- Learn to recognize different types of communication styles in yourself and others.
- Learn to avoid common problems associated with ineffective communication styles.
- Learn to use assertive techniques in your interactions with others.
- Learn to set appropriate boundaries and limits.
- Learn to understand and navigate situations in which gender can be a barrier to assertiveness.
- Learn to promote assertiveness in yourself and others.
What a week! My advisor asked me to stay after hours three different times to do various tasks on our project. And then Miguel asked me to review his paper; and I did, even though my paper is also due on Friday. And why am I the only one who ever fills the copier with paper—Peter said it was broken and had me “fix” it by putting in a new ream. Ugh!
This might be an example of a difficult week, or reflective of a rough spot into which this student has fallen. She can’t seem to say “no!”. You may have even found yourself in similar situations. When people encounter these kinds of difficult or uncomfortable moments, and/or they notice negative patterns affecting their work, they tend to react in one of the following ways1:
- Do nothing (avoid the issue)
- Play the victim (blame someone else)
- Get their way no matter what (act aggressively)
- Be sensitive to others but stand up for themselves (act assertively)
While they can choose to do any of the above, an assertive response (option 4) will likely produce the most positive outcomes. Assertiveness is a style of communication that focuses on advocating for yourself. Different from aggression, being assertive means standing up for and communicating what you want in a clear fashion, while respecting your rights and feelings along with the rights and feelings of others1. People who act assertively2:
- Are active in their environment and make things happen
- Express their thoughts, feelings and needs
- Communicate with others in an honest and direct way
- Show self-respect by acknowledging their shortcomings but not beating themselves up
Acting assertively will empower you in your interactions, both personally and professionally. It can lower your stress and enhance your coping strategies. In fact, women who are more assertive reported in a study that they felt they had more control over important tasks and felt more able to take on challenges3. This module will help you be able to recognize assertiveness, and will teach you some approaches for being assertive in your own interactions with others.
Learning Assertive Behaviors
To get an idea of your level of assertiveness, ask yourself the following four questions4:
- Do you feel imposed upon/taken advantage of, or ignored in your exchanges with colleagues?
- Are you unable to speak your mind and ask for what you want?
- Do you find it difficult to stand up for yourself in a discussion?
- Are you inordinately grateful when someone seeks your opinion and takes it into account?
If you answer ‘yes’ to most of these questions, you may need to consider becoming more assertive. While it can feel more “natural’ to certain people, being assertive takes practice like any other skill. If you find that it is difficult for you to be assertive, keep in mind that anyone can learn these skills and behaviors—they’re not inherent to any one personality or type of individual.
NOT asserting yourself in the academic environment brings drawbacks. By not being assertive, you may miss out on funding opportunities or fellowships, or even being considered for such opportunities. By not speaking out when you are treated unfairly, you can implicitly condone the status quo or even reinforce biased stereotypes. Being non-assertive in the classroom can also affect how your professors view your work. In fact, studies have shown that professors sometimes feel like they have to “spoon feed” materials to students if students don’t take an active role in their work5. In the workplace, acting unassertively can lead to being passed over for job opportunities and promotions, lower pay, less work satisfaction, and lowered self-esteem. The “bottom line” is that if you are communicating openly, being clear about your needs, expressing your concerns, and taking initiative—all in a timely manner—you will be more successful in your academic and professional endeavors.
Since having the baby, I’ve been so busy and it’s taking me more time to get my assignments completed than it did before. Again, I’m going to need an extension on a paper because my baby was sick all week. I should…
Best answer: b. While each of these options is a possible way for the woman in the scenario to deal with the situation, answer B is the most assertive option. It is important to let her professor know her situation (a). However, this approach puts the onus on her professor to come up with a solution, and may give the impression of being unprepared or even manipulative [see Expressing Yourself]. Being passive (c) can cause her to receive unwarranted low marks that might be easily avoided by a more assertive approach. Avoidant coping (d) will cause her to have more work to do in the long run. By being clear with her professor, (b) she effectively advocates for her needs given the context of her situation. She also offers an alternative option, and leaves that open for negotiation with her professor.
