In the first meeting my new advisor, how should I ask her what her "style" is when supervising students, in a way that is straightforward but not cheeky?

Bonus question: what are good questions to ask to your new advisor on your first meeting?

  • 1
    Give her a chance to talk first... You never know...
    – Solar Mike
    Mar 2, 2018 at 22:39
  • 6
    "How would you describe your advising style?" "Where's the coffee machine?" "How are you?" (not necessarily in that order) Mar 2, 2018 at 22:43
  • 1
    What do mean by "style"? What do you want to know? Just ask her what you want to know. Mar 3, 2018 at 3:38
  • 3
    You should probably give some more information about your background. For instance, most students I knew in graduate school (U.S., math) had only one adviser (and this only after they passed their Ph.D. exams in their 2nd or 3rd year), and their only adviser as an undergraduate was someone who basically signed off on their course selections each semester and made sure they were on track to graduate when they were supposed to, and thus when they were getting to know their adviser in graduate school they had no prior experience on which to evaluate the kind of answers you seem to be looking for. Mar 3, 2018 at 8:47
  • "What's your style?" "I call it the Art of Supervising without Supervising." Mar 5, 2018 at 14:42

3 Answers 3


I still don't know what you have in mind as regards "style" but here are the things I think it would be useful to ask at the beginning:

  • How often she would like to meet and for how long.

  • Would she like you to get started with research right off the bat, or would she prefer that you start by concentrating on coursework and preparation for qualifying exams?

  • Are there any organizational, office assistant-type chores you can do to make yourself useful? (Or if she has a lab, include lab chores in this question.)

  • A propos lab (if she has one), is there a lab manager? What tips does she have to help you be an asset to the lab?

  • What are her pet peeves? (I once asked this of my soon-to-be supervisor and she said, "humming and getting to work late" -- good to know!)

  • Are there any particular courses she would suggest you take in the first year? (Familiarize yourself with the offerings and descriptions prior to the meeting.)

  • Communication preferences (email vs. phone vs. stopping by her office). What you're trying to find out is

    • what method works best when you need a quick answer

    • how she would prefer to get hold of you when she needs a quick answer

    • what phone hours she keeps, e.g. don't call after 9 pm, don't call before 10 on a Sunday, don't call during the dinner hour which is x - y pm or whatever they happen to be in her case

    • what turn-around time she expects from emails (e.g. 24 hours vs. there was a question here at Academia a little while back about a professor who would send an email and expect the student to pop up in his doorway within five minutes)

    • what she finds annoying (i.e. what to avoid)

    (This would be a good time to let her know your communication preferences, for example, let her know about any chunks of time when you like to turn your phone off for your sanity.)

  • Any other tips? (Here she might say something like, make sure to find one or two hobbies, try to attend all seminars and keep a seminar log....)

Note, I would not start out the meeting with a barrage of questions. Many may be answered naturally during the flow of conversation.

  • This question is clearly tagged for math, are the points related to labs really relevant to the OP's question?
    – user81191
    Mar 6, 2018 at 14:11
  • @Gage - Sorry.... I'll leave it in for general usefulness. Mar 6, 2018 at 21:45

Good question. Most academics won't even understand what you mean by "supervising style". Thus, I would refrain from asking a question in such terms to your supervisor. Morever, academics don't tend to see themselves as "adopting a style" as they tend to see themselves as very unique people. You will have to figure it out in different ways.

However, such a thing as a "style" does exist. The "supervising style" is just the academic labeling for "management style" (or "leadership style") concept, which is widely studied in business literature. It is wise of you to pose yourself a question as to whether you would fit in with your supervisor's style - it is in fact common in industry during the hiring process for the candidate to ask this question, and the manager is typically happy to answer.

So how to go around it? The best way to figure this out is by talking to former/current PhD's/postdocs of hers. Ask about managing deadlines, publications, conflicts, promotions, everything. Talking to people who experienced a supervisor style in first person is a luxury you typically get only in academia. See who was your supervisor's supervisor. The graduate years are very formative, and human beings are naturally inclined to replicate behaviour they see as successful. Then talk to her. Or better, let her talk - you will figure a lot by listening. At the very end, ask how her group operates. Typical patterns in terms of leading the effort, distributing the workload, sharing success. At this point you should have a fairly complete picture.

  • Perhaps ask for her recommendations on being a successful student (will reveal how she wants you to behave/ operate), about how she prefers to receive communication and reminders or updates, and about her pet peeves related to advisees...
    – Dawn
    Mar 4, 2018 at 13:15

I am apparently odd in that your use of "style" makes perfect sense to me.

Ideally, in my mind, this is a question you should have asked before you chose an advisor, as incompatible styles are often a problem, and it can be hard to adapt if things are sufficiently disjoint.

You could probably just ask me and I wouldn't consider that cheeky, but if you wanted to, you could break it down into some different aspects:

  • What do you see as the ideal work habits for someone in your lab?
  • Do you want to see your students in the building/lab, or is working from home alright?
  • Do you prefer frequent progress updates?
  • Are there particular times of day you prefer to be working/meet?
  • How do you prefer students to be in touch with you?
  • If I have something that needs your input/signature, etc. how long in advance do you need it?
  • Do your see your lab as a single, coherent group, or a collection of people working on broadly related problems?
  • How do you feel about students working on side-projects?

Those are some of the ones that come to mind and/or I have been asked recently.

You must log in to answer this question.