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I will be joining a graduate program in the US this fall. To keep track of important technical/research discussions with my advisor, I think it would be a good idea to record conversations with my advisor on a voice recorder/camera. It would be very helpful as I (and my advisor) will not forget/miss anything important. Also, I could listen to my advisor's comments again if I do not understand something in the first go. So I would like to know (from an advisor's perspective) if it is bad etiquette to request my advisor to have our research discussions recorded on my voice recorder/camera. I do not wish to breach anyone's privacy but only wish to keep track of my own research. And I only want to record if my advisor is happy with it.

Update: As mentioned in one of the answers below, sometimes it is hard to keep up with the advisor as my field is highly technical and mathematical (theoretical physics). It has happened to me before that some things my earlier project advisor discussed went completely over my head. I found it hard to even jot down such things since I did not understand what he was trying to say (like lots of mathematics jargon). An example: If I am just starting as a PhD student in US and I see my prospective advisor (and his collaborators) discussing about something I feel to be very interesting, I do not think I will be able to pick up all the "deep and subtle ideas" that come up during such discussions (being only a beginner). And if I do not pickup what is deep and what is not, I might miss those important ideas and consequently not jot down. It is very important for me to understand those ideas. I do not think my advisor will be able to clear doubts in such situations as I would not be familiar with such advanced stuff at the time of those discussions. This is why I think it is very helpful in such situations to have a record so that I could go back to it later on when I understand all that jargon. It would save a lot of our time as well if my advisor does not have to repeat things multiple times.

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    With respect to your update - what is essential is that you do not let the jargon go by without clarification then and there. If it is going over your head, you need to bring it back down to your level immediately, otherwise you are wasting your time and your adviser's. Perhaps you think you will feel embarrassed to ask questions, or think it will demonstrate vulnerability. Get over that now - If I found out that a student or post-doc was smiling and nodding their head in a conversation that they didn't understand, I'd feel deceived - if there is an issue we'd better straighten it out now! – Jon Custer Jul 17 '15 at 19:09
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    @JonCuster.. It is not that I feel embarassed. My project advisors have been very friendly so I always tried to clear my doubts. But it is hard to clear doubts in some cases. Example... If my advisor is working on a big theoretical physics problem which requires very advanced mathematics and I have been assigned to work on a small portion (which I could understand), it would be hard to understand anything when the advisor is talking of all the advanced stuff only. Obviously, I would like to take part in those discussions (curiosity) even though I do not understand anything. – singularity Jul 17 '15 at 19:36
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    So, you need to start understanding it. Ask for clarification. Ask where to start. Ask what books or papers to read. This isn't a case where you should play and replay a recording of the conversation alone in your room. The expert is in front of you - ask then and there! – Jon Custer Jul 17 '15 at 19:53
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    @phd-applicant: Ok here is my bit of advice for your more specific situations that you mentioned in your comment. (1) When talking to your advisor alone, you should ask him to write down the important terms or formulas for you to look up on your own if you do not know how to spell it. Then if you face difficulty when learning, ask specific questions to resolve it. (2) If he is really so busy that he has no time apart from the time he spends talking to other professors to explain things at your level, then I think your advisor is not suitable for you, exactly as I suspected earlier. – user21820 Jul 18 '15 at 15:59
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    Everyone learns differently. There are times when I want to sit back and try to take in the big picture. Sometimes, if I get too nitpicky about getting down the details, I find I miss a lot. The point of the notes is for you to be able to work intensively on this between apppointments, and that time will be spent more productively if you have correctly notated equations, terms, references, names, etc. – aparente001 Jul 19 '15 at 17:34
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You need to ask first, and you need to ask without the recording device in your hand.

But sure, why not ask? If I were asked, I would find it a little strange at first, and then I would think about the fact that this shows a real commitment and diligence to keeping track of what is said during our meetings. One of the biggest issues with student/advisor meetings is that it feels like they should happen very informally, but information is often being provided in a way which the student cannot easily or perfectly understand or even take in. So there is often a lot of repetition over a period of weeks, months or years. (Not just between students and advisors, come to think of it.) With that in mind I would be inclined to say yes.