Passive vs. Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication
Assertiveness is an interpersonal communication technique that we can employ when we need to obtain a particular goal or objective. When we are assertive, we are able to express ourselves in a way that doesn’t violate the rights or needs of others, while advocating for our own wants and needs. However, you may have also heard of aggressive or passive communication. Aggressive communication violates the rights of others in favor of oneself, while passive communication disregards one’s own rights in favor of others6.
By becoming aware of the characteristics of these styles, you can begin to see the things you need and want to change in order to become more assertive. Table 1 shows different aspects of these approaches, and examples of what they might look like.
These approaches encompass our behaviors and methods for dealing with other people. Aggressive tactics come across as too strong, inflexible, antagonistic, and self-centered. The passive approach leaves your needs unmet, and may paint you as “weak” or even unreliable2. Behaving assertively, however, can help you meet your goals firmly and effectively, while remaining sensitive to the other person’s needs and rights.
Gender and Assertiveness
Assertive expressions and how they are perceived are often a function of gender. Women are significantly less likely than men to use assertive speech in mixed-gender interactions10. Women are also two to three times less likely to initiate negotiations than men11. Not acting assertively in these situations can lead to significant consequences—less pay, fewer opportunities, or even getting passed over for awards, honors, or promotions [see Negotiation for more].
Lack of assertiveness in women can be tied to socialization. Society expects women to be passive, non-confrontational, interdependent, accommodating, and nurturing12. Remember that these are just expectations—they are not how it has to be. However, because expressing yourself assertively as a woman can go against some of these societal expectations, it is important to be prepared for others’ reactions, so that you can deal with them effectively.
In most cultures, characteristics of assertiveness and leadership are associated with men and masculinity13, while women are thought to be more communal, unselfish, and care-taking. This mismatch between qualities attributed to women and qualities necessary for assertiveness and leadership subjects women to a double standard. Women from different cultural backgrounds may feel even more uncomfortable by these kinds of norms.
Conversely, women in leadership positions can be thought of as too aggressive or not aggressive enough, and what appears to be assertive in men often looks confrontational, or self-promoting in women12. When women who are performing traditionally male roles are seen as doing something that conforms to feminine stereotypes, they are judged as too soft, too emotional, and too unassertive14. This double standard may make it difficult to stand up for yourself, or discourage you from acting assertively altogether. However, if you choose not to assert yourself, you can be viewed as passive, or even worse—that you agree with or accept whatever situation may be troubling you!
While gender presents some unique challenges to being assertive, you can overcome these challenges by maintaining awareness, practicing your skill set, and being consistent in your assertions. Here are a few suggestions for women who are navigating being assertive in a traditionally male-dominated environment [see Expressing Yourself for more]:
- Don’t rush in. If you use strong assertion too much and too early, you will likely be perceived as aggressive by some people. Ease in, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of—it’s not necessary to be assertive all the time, but it is important to establish that precedent.
- Watch your thoughts. To stay assertive, get in to the mindset of thinking assertively. Learn to recognize your negative self-statements, and replace them with affirmations and confident language.
- Project a positive image. Visualize how you would like to be—form a mental image of an assertive you, then make that image as real as possible.
- Be confident but sensitive in the way you express yourself. Watch out for verbal and nonverbal expressions that convey lack of confidence [see Expressing Yourself]. Use positive body language and Active Listening skills to help put others at ease.
- Recognize communication styles in others, and respond appropriately. If you are dealing with a passive person, then rather than let them be silent, encourage them to contribute. When dealing with an aggressive communicator, prevent the situation from getting out of hand by adopting one of the tactics above, like “Let me think about it first,” giving you time to gather your thoughts, and them time to calm down.
Marginalization, sexism, and harassment
Did he just say what I think he said? Why do I always have to order lunch for the group meetings? Why am I expected to stop my work to help Carlos with his regression model?
Do you find yourself noticing inequities in your department or within your group? Women still report sensing the expectation that they clean up the lab or bring the coffee much like their mothers and grandmothers did at home decades ago.
