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Aligning expectations: tools to make explicit agreements

The supervisor letter

Developed as a tool in Denmark (e.g. Rienecker et al. 2005) and widely used at Aarhus University, a supervisor letter is a statement written by the supervisor to new and prospective students outlining their views on how supervision should proceed. It works best when worded as a discussion paper (e.g. ‘Here is what I think we should do. What do you think?’). The letter also offers the opportunity to highlight any aspects of your supervision that cannot be negotiated (e.g. ‘I cannot offer email contact during weekends’).

Let your new students read the letter and then invite them for a discussion. Make sure they understand that the content (or at least parts of it) is up for negotiation.

Suggestions for points to address in a supervisor letter:

1)    About the research project & the education

Roles of responsibility (including that of other group members or co-supervisors), expected levels of independence, dividing time between tasks (research, teaching, courses, outreach etc.), establishing a scientific network, scientific conduct.


2)    About communication

Your availability for supervision, meeting frequency, how students prepare for supervisory meetings, keeping record of discussions and agreements, how you address other issues than research-related topics (e.g. well-being), means of communication (mail, F2F etc.).

3)    About feedback and writing

What you provide feedback on, the type of feedback provided, co-authorships and co-writing, expectations for the part A report and PhD thesis.

4)    About practical matters

Lab safety, logbook, half-year evaluations, finances, administrative support, holiday planning, working hours, illness etc.

Rienecker L., Harboe T & Stray Jørgensen P (2005). Vejledning - en brugsbog for opgave- og specialevejledning på videregående uddannelser. Frederiksberg: Samfundslitteratur.

Vote and compare – statements on supervision

Originally developed by Brown & Atkins (1988)

Let the student vote on a series of statements about their expectations, beliefs, understanding or experience. Then compare the votes to your own. Mismatches will be obvious and can then be discussed.

Download the table with statements here (Word document).

A simple graphical tool for ongoing alignment

Developed by Gurr (2001).

Let the axes in a graph represent two aspects of the student-supervisor relationship or the PhD education you want to discuss with your student. The tool is particularly suitable for addressing progress – e.g. development towards independence. In the example below, we have the degree of supervisor involvement on one axis (from hands-on to hands-off) and the degree of student independence on the other (dependent to autonomous). You and your student indicate separately where you think you are in the graph at the moment. Then compare and discuss.  The tool invites for a discussion of mismatches, progress since the last time you did the exercise with your student and where to go next.


Fig. 1 in Gurr (2001)

Gurr GM (2001). Negotiating the “Rackety Bridge” – a dynamic model for aligning supervisory style with research student development. Higher Education & Development, 20, 81-92.

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