I also strongly disagree with another answer which suggests that an advisor might drop a student for making such a request. This seems to contribute to a sentiment that students should be afraid to discuss things with their advisors, which I see so much of on this site and think is very unfortunate. It would be incredibly unreasonable behavior to drop a student for making this request or really any request which has anything to do with the student's academic or professional life.

Added: My response is not meant to apply to interactions with other people aside from the OP and the advisor.

  • Thank you for your kind response. I am very glad to hear a positive perspective on the issue. As you said, I have had previous experiences where I did not understand what my project advisor was saying to the point that I could not even jot down things in my notebook (lots of mathematics jargon). I think it becomes necessary in such situations to have some record so that I could go back to it later on when I understand all that jargon. – singularity Jul 17 '15 at 18:01
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    On the other hand, if the advisor says no, it is probably best to accept that immediately. – Nate Eldredge Jul 17 '15 at 18:48
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    @Nate: Sure, I agree completely. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 19:58
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    @phd-applicant: I actually don't agree that it is necessary to do this. In fact I tend to agree with other people who suggest that it could be better for you to learn how not to want to do it. But whether to do it is between you and your advisor, and perhaps doing it for a little while will give you the ability / inclination to come back and ask questions about things you didn't feel comfortable doing before. Once you get used to asking questions, maybe you won't need the crutch that got you there anymore. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 23:35
  • @PeteL.Clark...My apologies for using the word "necessary" there. I just meant it would be very helpful in some situations. I am not very stringent about recording the stuff. It is perfectly okay for me to use better alternative methods for keeping track of discussions but I just wished to know what professors think of my idea. And people seem kind of polarized on this issue here. So I think I will definitely look at alternative methods. Thank you for the input again. – singularity Jul 18 '15 at 3:40
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Years ago, one of my doctoral students asked me for permission to record our regular meetings. I said it was OK. Also, now that phones contain cameras, several people have photographed my blackboard at the end of conversations (or in the middle if the board was about to be erased). I have no objections to any of this as long as it's done openly. I would be unhappy if I found out that someone was secretly recording my conversations without asking me for permission.

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    The blackboard (actually white) photography happens to me on a regular basis, usually at the end of a period when everybody is in a hurry to get to their next class. They do ask me for permission - good manners. ;-) – ALAN WARD Jul 17 '15 at 20:06
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    On blackboard photography: I've been in a math class where the professor actually asked the students to photograph the board for him. – apnorton Jul 17 '15 at 21:31
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Though I'm not a professor, I have asked professors to record their notes in class lectures. Here's my insight:

Asking a professor to record lecture notes is socially acceptable (ahead of time; not on the spot), and I think most professors would be understanding and accommodating to someone whose grasp of English isn't level with everyone else in the course or program (not that your English isn't; I'm just stating as a matter-of-fact).

Now, for 1-on-1 meetings, there are two concerns that your professor might be wary of: security and funding. The professor might not completely know what you plan to do with his/her comments, and even if you haven't yet given the professor a reason to distrust you, the professor would rather not find out the hard way as to what might happen with that recording. Furthermore, depending on the area of research (some are more sensitive than others), the recordings might breach or lead to breaches in certain provisions of grant contracts, thus resulting in financial losses for you, your advisor, and/or the university.

Now, is it reasonable that you are an innocent student who just wants to keep the professor's comments accessible for future academic use, where only you use the recordings? Sure. However, that's a lot of added work for the professor to make sure what he/she says isn't used in the future for ulterior purposes, or taken out of context. From what I understand, many professors just don't have that time to take on that extra burden.

May I recommend an alternative? Take a pen and paper pad to your meetings, and let your professor know you'd like to take notes. This is a custom most professors are used to, and are highly likely to have no problem with it. Jot down the bullet points, and then after you leave the professor's office, send him/her an email thanking them for their time, and a quick summary of those bullet points with any questions or clarifications you need. It's more professional, and having track of a two-way conversation that both parties can access is likely to leave the professor more comfortable.

