How to work with your faculty advisor

Your faculty advisor is an extremely busy person. University professors typically teach one or two courses per academic semester, oversee several graduate students, write grant proposals to fund researchers (such as yourself), and attend many meetings. When you have an appointment to speak with your mentor, it is up to you to come prepared and to make the most of it.

Learning to communicate with your mentor is a skill that you will develop over time. You will find that faculty members have individual styles of communication. Some focus totally on issues related to the research, while others do not mind taking the time to talk about other topics outside of your project. Discovering how your faculty advisor prefers to communicate will help you make the most of your relationship. You may also learn about their preferred styles from their graduate students.

During your initial meeting with your mentor (faculty advisor or graduate mentor), make sure that you understand the mentor’s expectations. Ask about the long term goals of the project, and then work with your mentor to define some initial short term goals. You might request a copy of the research proposal for the project so that you can see how your research will fit in the “big” picture. If the mentor does not offer a regular meeting time, request one, or at least establish how frequently you and your mentor will meet. At the initial meeting, you should also ask any questions you may have about the project, and discuss when and how you will be trained to work in the lab, if applicable.

It is important to take meetings with your mentor seriously and to prepare so that they are worthwhile for both of you. This is an important aspect of professional development. The meeting with your mentor is often the best time to get information. 

Meet with your mentor regularly

If possible, you should meet with your graduate mentor (or faculty advisor) at least once a week. During this meeting, show the progress you have made since the last meeting.  Discuss any problems you have encountered and how you worked around it.  In addition, discuss any problems or concerns that are hindering you from making progress. It can also be helpful to prepare a meeting agenda ahead of time and share it with your mentor beforehand via e-mail.

Some other tips for meeting with your mentor include:

  • Always arrive on time.
  • Unless advised differently, always address your mentors by their title and last name (however addressing your graduate mentor by their first name is usually acceptable).
  • Take notes during the meeting. (You can use your research notebook, which will be discussed in a later module.)
  • When appropriate, evaluate your progress. Review the short term goals you had set, and as they are being reached, set more short term goals. Discuss successes, as well as challenges, with your mentor.
  • Possibly follow-up with an e-mail to your mentor confirming what has been agreed upon, and your next action items. (You will want to discuss with your mentors early on how you should communicate your research progress and goals.)

These discussions are a great opportunity for you to make a positive impression on your mentor. In the future, you will likely ask your faculty advisor for a letter of recommendation!

Click here to learn more about the structure of academic institutions, and the responsibilities of a professor.

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