How Not to Suck at Meeting with Your Supervisor

There is wide variability in how supervisors meet with their graduate students. Some see each other every day and are otherwise continuously available. Others see their supervisor at the beginning of the academic year and say, “Good luck and God bless. I will see you at the end of the term.” Somewhere in the middle are the regular or semi-regular meetings. So how should this time be used? And how can you make the most of the precious time that you have with your supervisor?

Regular meetings with your supervisor reduce the drama in graduate school. There is a time and place for drama, but progress through graduate school is neither. Goals, timelines, frequent assessment of progress toward goals, taking advantage of teachable moments, and allowing students increasing independence and responsibility are all positive aspects of supervisions. Clear expectations, deadlines, with some how-to liberally sprinkled about lead to a no drama (or minimal drama) graduate experience.

Unless your supervisor has really given a lot of thought to supervision, then their supervision style is likely a bit chaotic. Not neglectful, but simply something that occurs in fits and starts ranging from sharing brilliant insights to total forgetfulness of your existence. As such, it is up to the students to add a bit of structure to supervision without rocking the supervisor boat. Here are some tips:

  1. Have regularly scheduled meetings. They could be daily or monthly. But make them regular. I meet with each student in my lab individually for 30 minutes per week. Sending your supervisor a reminder note the day before is never a bad idea.
  2. Just like students do not need drama, neither do the supervisors. Make sure they have a heads up before you drop really big questions on them. Academics like surprise less than sleepy cats, so some foreshadowing before big questions please (e.g., What if I want to change my thesis research to something entirely different?). If your discussion requires that the supervisor prepare for the meeting, then send these topics and questions to the supervisor in advance.
  3. Come prepared with a list of topics and specific questions for discussion. The rule for face-to-face meetings is that news or a simple Q&A can be transmitted through e-mail/text; but topics that require discussion, debate, and consensus building are for meetings. So make sure that your topics are such that a face-to-face meeting is required. Usually the act of preparing such a list is extremely helpful in articulating your needs and clarifying your own thinking.
  4. I always like a little chit chat to start a meeting. Not everyone does. I want to get a sense that students are in good physical and mental health, and are generally available to get work done. Any big events in their lives that might be stressors are good to know. Sometimes work is just not the most important thing.
  5. Always review important events in your timeline. For example, “Chapter one is due in three weeks. I am on pace to meet that deadline and will have a draft to you on time.” Or “This chapter is taking longer than I thought it would. I will have it finished in four weeks.” Excuses, no matter how good are not productive to discuss. I care about the student, but do not care about the excuse. FYI—there is no difference between an excuse and a reason. What I want to hear is: there is a problem, the student has developed an alternative approach that reduces the impact of the problem, and the student checks to see if their solution is satisfactory. I also do not really care that you tried really hard. Just say that you do not know how to do something and you require knowledge or skills on how to complete a task. My fault for not providing appropriate support. Science is a results-driven business. And do not apologize. I am not personally offended or usually harmed if things do not go well. Stuff happens: the original deadlines were unrealistic, the student did not have the requisite skills, some unexpected event occurred that interfered with task completion, or something else. The problems are rarely totally the student’s fault. My major concern is: how can we overcome the problems and get back on the timeline?
  6. Listen and take notes. Thinking, “I don’t need to write this down, I will remember” is a recipe for disaster—or at least forgetting.
  7. After the meeting send the supervisor an e-mail/text that summarizes the major points of the meeting. This serves many purposes. So you can ensure agreement on the results of the meeting. It is amazing how two people can be at the same meeting and draw very different conclusions. A reminder of the action plans and deadlines. Sometimes students say to me, “Don’t forget to do that thing that we talked about.” And I am totally clueless as I have forgotten. Or worse, “I don’t remember agreeing to do that.” The student can then say, check your e-mail of X date. I usually look for that e-mail, find it, and say, “Damn, I did agree to do that. Okay.” It just ensures that we are on the same page and creates strong accountability for both parties.
  8. The final step in the meeting is to schedule the next meeting. If you have regularly scheduled meetings then a quick reminder of the day and time of the next meeting is adequate.

A good rule of meetings is that 40% of the purpose of the meeting is done before, 20% at the meeting, and 40% after the meeting. The act of preparing and reviewing the outcomes of meetings with the supervisor will go a long way in minimizing the big stressors and avoidable headaches of graduate school; and just as importantly, keep your relationship with your supervisor on a productive footing.

S. R. Shaw

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One thought on “How Not to Suck at Meeting with Your Supervisor

  1. These are all really, really great! Especially for students coming straight from undergrad, where everything has to be done exactly according to a schedule from on high unless you have a big dramatic sob story, transitioning to a relationship in which you’re basically trusted to be an adult who can set and meet their own reasonable deadlines. I know for me especially, it took a long time to realize that I as the PhD student was supposed to go to my supervisors and say “we agreed on thing X, but I encountered problem Y, and I intend to do Z about it, does that sound okay to you?” rather than just “I can’t do X, please don’t hate me.” After a meeting with my (totally amazing!) supervisors, I still always have to remind myself that it’s primarily about the science, not me.

    Though admittedly my supervisors are not the best at answering even yes/no questions via email — and they tell us up front that if we want something quick from them, our best bet is to ambush them in the corridor. And in the flipped role, I had to train the Master’s student I was supervising to send me separate emails if he had both this-will-take-you-30-seconds-and-I-need-to-know-it-now questions and these-are-long-and-complicated-sorry questions. Unsurprisingly, people vary on how they like things done.

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