Unless your advisor is shady, but that's a completely different matter.

  • Thank you for your detailed response. Very helpful !...I do have some previous research experience so I am used to of using my notebook to jot down things. But as mentioned in another answer, sometimes it is hard to keep up with the advisor as my field is highly technical and mathematical (my field is theoretical physics). It has happened to me before that somethings my earlier project advisor discussed went completely over my head....I found it hard to even jot down such things since I did not understand what he was trying to say. Apart from that, I am sure my topic is not at all sensitive. – singularity Jul 17 '15 at 17:58
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    You could always ask your advisor to write whichever formula/thing is problematic into YOUR notebook and look things up afterwards - sometimes things are explained a lot easier in writing than in speech (in particular if you dont know the language/jargon) – Gerhard Jul 18 '15 at 8:45
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If you ask first, then there should be no problem. The supervisor can always say no. Personally, if one of my student ask for this, I would probably say no because (1) I expect my students to be able to take notes, (2) if they don't understand, I expect them to be able to ask for clarifications, and (3) I don't like to be recorded. But some other professors may disagree. At least it shows that you are interested in your research.

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There is a style of advising/mentoring in which the advisor/mentor writes notes on a piece of paper as he goes along, and then gives them to the advisee/mentee at the end of the session. The notes won't read like an article or a book. They'll have key equations, some vocabulary terms, perhaps an outline or to-do list, perhaps a question. They are very helpful for an advisee/mentee to review later. If I were in your shoes, I'd rather have written notes, as described, than a tape recording.

It's easier for the one doing the explaining to notate the most important topics.

Your advisor might be persuaded to do this if you explain how it works (or show how it works) and why it will be so helpful for you.

If English isn't your first language, that would give you a built-in excuse for asking for this. Or if your advisor has an accent that's relatively new to you. If you have any suspected or documented learning differences, you can work with the Disability Services office in your institution.

  • Thanks for the great advice. I didn't know advisors do that too. I will definitely ask my advisor if it is possible for him to write down notes as well (in addition to my own notes). And yes, English is not my first language but I think I have been in the English environment for very long to not require any help on that. – singularity Jul 18 '15 at 3:57
  • Don't let your pride keep you from asking for help! If your advisor gets it, and helps you out this way, great. If not, please don't be afraid to play the "non-native speaker of English" card. – aparente001 Jul 19 '15 at 2:52
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No, just no. You do not record other people. Even if your advisor somehow agrees (which he probably won't), what if there are other people in the room (e.g., in the lab when he comes to discuss something with you) or you want to discuss a collaborating paper with another student or discussing a undergraduate thesis with a student you will supervise? Are you planning to record those other people too? There are many countries where it is illegal without permission to do so.

Use a pen and paper or your laptop and take notes like the rest of the world. Academia is exactly like a corporate job in that matter. You do not use recording devices on your colleagues or your supervisors. Even it is not illegal, it makes many people uncomfortable. Moreover, taking notes at meetings is a crucial skill you will need to practice sooner or later.

UPDATE: Some of the other answers do not take under account that the OP is not an experienced academic. Entering his PhD now, his advisor (and implicitly we) are the ones who should introduce him to best (or common) academic practices. And although one may argue that 10 years ago some grad student was freely recording his interactions with his advisor, it is not at all common nor considered best practice. Also, as others have stated it is field-dependent, jurisdiction dependent (for legal issues) and I might add country or culture dependent. So, implying that he can freely ask academics to record their interactions with him, might a) alienate him from them and b) this is not for the OP's best interest.

In this sense, as a wild analogy, it is not different than the OP asking his advisor if it is OK to wear a clown suit everytime they meet. a) Clown suits are not illegal b) He should be able to freely ask his advisor about anything (as @PeteL.Clark suggests) c) The advisor may always say NO. d) Someone might saw someone 10 years ago that wore a clown suit on his defense or during Halloween talking to his supervisor. But is it common? Is it considered best practice? Does it offers any benefits? Might offend some people?

