How to prepare for a meeting with your PhD supervisor like a pro
Meetings with your PhD supervisors can either feel a bit daunting or they can feel like endless chats with no real purpose. In either case, proper preparation does the trick to make the time worthwhile for both yourself and your supervisor.
First, it’s important to clarify what the role of a PhD supervisor is. In some countries, they are called thesis advisors, which I think is a more accurate description. The supervisor is not meant to manage your day-to-day work, teach you particular skills, or check your work. Supervisors may do all of these things in some capacity, but you should not expect that. Your supervisor is meant to be someone with expertise and experience in your area who can advise you while you carry out your independent research project. No matter if you are working with a famous professor who spends most of their time on the road or a new faculty member you see all the time, preparation is key to get the most useful advice for yourself and your project. So, let’s jump in and see how you can prepare like a pro.
Write an agenda
I strongly recommend that you write a meeting agenda. Writing an agenda for a one-on-one meeting may sound like a bit of an overkill, but, in my experience, it is extremely useful. The agenda helps to bring everyone on the same page regarding the current state of the project. It’s also a great starting point to anchor the discussion and frame your questions. Further, the collection of agendas can serve as a progress log for your project. If you or your supervisor tend to get lost in thoughts, the agenda is also a useful tool to get through the most important points in the allocated time. Here is a recommended structure for the agenda:
1. Progress since the last meeting
Summarise what you have done since the last meeting here. Your supervisor is probably involved in a lot of different projects and may not be aware of the details of your project. Therefore, it’s best to provide some context. For instance, start with a heading that connects to a particular aspect of your project or highlight in a sentence how this work relates to the overall question that you want to address. If you discussed particular steps forward during the last meeting, you can connect to that here, too.
You can include figures or tables if it helps to get your point across. But keep it short. If you include endless results or countless figures, you and your supervisor will probably get lost. It can be useful to have additional figures and tables accessible in case they are useful for your discussion but do not include too much in the agenda itself.
2. Questions, challenges
Now that you are both on the same page, you can bring up any questions that you had or any challenges that you encountered. If you suggest some potential solutions, it’s even better. Your supervisor can help you with troubleshooting. If there are any barriers, it’s also useful to bring it up. For instance, if you couldn’t get your results in time, because the lab was too busy, your supervisor may give you priority access. It can also be helpful to mention if you felt overwhelmed or if you felt like you were juggling too many things. You can discuss ways to mitigate these challenges with the help of your supervisor.
This will be preliminary and will change over the course of the discussion with your supervisor, but it’s a good idea to have at least a basic overview of what you plan to work on over the next period. Depending on your preferences and the needs of your project, this can be very simple. For instance, you can create a bullet point list with rough plans, e.g. pilot task with lab members next week, draft application for research ethics. If you are working on multiple parallel projects, it can be useful to include a Gantt chart to provide an overview of the general progress.
If you have any additional things planned, like seminar talks, conference travel, or annual leave, it’s good to include this in your plans, too, to make sure that your supervisor is aware of it. If you need input from your supervisor, e.g. commenting on draft, check their availability, especially if it is time-sensitive. If you haven’t agreed on a meeting schedule already, you can also plan that.
Here is an example schedule:
Preparing an agenda using this three-section structure should significantly make the meetings with your supervisors a lot more productive. To make it maximally mutually beneficial, you can even send the agenda to your supervisor a few days in advance to give them time to read through it before the meeting.
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