Experiences with subtle sexism or an array of “micro-inequities” based on stereotyped views of women are still common, especially in environments and disciplines with few women.
Certain glances, gestures, words, omissions, and behaviors may be subtle, may go unnoticed much of the time, and may even be expressed without awareness. Even though they may not be illegal like sexual harassment, or constitute actionable discrimination, they are nonetheless “inappropriate, unfair, painful, and destructive6” to their targets. If you’re noticing this happening in your environment or experiencing this yourself, it’s important to be proactive and do something about it. Even a small action, such as a candid comment, a clear facial expression, or short conversation can have a big effect. Otherwise, you will likely be experiencing these behaviors for some time to come—they are reflective of another person’s behavior patterns. For more serious types of situations, know your rights and know the law. If this is happening to you, it’s most likely happening or has happened to others.
My labmates and I were going through the donations our department received for refugees in Darfur. Among the boxes were an apron and some cooking utensils. Ben pulls them out, hands them to me, and says, “What every woman needs! Here you go—Merry Christmas!”
Of the following options, which would you do?
Best Answer: a.. This scenario provides an example of how sexism, although subtle and often presented as a joke, is still very much alive and well today. You can handle such situations effectively by addressing the situation, establishing what is/is not acceptable to you, and maintaining rapport. Option B is a relatively common type of response and while it offers a small outward expression that Ben’s comment was not appreciated, the omission of a verbal response is passive and leaves the door open for such comments in the future. Options C and D are too passive, and can cause you to feel angry. They also offer no solutions. Option A addresses the remark, using humor to convey that the statement was not appreciated, while at the same time not coming across as angry.
Preparing to Be Assertive
As you are preparing to be more assertive with others, keep the following in mind:
- Remember that assertiveness is a skill set that takes practice. It may be necessary to practice the techniques and guidelines in some neutral situations in which you won’t be too emotionally charged. As you gain proficiency, you can start applying them in more difficult situations.
- Watch your nonverbals (see Expressing Yourself). It is possible to use assertive techniques in an aggressive or passive way if you are not careful with your nonverbal communication. Remember to keep your voice calm, maintain eye contact, and keep a relaxed and confident body posture.
- When you’re going to assert yourself, make sure that you don’t make assumptions about the other person’s motivations. It’s important to distinguish “intent from impact7.” If someone has done or said something that has upset you, don’t assume he or she has done it intentionally. They might have simply made a careless remark, or they might not have known that what or how they said/did it was hurtful or upsetting to you. Depending on how you act, the other person may feel attacked and become so busy defending him or herself that you will have a difficult time making your point.
Using Assertive “I” Messages
“I” messages are an effective way to express your standpoints in difficult situations5. “I” statements help you take responsibility for your part of the issue—your feelings and your perception of the problem and how it affects you—while addressing effectively the behavior of the other person in the situation. Using “I” creates a dialogue where you are stating your own feelings and thoughts and can’t be so easily dismissed or refuted.
When using “I” messages, keep the focus on yourself and how you feel, given the other person’s behavior. If you initially frame the concern with pronouns and phrases like “you,”—“you really frustrate me when you forget our deadlines and make our projects late,” you’re suggesting the other person is to blame, which may put them on the defensive. A more productive way of asserting your feelings might be to say, “I feel frustrated when our projects get turned in late. I want to work together better to meet our deadlines because I feel like I’m doing what I can to get them in on time.” Using “us” and “we” statements helps propose arrangements that can satisfy both parties without damaging the relationship8.
Acting More Assertively
Using “I” messages is a foundational skill for expressing yourself assertively. See how they are used in Table 2, which outlines six techniques for acting assertively6.
Practice being assertive
There are many verbal and non-verbal aspects of assertive communication which each play an important role in how you convey your message and how it is received by the other person (See Expressing Yourself). Using assertive communication takes practice, and you may be able to combine aspects of your current style with tips provided in this breif to find a style that both fits you and helps you get what you want out of a communication interaction. Practice the following exercises to challenge yourself to try something different, and observe what does/does not work each time to problem-solve and find your right balance:
Remember, trying out new styles of communication can demonstrate your adaptability and flexibility, but be aware that others may be unsure about how to respond to you at first. Others may be surprised initially and you may be surprised by how others respond to you (See Receiving and Responding to Feedback). Be confident about your self-experimentation and be prepared to troubleshoot afterward.