And we (academics or not) all know the answers to these questions. Same as asking academics to record our interactions with them. It is not common, It is not normal practice, it offers no true benefits than pen and paper and some people might get offended or estranged by such request. So, those are strong reasons why the OP should not do it.

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    -1. It's not illegal in every jurisdiction. In many states in the US and under US federal law, if you are a party to the conversation, you may legally record it without the permission of any of the other participants. You should look up the difference between 1-party consent and all-party consent before giving legal advice. – Bill Barth Jul 17 '15 at 16:55
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    @Alexandros, I am perfectly aware of that, it's your first paragraph and its last sentence that is too absolute. It's not illegal in my jurisdiction, so how can you say "It is illegal without permission to do so" in such absolute terms? – Bill Barth Jul 17 '15 at 16:57
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    @Alexandros, nobody, including OP is suggesting that this was to be done surreptitiously. OP intends to ask. No where I know of makes it illegal to record people with their consent, and incidental or accidental recordings of passersby often get a pass. Furthermore, if OP lets folks around know that they're recording, I'm sure it'll work out. Also, I would happily agree to being recorded by a student, especially if there were apparent language issues which there often are with between foreign students and their advisors. – Bill Barth Jul 17 '15 at 17:12
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    continued: However, we as a group were not consulted as to whether we consented. A couple of us do have a problem with it (me included) especially since student in question is notoriously irresponsible with confidential data. Not that there is anything bad said in recordings, it just makes us uneasy. I'd prefer she not record us. Don't know if everyone in a lab group would dissent if the PI agreed, so you kind of put people in a tight spot. I'd ask lab mates individually before bringing it up with PI, if they will in fact be recorded. – bfoste01 Jul 17 '15 at 19:03
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    Just to be clear though: No one here is saying that the OP should record his advisor without his consent. In fact we all agree that he shouldn't, including the OP. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 22:00
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What is wrong with taking notes by hand? You are not a reporter, and don't need to remember your advisors words verbatim. At this point in your career you should be able to take notes while discussing and record the points of the conversation that way. But, if you insist on recording it I don't think it would be poor mannered as long as you approached your advisor about it first.

  • I won't be insisting in anyway. I would be only doing anything the advisor's permission only. I like good coordination. If the advisor is not okay with it, it is all fine for me. I will take definitely take notes though. – singularity Jul 17 '15 at 15:36
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    Some professors in my university spoke fast, unless you recorded and replayed bit-by-bit you wouldn't grasp what they said. And later she would come and say "we had this already covered, lets move forward..." Unless you are a stenographer, sometimes the wrong in taking notes by hand is that the hand is not faster than the mouth. – Mindwin Jul 17 '15 at 17:47
  • What's wrong with recording and reviewing? What someone would prefer to do is entirely opinion based and has nothing to do with the question. – user23776 Jul 17 '15 at 21:21
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This might be subject-dependent. If your field has any social or political relevance, then you might well find that trying to film your supervisions will cause problems. Asking about it will lead your new supervisor(s) to wonder why you want to record everything.

If you don't understand something in a supervision, say so there and then. Don't try to proceed based on a lack of comprehension. Often these things build up on top of each other: the latter half of a supervision can be built upon the foundations put down in the former half. It's foolish to try to wade through a supervision having failed to understand key elements of it, so sort out gaps in your comprehension as soon as they arise. And trust your memory: it's how your memory will become more trustworthy.

A supervision must be an environment where you and your supervisor(s) are able to talk freely about your subject. If your supervisor is put in a situation where anything said in a supervision is recorded, and could be taken out of context later and used against them, then would make supervision harder.

Even if your reasons for recording everything are completely innocent, only you know that. And present-you can't guarantee what future-you will do with the recorded material. Asking to film everything might be interpreted as declaring mistrust. And mistrust is infectious. Injecting mistrust into the supervisory relationship right at the beginning would be extremely unwise. So if your supervisor has the the luxury of walking away, then don't be too surprised if they do.

