Student-supervisor meetings can take on many different formats. My personal favourite (in theory) is the peripatetic meeting, implemented by Dr. Ian Janssen in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. Although I’ve never been on a walk, I think the idea is really cool; granted, I’m not sure how he reviews data with his students. Regardless how or where you and your supervisor meet, these interactions should build towards effectively communicating your progress, expressing your needs, making sense of your work, and using the interaction to build momentum for your work going forward. While a number of factors will impact the structure and content of a meeting, there are a few things that you can do to ensure that you maximize your time with your supervisor and remain on track going forward.
The following are what I believe to be some important practices that will help make meetings with your supervisor more productive:
Whether you have regularly scheduled meetings with your supervisor or you have requested a meeting to address a specific issue, it’s imperative that you are proactive and come prepared in advance of the meeting. Take stock of your current progress and identify the questions or matters that you wish to discuss.
Have you encountered a roadblock in your work? Do background readings, consult the literature to identify how similar problems have been addressed, or discuss the matter with a colleague. These actions will help to frame your mind around the question and have a more informed dialogue during your meeting. More often than not, you’ll probably answer the question before meeting time rolls around.
Prepare what you are going to say and how you wish to say it. Some conversations are difficult to have with your supervisor and going in unprepared can compound the difficulty of the interaction. Take the time to plan out how you would like to proceed and put it into action.
Preparation will also help you decide what you want to get out of the meeting. It’s a chance for you to identify what you want or need, and to plan the best way to communicate this information.
2) Structure your ideas
During the preparation time, establish a meeting structure that is both well defined and flexible. Structuring ideas provides clarity for all parties involved in the meeting and flexibility creates space for unplanned, creative conversation. Establishing a structure promotes focused attention on matters that you deem important and makes it easy to refocus conversation following tangential departures from the topic at hand.
3) Identify your needs/expectations and COMMUNICATE this upfront
It is important that you have identified your needs and expectations during your preparation; however, this is all for not unless you are able to clearly communicate this to your supervisor. If you meet on a somewhat regular basis, your needs and expectations should be an on-going conversation rather than a topic that arises when issues reach critical mass. Decisions made by your supervisor will be made with all of the information available to them, and being aware of your needs ahead of time should materialize into a positive outcome.
4) Keep a record of your meeting
Reminding my supervisor of what we discussed in our most recent meeting has become a regular exercise at the beginning of our meetings. Recounting our previous discussions helps to establish context for the upcoming meeting and ensures that we enter into our discussion on the same page. As such, I jot notes and action items throughout the meeting and then summarize this information in a Word doc following the meeting. This activity has proved beneficial beyond its original intent, as I find myself referring to the notes when addressing specific action items later in the week. As well, meeting minutes can also serve to protect you if confusion or miscommunication arises. A clearly stated record of a meeting can effectively avoid the ‘but I thought you said…’ conversation.
5) Ensure prompt follow-up
Finally, given that student-supervisor meetings can create a transient ‘motivational window’ in the hours/days that follow, it is important to capitalize on this momentum. One way to achieve this is by following-up on action items as soon as your schedule permits. Dealing with important issues while they are still fresh in your mind can make completing the task easier than if you wait to deal with it later. However, discretion is required for this point. If the meeting has rendered you emotionally charged about a particular issue, it’s probably in your best interest to table the issue for 24 hours and then re-evaluate your response.
These points may be an overly simplistic outlook at how to increase the productivity of meetings with your supervisor, given that there are many factors that will impact meeting outcomes. Indeed, listening and being open to what your supervisor has to say should be at the top of this list; however, I believe that an entire post could be devoted to the art of listening. Regardless, observing and implementing these simple behaviours can create a situation that allows you to actively shape the makeup of a meeting and (hopefully) build/maintain strong communication with your supervisor.