Conducting research meetings with your advisor

  • Holding regular meetings

  • Planning your agenda before the meeting

  • Sample meeting agenda topics

  • Taking notes!

  • Keeping a research notebook or journal

If you are co-advised

  • Why have a co-advisor?

  • Allen School considerations for co-advising

  • Additional planning if co-advised

  • Joint or separate meetings?

Conducting research meetings with your advisor

Holding regular meetings

Schedule regular meetings with your advisor (usually once per week) even if you think you have nothing to talk about, you haven’t made much progress, or you are worried that you will be wasting your advisor’s time. Often that is exactly when it is most important to have a meeting. Note that a meeting need not be long or even fill the allocated time slot. Everyone, including your advisor, is happy to suddenly have a few extra minutes if the meeting ends early.

Regular meetings will give you more ideas, connections, and resources to achieve your goals. It also keeps your advisor up-to-date on your progress and helps them keep your project in mind. Often when there isn’t much progress, a meeting is a time for your advisor to help you stay energized and excited about the project since they are likely to take the long view.

  • Set up a regular meeting time that works for you both every quarter since your schedules will likely change. Offer several possibilities to respect the other person’s needs and preferences. (Some advisors opt to use an on-demand calendar, where you can reserve free meeting slots. In this case, claim a slot every week.)

  • If your advisor needs to skip a meeting and you still need guidance, follow-up with them by email to discuss the issues or to reschedule the meeting.

  • Outside regular meetings, you and your advisor should establish norms for asynchronous communication (e.g., email and slack). Sometimes a quick exchange with your advisor between meetings can save you a lot of time. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Planning your agenda before the meeting

Consider preparing a weekly progress report and sending it to your advisor before your meetings. This will help you make the most of your time together. It also forces you to review your work and think about its consequences, in addition to helping you and your advisor track your longer-term progress.

Write down an agenda and send it to your advisor in (sufficient) advance of the meeting; you could also bring two hardcopies to the meeting. Some students use a slide deck to guide the discussion. Prioritize the items on your agenda. Importantly, focus first on items that are most likely to help you make progress between the current and next meeting.

Sample meeting agenda topics

An agenda for a research meeting (depending on the research area and the specific individuals involved) may include any or all of the following items:

  • Recap of the goals and state of the project. Like you, your advisor is juggling numerous responsibilities and context switching constantly throughout the day. Don’t be upset if your advisor cannot remember what was discussed in your previous meeting. Over time, you’ll learn how to quickly recap events to stay on track.

  • An update on what you’ve accomplished since the previous meeting and which previous goals have been met. Include, for example, what code you’ve written, new results and ideas, experimental results, etc. Share graphs showing these results, if applicable. Be sure that you’ve already thought through what the results mean, why they make sense, and how they move the project forward. Getting new results up until the last minute does not leave you time to consider whether these results are meaningful or even correct.

  • Papers you have read or talks you have attended that are relevant to your research and what you learned from them. Teach your advisor something!

  • Problem-solving strategies. Brainstorm with your advisor about how to solve problems, discussing in detail whatever you are stuck on or don’t understand. Key advisor added value is helping you figure out a way forward when you are stuck. Be as specific as possible when explaining sticking points. Consider writing this part out for yourself ahead of the meeting. Sometimes even just articulating what you are stuck on can help you get past whatever is blocking you. In addition, don’t hesitate to ask for help with low-level details, such as code reviews or debugging help, and your advisor will let you know if they can or are willing to work at this level.

  • Gaps in your knowledge or advice on what you should be learning in the short and longer term. Your advisor can help you figure out how to fill those gaps by suggesting classes you should take, papers/books you should read, experts you should speak with, etc.

  • Feedback on progress. Take initiative in asking your advisor for feedback on your research progress. Be receptive and open to hearing constructive feedback, and remember not to take it personally. Try to see such input as a way to help you do the best possible work and achieve your maximum potential. Focus on asking and answering clarifying questions so that you can think through the validity/utility of the feedback more carefully after the meeting.

  • Longer-term goals. Discuss research questions and directions that you’d like to explore in the future.

