producer of new knowledge. Graduate studies focus on the results rather than the effort. You must develop the ability to do independent research, think critically, and communicate effectively and honestly. Your advisor cannot do these things for you. You shouldn’t always wait for your advisor to assign specific tasks to accomplish – thinking about research questions, planning next steps, and writing your thesis are just a few tasks that you’ll need to do on your own. Be ready to adapt. A thirst for knowledge, passion, and grit are all fine when heading into graduate school, but what will help you succeed is adaptability. You will need to learn from your mistakes. You will need to grow and apply your experiences. You will need to interpret new results. You may get worried you’re not going to succeed. Be smart enough to learn and adapt, and your advisor will be there to help you succeed.


We both have an expectation guide that we share with our graduate students.  The version below is Dr. Kennedy’s, which was prepared based on Dr. Schiller’s written guide for his graduate students.  Having a written document has helped tremendously with communication and we would encourage all faculty advisors and their graduate students to have a document like this one.  We also encourage this to be a living document that is revisited




Expectations for the Faculty (Advisor)

  • Provide an intellectual and technical environment for graduate students that is conducive to learning both as an individual researcher and as a team member.
  •  Provide a clear understanding of professional responsibilities to graduate researchers.
  •  Provide timely assessment of the graduate researcher’s work.
  •  Give credit to graduate students who meaningfully contribute to scholarly work.


Expectations for the Graduate Student (Advisee)


Be curious about solid materials and how they deform.

  • You should have a strong desire to know or learn about these structures and by what mechanisms they respond to external loads.
  • Take the initiative to ask questions.


Be an independent researcher.

  • You should recognize that graduate research is focused on the creation of new knowledge, new approaches, or a new tool for solving a specific problem.
  • You should actively drive the research project (read the pertinent literature, drive hypothesis development, desire to disseminate your work, etc.).
  • You should plan, organize, schedule, and manage yourself and your research project.
  • To understand the foundational literature, discuss it with colleagues, and identify its relevance to your work. 


Deepen your understanding.

  • Know the limitations of your knowledge of materials science and identify key courses to overcome those limitations.
  • Challenge yourself to understand, rather than avoid, difficult material.


Be productive.

  • As an MS student, publish at least one peer-reviewed papers based on your work.  It is preferable to have two, but that is not always possible.
  • As a PhD student, publish at least four papers in archival journals from your dissertation work.  In most cases, two of these should be in print prior to graduation.
  • Be prepared to present your work at national and international meetings.


Display grit.

  • Maintain a high level of dedication and perseverance at all times.
  • Recognize that you may run into computer or equipment problems.
  • Realize the proper analysis method for your data may not be immediately clear.
  • Stay focused and resolved.


Become a proficient writer.

  • Your research is not done until the results have been effectively communicated.
  • Continually strive to improve your writing skills. The best way to do this is to write a paragraph after you read a paper.
  • Read books (could be non-technical).


Develop your own research community.

  • Engage with other researchers within our research group and community of practice by arranging meetings and discussions to help grow scholarly knowledge.


Conduct research in a safe and responsible way.

  • Familiarize yourself with the proper handling of the tools, chemicals, etc., before you begin.
  • Complete relevant safety training required to work in a lab.
  • Read and sign the chemical hygiene handbook prior to working in labs.


Communicate clearly and be mindful of your collaborators.

  • Be on time.
  • Come to meetings prepared. Present what you did in the past week or two and propose direction for the coming week(s).
  • Be honest about your mistakes and failures. Address the problems and do not ignore them, lest the underlying causes fester.
  • Use meetings to discuss your progress and knowledge development (papers read, experiments designed, data collected, meaning making of your data, etc.).
  • Make presentations that portray clarity in thinking, not a collection of disjointed facts.
  • Meet with your committee members at least once a year.


Show up and put in the hours. As Woody Allen once said, 80 percent of success in life is just showing up.

  • A full-time assistantship amounts to an average of 20 hours of work per week, independent of time spent on courses or tasks related to research credits.
  • Be prepared to spend more than 40 hours a week if you are conducting research toward a thesis or dissertation.



Document your research in lab notebook.  (If it is not documented, it does not exist.” – Louis Fried)

  • You need to keep a record of how every result was produced, including details of the mathematical and computational models, all parameters of the simulation setup, and all steps performed for data analysis.
  • Record every step and every detail to ensure that your results can be replicated, both by other scientists and you, at a later time.


Ensure your data is reproducible. 

  • Scientific claims must always be verifiable by independent researchers.  Therefore, it is of utmost importance that all your results can be reproduced. 
  • Reproducibility must be the overarching objective of your research focus. 
  • One requirement is that you organize and document your work properly. This includes both physical samples as well as electronic documents. Your electronic documents need to be organized using folders and have titles that give a clear description of what is within the file. 


For Ph.D. students, demonstrate that you have mastered these learning outcomes by the end of your dissertation.

  • Complete required foundational courses and utilize foundational knowledge to develop dissertation proposal.
  • Complete required Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training.
  • Successfully complete proposal process and advance to candidacy.
  • Demonstrate experimental (laboratory or computational) skills and problem-solving skills through your research.
  • Participate in mentoring of early career researchers (high school or undergraduate students).
  • Lead peers through service within professional chapters.
  • Disseminate your work at symposiums and conferences.
  • Publish in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Write components of grant/funding proposals.


For M.S. students, demonstrate that you have mastered these learning outcomes by the end of your thesis.

  • Complete required foundational courses in your curriculum map.
  • Complete required Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training.
  • Demonstrate experimental (laboratory or computational) skills and problem-solving skills through your research.
  • Participate in mentoring of early career researchers (high school or undergraduate students).
  • Disseminate your work at a symposium.
  • Submit your work for publication in peer-reviewed journals.


About our guest contributor:  Dr. Schiller is an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Clemson University.  His research group uses computer simulations to investigate complex fluids, soft matter, and interfacially dominated materials. Dr. Schiller received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to conduct multiscale simulations of nanofluid assembly for smart Materials design.  He recently also received an NSF EPSCoR RII Track-4 Fellowship and spent a summer conducting research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with one of his current graduate students.  Students interested in a career in computational materials science can find more information on the Schiller Research Group website.


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.