Applying Assertiveness to Your Interactions with Others
As stated above, when you choose to assert yourself, be sure you know the reason(s) behind your decision. If you are sure of your reasons, you will be less likely to get angry or emotional. Make sure your priority when asserting yourself is to express your personal limits, clarify something important, and/or create positive change9.
An important part of expressing your limits is “calling out” others when they engage in a behavior that you find to be inappropriate, offensive, or just too much. How many times has one of your labmates offended female colleagues, unbeknownst to him? Calling out the person in this situation is important, but it may not be easy. Research has shown that when women experience sexism, they are more likely to confront the person who committed the inappropriate behavior when they know that doing so will make a difference, and when they also know that the risks of doing so are low19. This may describe how you have felt when similar situations have happened to you. However, keep in mind that calling out the other person does you both a favor. You may not be able to change his attitude or behaviors permanently, but you can place limits and expectations on your shared space, and maybe spare your colleague a few dirty looks from others.
Being assertive also entails standing up for yourself when necessary. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you think your labmates, class, or group are taking advantage of you? If you do not act assertively in these situations, you run the risk of communicating to others that you are okay with what’s going on, or that you even agree! Remember: others may not know that something is a problem for you or bothers you unless tell them.
In some cases, it’s up to you to express what is and is not acceptable to you. Table 4 illustrates some examples of how you can use assertiveness to do so, and the effect it has on you and others.
Many students come late to the class for which you are a teaching assistant. The number of students who arrive after class starts varies from day to day, but it bothers you each time it happens. What would you do?
Best answer: c. By being direct and explicit up front, and being consistent with your consequences, you can handle these types of situations most effectively. If it bothers you when students come in late, they will not know explicitly that this is a problem for you unless you tell them. Doing so in a passive or reactive manner (a) can cause you to feel mistreated, frustrated, or even resentful. Being unassertive (b) will set a precedent that will allow your students to take advantage of you. Conversely, inconsistency (d) can often be confusing and frustrating to others. Option C takes care of these issues, and leaves you open to the fact that people are often doing things that are merely their usual pattern of behavior. In order for them to make a change in that behavior, you will have to assert what your rules are. It’s also best to get it in writing so that the agreement is in a tangible form.
One of the most difficult challenges people face in becoming more assertive is learning to say “no.” However, saying “no” is one of the most effective and clear ways to set a limit on what you will or will not do, as well as on what behaviors and terms you find unacceptable. Often people don’t know their own limits—so they don’t know when to say “no.” Moreover, many people have difficulty saying “no” because they are afraid that doing so will lead to adverse consequences or missed opportunities. They may even feel like they can or should say “yes” to everything. If you fail to establish limits by saying “no” when appropriate, you may end up with too much on your plate—leaving you to feel over-extended, under-appreciated, or unfairly treated.
When to say “no”
Knowing when to say no can be a difficult task, but it is essential. One way to determine whether it is okay to say no is to ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it benefit my interests to say no?
- Example: Your labmates want you to help write an article near the end of the semester, but you are concerned about the amount of time it will take and how it will affect your schoolwork.
- Possible Answer: If I say no to writing this article, then I’ll have more time to spend on my schoolwork.
- Example: Your advisor wants you to go to a conference to help her present over the break, but you have other long-standing plans.
- Possible Answer: By not going to this conference, my advisor will have to present alone. But he’ll be okay, and will probably ask another student to help.
- Example: You have been approved to take a leave of absence next semester, but one of your professors is pushing heavily for you to work on her grant.
- Possible Answer: I have chosen to take a leave of absence next semester so I’ll have to tell Dr. Avedes that I won’t be able to work on his grant.
- Example: Your dissertation proposal is taking up too much time for you to finish some writing projects.