  • At the end of the meeting, if appropriate, briefly communicate what you understand to be the takeaways and action items going forward.

  • List of goals you want to accomplish before the next meeting, as well as longer term goals. Let your advisor know about any class-related or personal obligations that will impact your productivity in the upcoming week.

Taking notes!

It is essential to record what was discussed. Usually you will write brief notes during the meeting. Otherwise, do so immediately after the meeting, while your memory is fresh. Share the summary with your advisor and keep a copy for your notes. This ensures you are on the same page and understand one another. It is particularly useful when writing a paper about your research. It will also spur both your and your advisor’s memory for future work.

Keeping a research notebook or journal

It is highly recommended that you keep a research notebook or journal. (This can be a physical notebook, a set of text files, or some other form.) Whenever an idea comes to you, while reading papers, talking with colleagues, or daydreaming, jot it down. It doesn’t have to be fully conceived or considered. Use the journal to record:

  • Meeting notes

  • Calculations you have done and lemmas/theorems you have proved

  • Short- and long-term goals and timelines

  • Lists of papers you need to read

  • Ideas for future research

  • Questions you want to resolve

  • Feedback

  • Topics you need or want to learn

  • Relevant conference deadlines and submission plans

If you are co-advised

Why have a co-advisor?

Co-advisors provide different perspectives, different personalities, and different strengths and weaknesses, giving you the opportunity to take the best from each. They can expand your personal networks in complementary ways. When doing interdisciplinary work, it can be especially useful to have advisors with different kinds of research expertise.

There is also a cost to having co-advisors. It may mean more meetings, or more trouble scheduling meetings. The advisors may each have their own requirements for what you need to achieve before you can graduate. In some cases they may offer contradictory advice. (Example: you present an idea to each advisor. One says, “Great idea. Before you proceed further, you should do some quick experiments to validate it, to avoid wasting time if it turns out to be a dead end..” The other says, “Great idea. Before you proceed further, you should work through a proof to make sure that it is sound, to avoid wasting time if it turns out to be a dead end.” In such a situation, you will want to have a discussion with both of them to figure out how to prioritize the two alternatives.

Allen School considerations for co-advising

There are many ways to have a co-advisor, and one (or more!) can be added at any point during your Ph.D. Your co-advisors will be co-chairs of your doctoral committee. They may split your funding or there may be a primary and secondary advisor (with the primary often providing the funding). These are things you should feel free to discuss at the outset with both advisors.

To formalize a co-advisor use the advisor change form.

Additional planning if co-advised

Many Allen School students are co-advised. As just stated, benefitting the most from having multiple advisors requires some additional planning on your part. While the exact setup of your co-advising relationship will be unique to you and the advisors, there are some common items to consider early on and then revisit periodically.

  • Know each advisor’s relative strengths, keeping in mind that you might need different kinds of help from them at different points. If one advisor funds you on the main project you’re working on, that may be a different type of advising relationship than you have with a co-advisor who provides expertise in a particular topic.

  • Ensure that both advisors are aware of what you are working on and what each of their colleague’s contributions to your work will be. This will help with allocating time, resources, and credit.

Joint or separate meetings?

You and your co-advisors should decide whether to meet together or separately. There can be benefits to both approaches.

  • Meeting together helps keep the project status in sync but can result in long discussions between the advisors, rather than with you. (Occasionally these discussions are illuminating about life as a faculty member.)

  • If both advisors are present, you will need to proactively manage the meeting agenda to clarify what you want or need from the meeting.

  • Meeting separately might duplicate discussions, make it harder to sync up about next steps, or require more bridging communication on your part, but it can help you benefit directly from each advisor's unique expertise and working styles (if you have well chunked-out pieces of feedback that you need from both).

  • If you and your co-advisors decide on separate meetings, still plan on meeting as a group occasionally (at least once or twice a year). Always copy both advisors on all progress reports, meeting agendas, and meeting notes.

  • It is still important to follow specific guidelines for conducting effective meetings.

  • Check in regularly with your co-advisors to assess how co-advising is working and whether their combined perspectives are leading to more effective research.