Written by Michael Ruiz, Bioengineering M.S. 2020
We often find ourselves isolated in books and papers while in graduate school. It is easy to forget how to communicate effectively or openly with other people, but the one person you need to communicate effectively with is your advisor. I encourage graduate students to foster a culture of open and effective communication with their advisor. In my experience, communicating effectively with my academic advisor is one of the most important factors which will determine my success and happiness in my graduate education.
The first step towards developing an effective communication strategy is to define a set of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ from your program. This may seem like a daunting task, but it will help you later down the road when you want to translate your experience from your coursework, group projects, thesis projects, and experiments into transferrable skills to list on your resume.
Ask yourself questions like: “After I graduate, what is my ideal job?” and “What skills will I need to be successful in that role?”. These are difficult questions to ask, but it’s important to take the time and think it out. As a result of this practice, I was able to adopt more open and effective communication methods with not only myself, but with my advisor. These methods have contributed to success within my graduate program. The more independent you become, and the easier you make it for your advisor to support you by communicating your wants and needs, the better your relationship will be. By becoming more self-sufficient in your graduate program, you will become more prepared for your future career.
In a culture of effective communication, it is important to be direct. It is essential to focus on work-related issues and state the objective realities that concerns you. Clarify your thoughts about the situation, and why it bothers you. Are you concerned that your project is not being completed properly? Is it taking too long? Is it too expensive? Is it difficult to get along with someone else on the project? Explain what your goals are and how you would like the situation to be resolved. Before the meeting, plan out your thoughts and ideas to make the most of your time.
As students, we can sometimes forget that professors are busy people. Most of them teach, serve on committees, write grant requests, travel to conferences, and mentor graduate students. While problems with your research and coursework are central to you, they are only one of the many items on your professor’s radar. This makes effective communication central to a working relationship with them. If you feel stuck in your research or academic work or the writing of a paper or manuscript, then it is time to utilize your effective communication skills and schedule a meeting with your advisor.