Meeting with advisers or other committee members can be a stressful experience for many graduate students. While we might all dream of having the perfect collegial and rewarding relationship between graduate student and faculty, the ideal does not always mesh with reality.
Below are some tips for what graduate students can do to get the most out of the often too-limited time they have with their faculty members, and build a strong relationship that will help reality move closer to the ideal.
Get in the right frame of mind
Remember that faculty have a lot on their plate, and advising graduate students is sadly a small (though extremely important) part of their overall responsibilities. Despite the small amount of time they may devote to advising, many faculty find it one of the most rewarding parts of their job. If they are meeting with you, then they care about your work and your development as an intellectual. However, we often have funny ways of showing care in academia–namely through critique. Though it may not always feel this way, critique is often a way of showing care for another scholar’s ideas in formation. Faculty give you feedback because they want your scholarly work and intellectual development to improve. Keep this in mind, and when you get in the room, try to be inquisitive about any critique you received rather than defensive. This can lead to much better and more productive interactions.
Know what you want from the meeting
In preparing for the meeting, it helps immensely to go in with an agenda. Have some notes with you outlining what you want to discuss. In order to make this agenda, first ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this meeting?” This primary question should structure the flow, goals, and outcomes of your meeting.
Show your work
Consider beginning the meeting by sharing your progress since your last meeting. Do not assume that they will remember everything that you talked about last time, either. They are busy, and might need a small recap. Show them that you have been working and share any recent successes or challenges you’ve had. If you overcame your challenges on your own, state how briefly. If these challenges are part of why you are sitting in their office, then state what you need from your adviser to overcome these challenges.
Big asks first
Once you have gotten your adviser caught up to speed on your progress, move on to any requests that you have of them. If there are numerous requests, lead with the biggest and most important. This is helpful for both of you, because chances are the most important requests will take the most time to discuss. You would also hate to run out of time and miss the chance to ask what is most pressing. From there, whittle down to less important things. If you run out of time, you can always take care of these other matters via email or in a later meeting.
Make to-do lists
Leave the office with a clear to-do list for you and the adviser. Have deadlines. This holds both of you accountable, and accountability is a crucial aspect of fostering good adviser-advisee relationships.
Respect their time
Thank them for their time, and respect the time they allotted to meet with you. Do not go over the appointment time; they may have more meetings or deadlines to address. If you are respectful and efficient with their time, they may be more willing to meet with you in the future.
Send a follow-up email thanking them again and summarizing what was agreed upon, particularly the to-dos and deadlines. Stick to your deadlines, and don’t be afraid to remind them as their deadlines approach. Many faculty appreciate a short and polite reminder. Consider suggesting that you take on this role in the meeting. After the deadlines are laid out, say something such as, “Would it be helpful if I emailed you a week before my letter of recommendation is due?”
Most importantly hold up your end of the deal by meeting the deadlines and expectations set in the meeting. If you absolutely cannot meet a deadline, tell your adviser ahead of time, and include a concise and honest explanation as to why and how you plan to catch up.
Create clear boundaries and expectations
The overarching theme of the advice above is to use your meeting time to create clear boundaries and expectations between you and your adviser. This is often the hallmark of good faculty-graduate student relationships.
It is impossible for one person to meet all of your needs as a graduate student. While in most departments, your chair will have the final say on many cases, it is unrealistic to expect them to fulfill all of the mentoring roles and supports that you will likely need during graduate school. Learn what their strengths are and how your personalities, work styles, and intellectual leanings best match. Notice what needs they help you fulfill and which they don’t. Where one adviser may fall short, find other mentors to fill in those gaps. This is not being “unfaithful” to your adviser–it is good practice in developing multiple mentoring relationships.
I’ll write more soon on these last two points. In the meantime, good luck in your meetings!