As you'll have seen from other respondents, academics in some other subjects can see this differently. I guess most maths, and most theoretical physics, feels so sufficiently detached from any social or political relevance, that Climategate (where excerpts from illegally-obtained emails between scientists were taken out of context and used against them, in attempts to destroy their careers) must seem like a different universe. From that perspective, recording supervisions must seem completely risk-free and harmless. That detachment can be an illusion: to take an extreme example, Hardy published "A Mathematician's Apology", in which he celebrated contemporary maths for its supreme detachment from war, after the sending of the Einstein–Szilárd-Teller-Wigner letter which birthed the Manhattan Project.

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    I was about to upvote this answer until I got to the strange, gratuitous swipe about mathematics at the bottom. If you're going to condescendingly suggest that academics in other subjects don't know what they're doing to the extent that they cannot be trusted in their descriptions of their own interactions with their students, please (i) use contemporary examples, not examples from more than 70 years ago and (ii) please fact check: the chronological statement you make in your last sentence is false. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 20:07
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    You mention that academics in mathematics and theoretical physics can have an illusory detachment (followed by an example which is achronological and nonsensical: the mathematics championed by Hardy played no role whatsoever in the Manhattan Project). The clear implication of your answer is that Andreas Blass and I are deluded when we find nothing problematic in having student/advisor mathematical conversations recorded. That is very insulting. If that is not what you meant to say, please edit heavily. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 20:24
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    Hardy, having died in 1947, obviously claims nothing about contemporary mathematics. You are certainly not making any friends with your broad brushwork here. But none of this is very relevant: the point is that a student/advisor relationship is up to the student and the advisor. Suggesting that an advisor might drop a student for making a reasonable suggestion seems very irresponsible, but I've said that already. I also asked you directly whether you actually advise students and would implement such a policy. Until I believe that you do, I have little stake in further discussion. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 20:52
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    @Alexandros: In a subject like mathematics, answers can easily be vetted by anyone in the world with sufficient expertise. Academia is not like that: I find out every day that there are parts of the academic world which do things differently from everything I've seen, sometimes shockingly so. But a certain percentage of the answers on this site seem to come from people who do not have the corresponding experience. When someone says "If I were in this situation, I would do X" then asking "Are you in a position to ever be in that situation?" is a fair question. – Pete L. Clark Jul 17 '15 at 21:57
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    @paulgarrett I was actually trying to sympathise with other answers that had come to the opposite conclusion to me, and explain why other people might reason that that filming all supervisions was always completely harmless, and that this could be related to whether or not the subject was perceived as being socially and politically relevant. ironic, huh? – EnergyNumbers Jul 18 '15 at 4:42
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It's not a breach of privacy if you have asked and received permission. That being said, the only way you can get permission is if you ask. It should not be considered rude if you ask, at least not if you are willing to accept a no for an answer. Be polite when you ask, explain thoroughly and honestly your reasoning. Offer, perhaps ask if they want to know, the procedure you will use to record (will you be using a iPhone or tape recorder? a large microphone complete with boom, spider mount, wind breaker placed over head.... etc). Be forth coming addressing any concerns they may have.

If they say no, then no, don't do it. I have known some who have secretly recorded even when they were told it was not OK. Personally I don't know why a professor would have any objections, many are now making online course material along side other graduate students.

Good luck to you.

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    Personally I don't know why a professor would have any objections, many are now making online course material along side other graduate students. — Most (if not all?) of the material covered in courses is in the open-domain, but some details of research may not be; for example, some academic research projects deal with sensitive information, such as those in the US which are ITAR-restricted. In these cases, a professor will most likely not approve of having research meetings recorded. – Mad Jack Jul 18 '15 at 3:19
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    @MadJack, so don't record export controlled conversations! I don't understand why we've twisted ourselves to find conversations that can't be recorded so that we can object to the idea of recording generally. – Bill Barth Jul 19 '15 at 18:55
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    @BillBarth I personally think that a student asking to record conversations with an advisor (and doing so if the advisor agrees) is an acceptable course of action. – Mad Jack Jul 19 '15 at 20:07

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