- Possible Answer: I can’t graduate without finishing my dissertation, so just because writing my proposal is taking up too much of my time I can’t really say I just don’t want to do it.
How to say “no”
Learning how to say no firmly yet gracefully is an essential skill. The following tables offer guidelines on how to say “no” both to things people say or do (behaviors) and requests or scenarios (situations) that go beyond your limits of what is acceptable:
Remember that it is within your right to be able to say no, and that doing so is perfectly reasonable. Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself too much—you are entitled to say no, especially if you have thought about why you are saying it. Being simple and concise can convey confidence; giving a lengthy, nervous explanation of why you just said no can lead to further confusion.
10 Rules for Promoting Assertiveness
Again, remember that assertiveness is a skill set that takes practice. The following are 10 rules to follow that can help you promote assertiveness in your interactions with others.
- Know what you will and will not put up with9. You don’t want to be overly vigilant or extremely passive. There’s a comfortable and appropriate middle ground, one that only you can define for yourself. You also have the right to say “no” and not feel like a terrible person.
- Just say NO. Somehow “no” has become a foul word, a reflection of inability, or an indication that you’re not committed. Change how you think about “no.” Refer to the prior section on “how to say no” for tips on handling the situation tactfully. Your saying “no” and letting them know where you stand also helps other people work for the collective good more effectively.
- Focus on RIGHT NOW. Regardless of your personal style, culture, or upbringing, it’s important to learn some skills and make appropriate adjustments that suit how things are for you NOW. Don’t let yourself be distracted by forever, or even by later when you go home to your roommate or companion—instead focus on the academic environment where you find yourself at this moment. It’s like a skill set you may have for the lab: you must clean and sterilize your equipment—that’s common practice for experiments. However, you wouldn’t have the same standards for your dishes at home. The same goes for your attitude and awareness in the academic environment. You may have to do things that you may ordinarily find uncomfortable, but they work in this context.
- Difficult, yes, impossible, no. Don’t make a bad situation worse. Even though you may face difficult situations all the time, focusing on the negative aspects of these situations can make them seem much more difficult than they really are. There is a big distinction between an untenable situation and an issue that is merely uncomfortable or irritating7.
- A little good humor goes a long way. Practice your responses. Often humor or poignant one-liners can drive home a point without making it a drawn-out discussion or serious issue. Perhaps you’ve had a deer-in-the-headlights reaction when a colleague made a rude comment. After being silent, you may have reviewed the situation in your head, wishing you had done something differently. Since inappropriate comments are unfortunately quite prevalent in certain environments, you may have another (if not many) opportunities to address these types of behaviors.
- What will happen if…? Remember not to make assumptions. An important question to ask yourself is “what will happen if I ask?” or “what will happen if we talk about this situation?” Will the world come to an end? Probably not. Even if you say the wrong thing, or don’t get the result you were hoping for, you can always do something different next time.
- Careful listening. When discussing difficult issues, remember to listen. Listening is an active process, where you are paying attention and considering what the other person is saying [see Active Listening]. While you may be tempted to defend yourself or make an important clarification; there will be a time when you can do that. If you are not listening, you may be reading things into a situation that are not really intended.
- Being active. You don’t have to assert yourself only because an uncomfortable situation has arisen. Learning to define your needs is a good step towards meeting your personal and professional goals. You can use your assertiveness skills to take initiative in your workplace by expressing your ability to take on leadership responsibilities. You can do the same in the school environment by sharing your thoughts on the material/information being discussed.
- The Chinese Bamboo Tree. After careful preparation of the soil, this plant grows only underground for its first four years of life. Then in its fifth year, it can grow up to eighty feet! This is a metaphor for the importance of gaining strength and empowerment from the inside out7. The underground lifespan of the bamboo tree is an example of how you may not see immediate results to your planning, preparation, and work. However, you are indeed growing and gaining strength. At the right time with the right skills and effort, things will change.
