Managing your advisor: the art of the meeting

An effective student-advisor relationship is the foundation of good academic research. This relationship is often structured around weekly meetings.

As a student, keep in mind that your research problem is your main and only work focus and you are expected to initiate and test out ideas as well conduct the majority of the creative (design prototypes, UIs, design experiments, code, think of a proof structure, etc.) or grunt (code, prove, conduct experimental runs, etc.) work.

The advisor is usually your backup, wiser brain. Often, the  advisor presents you with the research problems. She will likely guide you through the problem, outline solutions, remind you of the big picture, refer you to papers, make you think of alternative solutions, designs, implementations, unstick you if you find yourself stuck, help you analyze or figure out the experimental data, and so on. The advisor, however, is a busy, multitasking machine, often advising multiple students with varying demands on her time, teaching courses, writing grants, building research networks, serving on conference committees, or dealing with university business. I never appreciated the faculty workload until I became an assistant professor.

The advisor brain is thus an expensive resource, which you must efficiently manage. I hope you would find some benefit in these advisor meeting & management tips:

1) Keep a weekly meeting: Meet your advisor at least once a week for roughly 40 minutes to an hour. Meeting every other week leads to slow progress and doesn’t help you make progress. The CS research cycle roughly gives you three chances to publish a year, four months in between conference deadlines. If your advisor meetings occur twice a month, you are not making enough progress to target one of those conferences a year. Meeting twice a week (unless you are approaching a deadline) can add unnecessary stress and pressure on you. Here’s why:

2) Make progress at every meeting: Advisors love to see new results. Research to them can be as exciting as a good TV series. Imagine a series where the story remains roughly the same from one episode to the next: the approval ratings will surely drop and the show will be canceled. If you made no progress, cancel the meeting, but be sure to come back the following week with a grand opening. The first episode of a tv series after a break, almost always reminds you why you have been watching this show religiously in the first place.

3) Have a meeting agenda: Prepare for your meetings. You want to get the most from your advisor because you won’t meet them again for a week. While advisors don’t disappear, and often want to get emails from you, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting in terms of creative energy and problem resolution.  Here is a meeting agenda for a meeting I had with one of my advisors, Joe Hellerstein:


Note the simple agenda structure. The first column represents the topic. If you work on multiple projects or mini projects within a big one this is where you list them. Order the content by the priority of the topic. The two middle columns are succinct lists of updates/problems encountered and discussion areas. The last column is a very important one that usually stays empty before the meeting. During the meeting you take notes here and then summarize a plan for the next meeting.

The agenda must be short and easy to scan within 1-3 minutes. Please feel free to follow my simple agenda template (My sister advised me on this agenda structure). Leave your big ideas for:

3) Bring slide decks / tech reports / sketches / demos: If the agenda is the enticing trailer, the slide deck or report is the real show. Don’t overthink the presentation of these. The goal is to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible: what have you done, what are the problems and how you intend to address them. If you ran an experiment, put your results in a slide deck and use the notes panels to jot down your findings. If you thought of several interfaces, bring your raw pencil sketches for discussion. If you implemented some UI features, run a demo: keep an always running version of the demo to get realistic feedback from your advisor. If you did build a lot of the backend but the UI is buggy and nothing works now, make sure you have an exact timeline of when things will be ready for feedback. If you implemented a novel algorithm, report initial testing results or schedule time for a code review. If you read some papers, explain them. Be honest about what you understood and what you didn’t. Do not provide abstract rehashes of papers, instead go through a mini presentation of the papers’ key contributions and findings.

4) Address issues discussed at previous meetings: Do not leave your advisors hanging. While we often appear to have serious memory problems, we do remember your projects and we keep a mental visualization of where you currently are with respect to the big picture.  Ignoring advisor suggestions regularly (such as experiments to run, algorithms to try, etc.) without justification will often hamper your research and will create bad rapport.

5) Make sure all meeting artifacts are easily accessible: Consider storing all these artifacts in a shared drop box folder. You would be amazed how these meeting notes and preparation materials can help you write a paper later.

6) Schedule meetings at the right time: I’m a morning person. By late afternoon, I’m about 60% functional. If you want my full attention, you need to schedule a morning slot. If you want to get the most of the advisor, aside from making them look forward to their meetings with you, make sure you meet at the time that is best for both your advisor and yourself. If you are slow in the mornings, don’t meet your advisor in the morning, instead go for an 11:00 am meeting. If you are prone to post-lunch comas, don’t meet right after lunch. Give yourself at least an hour prep before the meeting to ensure that you know exactly what you want to show and tell and what you need help with. Set up a calendar invite with a fixed meeting time on a per semester basis. Agree on this fixed meeting time at the start of every semester. Setting up these things even if you think they are minor conveniences goes a long way in showing that you care about your research and you respect the time of those you work with. They in turn will respect your time and effort and bring their very best to these meetings.

7) Email the agenda before the meeting and attach the extras. Even if you agree to share a dropbox folder with the materials. It doesn’t hurt to send a reminder email first thing in the day with the agenda and additional materials (slide decks, reports, etc) to mentally prepare your advisor for your much anticipated visit.

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