My dissertation advisor talks excessively and rarely lets me speak during our individual meetings. He also gets distracted and the conversation goes off topic, often talking about my assistantship/lab work and not my individual paper or research project. I am looking to have more structured and organized meetings with my advisor. How can I take control of the meetings with him being OK with it? What works and does not work? What are PhD students allowed to do (and what would be considered unfair if my advisor said No)?

--Not-So-Distracted

Dear Not-So-Distracted,

I can definitely see where your frustration is coming from. 

A distracted advisor who enjoys talking about a variety of unorganized topics can be annoying. My first piece of advice is that yes, you will need to be more organized in your future meetings with your advisor; however, being more organized can easily translate into your taking control of the meeting. Basically, you’ll want to control the meeting without seeming like you’re in control. There are a few ways that you can do this:

  • Prepare for your meetings. You should begin preparing for future meetings directly after each meeting with your advisor. Save all your dated meeting preparations somewhere that you can easily reach so that you can refer to it when you think of additional information you want to discuss with your advisor. Another way to prepare for your meeting is to think of ways your advisor usually gets off topic. You might be able to come up with ways to guard your conversations from those distractions by thinking of transition phrases to bring the conversation back to your project. You will also want to review all the materials that you want to discuss with your advisor. When you review your materials, write a short agenda that you would like to address in your meeting; then, you can refer to your agenda if your advisor gets off track in the meeting.
  • Email your advisor a relaxed agenda. Your advisor should know exactly what you want to discuss before going into each meeting. You’ll want to include a few things in your email, such as
    • What you have completed with your project so far and where you stand with your project.
      • For example, “I have completed Chapter 2 of my dissertation. I feel good about this draft of this chapter because literature reviews come naturally to me.”
    • What you have left to do to complete your project.
      • For example, “I have rough drafts of Chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5, so I need to continue working on more versions of those chapters.”
    • What areas you still need help developing. In this section, you will want to ask your advisor questions. Try to keep your questions clear, concise, and one topic each. Your advisor will then know where he or she needs to focus in your meeting.
      • For example, “I have a few questions for you regarding my Chapter 2 and would like your opinion on them. Maybe we could talk about these questions in our next meeting on [meeting].
        • (1) Is my literature review organized well? I wanted to write about each topic one by one, but I also need to make sure that it flows.
        • (2) Do I go deep enough in my literature review? Do you think that I discuss each topic completely before changing to the next topic?”
    • What types of goals you would like to set during the meeting.
      • For example, “In our meeting on [meeting date], I would like to discuss the questions I’ve asked and see if there is anything else about my literature review that you would like to discuss. I would also like for us to make a timeline that I can follow for the next chapter I should write. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to seeing you on [meeting date]
  • Meet with your advisor informally. Allow your advisor to see you spontaneously by popping in his or her office and asking a quick question. Think about your question beforehand, though, so that your advisor doesn’t try to pull you into a longer conversation. Asking small questions during casual sightings can be helpful for your relationship with your advisor because you will become more comfortable with each other and your scheduled meetings might go smoother.

Those tips should get you on the right track to organizing your meetings with your advisor, but there are some things that you’ll want to avoid with these meetings. As I said before, when you begin to take these steps to better organize your meetings, don’t get caught up in the schedule that you made. Allow for the conversation to flow. If you find that your advisor is getting off topic, just bring his or her attention back to your agenda, and ask those questions that were in your original email. Also, you don’t want to bombard your advisor with a long email that you have painstakingly prepared for the meeting. Make sure that the email is short by asking up to 3 questions. A small amount of questions allows your advisor to know the subject you want to meet about and gives your advisor the chance to prepare without feeling overwhelmed.

I found a few websites as extra resources for you:

  • http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2008_06_27/caredit.a0800095
  • http://www.task.fm/How-can-you-have-successful-one-on-one-meetings-with-your-employees.

They provide great tips about how to conduct a meeting and how to stay on track the whole time. Make sure you take time to prepare far in advance and think about each meeting from your advisor’s point of view. Good luck with your future meetings!

--René Paulson, PhD

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