From the Science Student Council

Feedback loops: The importance of student-advisor communication

Communicate with your advisor to know where you stand, where you are going, and how to get there.

By Michael Dunbar

For graduate students, March no longer bears the promise of relaxation and Spring Break debauchery that it did in better, simpler times. Instead, it offers a moment to reflect on our current trajectory in graduate training after the first couple of months of the year have passed. As we contemplate our progress, this midterm period represents a great opportunity to seek feedback from the person that, at least in our professional lives, often seems to matter most: our advisor. Communicating effectively with our mentors is a skill that, while occasionally difficult, can be extremely important in ensuring a successful—and enjoyable—graduate training experience.

Clarify goals and establish a game plan. Openly discussing both immediate and long-term career goals with your advisor can be very helpful in crafting the best route to your chosen destination. Perhaps even more important, discussing goals with your advisor can be instrumental in helping you to realize what your goals really are. In addition, your advisor has his or her expectations for you as a trainee (e.g., hours in the lab per week, acquisition of specific skills). Knowing these expectations can help you to establish more realistic and attainable goals within the context of your training program.

Stay on track, or change course without de-railing. Even with a clearly established route, there is always the possibility of making a wrong turn. Openly discussing mistakes or shortcomings with your advisor, while perhaps uncomfortable in the short run, is important for ensuring that you get back on track as quickly and easily as possible. In addition, while having a clear game plan is certainly valuable in the training process, it is important to note that goals often change over time. Just as advisors are instrumental in helping us shape our initial goals and plans, they can offer important insights into selecting and transitioning to alternative routes or destinations.

Stay on the same page. While most student-advisor relationships are founded on common objectives, the expectations and goals that students and advisors have may not always be perfectly in synch. It is a safe bet that you and your advisor will not agree on everything; indeed, graduate programs are designed to shape independent thinkers, not drones. In any interpersonal conflict, simply being heard and understood—regardless of whether you reach an agreement—can substantially reduce tension for both parties. In addition, achieving a mutual understanding can help to prevent future discord. During discussions with your advisor, listening attentively, frequently reflecting back what you have heard, and asking questions can help to verify that you fully understand what your advisor communicates. Ensuring that both you and your advisor stay on the ‘same page’ will allow for a more productive and rewarding training experience for both of you.

Know where you stand. Graduate training often entails some degree of stress.  Evaluation from various sources, loads of challenging work, and inconsistent feedback can lead to feelings of anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty about where you stand. Soliciting feedback from your advisor regarding your progress can help to resolve this uncertainty, and can provide useful insight into how you are doing and how to make things better.

A primary purpose of assigning students to specific advisors in the graduate training process is to help trainees navigate the challenging, unfamiliar path from wide-eyed undergrad to independent scientist/practitioner as effectively as possible. However, it is difficult for advisors to fulfill this role to the best of their abilities if they do not know where you are or where you are going. While many advisors may appear quite capable of inferring your goals and intentions, most cannot actually read your mind; nor can you read your advisor’s mind. Maintaining open lines of communication is thus crucial for ensuring that you find and stick to the best route for you on the road to graduation and beyond. 


Michael Dunbar is the health psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He is currently a doctoral student in clinical and health psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. His interests include the relationship between craving and drug use and situational influences on smoking behavior and health decision-making outside of the laboratory.