My office used to be next to the PhD students and so often I would come across one of them looking disappointed after a meeting or nervous before the next, or hiding from their supervisor altogether. And obviously when I was a student I would be surrounded by students that complain about their supervisors (including me).

I don’t have any superior knowledge about communication but here are some comments I have given students quite often so I might as well write it down.

While most of this is from my conversations with students, I’m adding some Dos and Don’ts from a supervisor perspective at the end.

 

Step 1: Set objectives and expectations

Why are you disappointed after or apprehensive before a meeting? Probably because you didn’t achieve (are afraid of not achieving) what you wanted to achieve. And what do you want to achieve?

It’s important to give it a bit of thought because

  • Knowing what you want allows you to allocate energy and time, for preparation but also at the meeting (e.g., you want to get feedback for your presentation but also for that other draft with a deadline that they don’t know about)
  • Some objectives contradict each other so you’ll need to prioritize one over another (e.g., getting a lot of feedback vs. convincing your supervisor that you are the best and independent and hence need little supervision)
  • Sometimes you’ll realize that what you want to achieve is not particularly useful (e.g., professionalism will make the meeting for your supervisor easier and more enjoyable than jokes even if they laugh about them)
  • Being explicit about goals allows you to not forget some of your goals during the meeting (e.g., asking about the name of that conference or command… and then afterwards you get stuck immediately again)
  • Objectives that you haven’t consciously thought about can make you emotional and less able to learn (e.g., what you really want is your supervisor to tell you how great you are) so you should make a conscious decision about how important they really are
  • Some objectives are better achieved if your supervisor prepares – but you do need to tell them in time (e.g., how did they compute that thing in their paper 20 years ago?)
  • Some objectives are more useful for you, others are useful for both of you (e.g., confronting your advisor first is harder on you but ultimately better for your relationship than complaining to others). Which ones do you prioritize?

 

Step 2: Identify communication problems

There are 1 million blogs and books about how to communicate better so you better figure out which ones you want to read. To do so you may ask yourself questions such as

  • What is it that throws you off the path? If it is something they say or the tone they say that, what triggered them saying that? (e.g., you always start crying when they say “why didn’t you”…) How did you react and is there a better reaction you could have?
  • What is it that you have difficulties saying? (e.g., you wish you could say no when they ask you to update those unrelated slides)
  • Where do your meetings get stuck? (e.g., they always end up saying “these specifications are wrong. Come back when you fixed that and we discuss more” after 5 minutes and the meeting ends)

 

Step 3: Prepare

As with anything in life, preparation makes meeting with your advisor easier, more useful, and probably more pleasant for both of you.

  • Procrastination: Really not wanting to prepare probably means that you are nervous and dread the thought of the meeting, which means that it’s even more important to prepare. Go do something nice to make the tension go away and if that doesn’t help procrastinate by writing a to-do list for your meeting prep.
  • Content: Make sure you know or have ready all your need to achieve your goals from step 1. Props cannot hurt (notes, slides, numbers) and you don’t need to show them if you end up not wanting/needing to. Examples are helpful if your advisor has trouble understanding your problems, and really generally are.
  • Communication: Google your problem from step 2 and see what experts have to say about it. Make sure you know the triggers so that you can spot them coming on during the meeting, and have a plan of what to do. If you know you’ll get emotional then practise your response so that you won’t have to think and stumble in that moment (e.g., saying “that was a mistake and I’ll fix it until our next meeting. Now I do have these other 3 questions I want to ask before I go” and knowing what the 3 question are). A way to gain time while you look for your response is to take notes, also because it allows you to repeat their words back, which gives you a chance to see if you understood correctly.
  • Take notes: Write your advisor beforehand if you would like them to prepare. Write them a summary afterwards so that they know what exactly you understood, and that they didn’t waste their time. Read that summary before the next meeting so that you can check whether you have done everything you promised and call them out on things they promised.

 

Bonus: Dos and Don’ts with me (to be updated as things happen)

Careful, my taste may be very different from that of others. There is a reason for any for these and mostly that reason is “I once did an R&R where I wasted a year of my life because I didn’t do this”.

Dos

Take notes about EVERYTHING. My notes say things like (and then I spotted this and asked XX and he said it may be that and I started looking at it but noticed a typo so I correct the typo first, then I see another typo down in the code and know that it’s also in this other code so I open that one etc. in a better format).

Give me examples. You may give me the best summary of your problem but I’m anchored with something else and go off to a completely wrong direction.

Tell me what you want from me. I can still say no. Some things you may find outrageous but I don’t at all. I find other things that you actually do outrageous all the time so don’t be afraid of that.

Same applies for criticism. If you dislike the way I manage our project, point it out rather than letting me guess why you are annoyed.

Celebrate mistakes and tell me about them. Mistakes are what you learn from, plus every mistake you find now is one less your referee can find.

Don’ts

Do not start chatting with me on slack or skype or with a one-liner email that doesn’t allow me to solve the problem without further communication. That is: tell me what you would like me to do, why you need that before our next meeting, and give me enough information to make a decision or solve your problem.

If you have a complex problem ask me for a brief meeting instead of starting a chat.

I hate waiting. Do not miss your meeting or agreed deadlines without apologies. Apologies are fine and mostly acceptable.

I prefer if you refer to others either by their first name or as Dr/Prof/Mr/Ms X. I dislike referring to people only by their last name.

If you choose not to take my repeated advice tell me your reason. Even if I don’t agree I will accept it instead of wasting my time in repeating the same advice to you.

 

Useful links
http://www.cs.umd.edu/users/oleary/gradstudy/gradstudy.html

https://people.eecs.berkeley.edu/~pattrsn/talks/BadCareer.pdf

https://www.timothyhildebrandt.com/advice-for-current-students/

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