- It’s all about you. Understand and take responsibility for the fact that you, and only you, create your perspectives and feelings. These perspectives and feelings create your reality17. This is a lot of responsibility but also gives you a great deal of control. When people feel powerless or think that a situation is outside of their control, it allows them to put the blame or accountability elsewhere. Keep things in perspective and know that regardless of the other person’s response, you’ve done your best to address the situation.
As a woman in a science, technology, engineering, or math field, you are a member of a minority. Because of that, there will be inequities that affect you. However, it won’t always be this way, and by being assertive now, you can empower yourself but also other women in your field. Asserting yourself as a professional woman can help eradicate unhelpful gender stereotypes and pave the way for others to come.
- Try journaling the situations in which you find it difficult to be assertive—write down the people who were there, your thoughts and behaviors, and other things that may have been obstacles. You’ll be more aware for the next time and you’ll be able to track your progress.
- If you struggle with being assertive, remember that as you become more assertive it will be a change in your interpersonal style to which others may not be accustomed. They may meet it with resistance at first. Stay with it!
- When others are being persistent in their requests and you feel it a violation of your rights to comply, stay calm and let yourself be a “broken record”—remain firm in your assertions and they’ll eventually get it.
- Bloom, L. Z., Coburn, K., & Pearlman, J. C. (1975). The new assertive woman. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
- Alberti, R., & Emmons, M. (2008). Your perfect right: Assertiveness and equality in your life and relationships (9th ed.). CA: Impact.
- Tomaka, J., Palacios, R., Schneider, K. T., Colotla, M., Concha, J. B., & Herrald, M. M. (1999). Assertiveness predicts threat and challenge reactions to potential stress among women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 1008-1021. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1998
- Black, A. C. (2009). Assert yourself: How to find your voice and make your mark. London: Bloomsbury.
- Sinclair, G., Laskowitz, K., & Sinclair, J. (2000). Gender differences in teams: Recognizing the proper level of assertiveness. Journal of Engineering Technology, 17, 48-51.
- Michel, F., & Fursland, A. Assert Yourself! Retrieved on May 15, 2012. http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/infopax.cfm?Info_ID=51
- Hayes, S.C, Strosahl, K.D. & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Ury, W. (2007). The power of a positive no: How to say no and still get to a yes. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
- Back, K., & Back, K. (2005). Assertiveness at work: A practical guide to handling awkward situations, (3rd Ed.). Berkshire, England: McGraw Hill.
- Leaper, C., & Ayres, M. M. (2007). A meta-analytic review of gender variations in adults’ language use: Talkativeness, affiliative speech, and assertive speech. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), 328-363. doi:10.1177/1088868307302221
- Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2007). Women don’t ask: The high cost of avoiding negotiation and positive strategies for change. New York: Bantam Dell.
- Heilman, M. E., & Parks-Stamm, E. J. (2007). Gender stereotypes in the workplace: Obstacles to women’s career progress. In S. J. Correll (Ed.), Social psychology of gender: Advances in group processes: 47-77. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
- Dennis, M. R., & Kunkel, A. D. (2004). Perceptions of men, women, and CEOs: The effects of gender identity. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 32, 155-172. doi:10.2224/sbp.2004.32.2.155
- Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. C. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
- Twenge, J. M. (2001). Changes in women’s assertiveness in response to status and roles: A cross-temporal meta-analysis, 1931-1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 133-145. doi: 10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.52.
- Rowe, M. (1990). Barriers to equality: The power of subtle discrimination to maintain unequal opportunity. Employee Responsibility Rights, 3, 153-163.
- Ellis, A., & Powers, M. G. (2000). The secret of overcoming verbal abuse. California: Wilshire Book Company.
- Tavakoli, S., Lumley, M. A., Hijazi, A. M., Slavin-Spenny, O. M., & Parris, G. P. (2009). Effects of assertiveness training and expressive writing on acculturative stress in international students: A randomized trial, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 56, 590-596. doi:10.1037/a0016634
- Good, J. J., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Sanchez, D. T. (2012). When do we confront? Perceptions of costs and benefits predict confronting discrimination on behalf of the self and others. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36(2), 210-226. doi:10.1177/0361684312440958
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