Fireside Chat: How to Prepare for One-on-One Meetings with Your Faculty Advisor

Daunting– that’s the word I could use to describe my first meeting with my faculty advisor – Awkwardis another – Why? Being a first-generation grad student, I was unprepared and/or unaware of how to make my meetings with my major professor efficient, effective and successful.

Over the years I have been a student of what makes successful meetings and to this day, I have faculty who will gladly come to any committee meeting I hold.

Why? I am prepared, focused, effective and efficient – I don’t waste their time nor mine.  Faculty members just like grad students are busy with lots of professional and personal demands on their time.

Preparing for your meeting is an important step for success in getting to the finish line – graduation.  Being prepared also reduces conflict and misunderstanding.  The key is to start early.

Before your meeting you want to send a short email with 1 or 2 sentences describing the major objectives of your meeting – notice I said your meeting.  You need to take control if you want to graduate. You can’t be passive. You want to be active.Person typing on computer sending an email

Use the subject line of your email to catch your advisor’s attention.  If you don’t hear back within 5 to 10 days, send your email again.

In that email send any materials or documents you need your major advisor to read and review.  They need it ahead of time – so they can think and reflect. Not the day before – their schedules are tight so allow at least a week or several days.

Prepare an agenda complete with action items and questions or topics for discussion. Have 3 or 4 main topics/or questions to discuss.

Send minutes and a reminder email. This is helpful. Of course, you have figured out the date, time and location and you have included that in the email.  The bottom line is – come well prepared – if you do, you will find that things move forward more efficiently. There still will be hurdles and challenges to address and you will be in a better position to do so.

Clock showing 3pm and Be On TimeDuring the meeting make sure you show up on time. Follow your agenda and ask clarifying questions. You will want to bring concrete things for your advisor to provide feedback.

Think about how your advisor might assist you. If there are professional as well as any personal issues that may influence how you complete the milestones – keep them informed.  You don’t have to reveal your personal life and at times we all know that “life happens” (funeral, flu outbreak) and it is important to inform your advisor and not just disappear. Keep them informed.

Remember to ask questions. Your questions help them to be better teachers of you.

Focus on what your advisor is saying.  They are providing feedback to assist you.  Ask clarifying questions about the feedback. If they are giving you directions be sure to follow them.  Nothing irritates an advisor more than to provide constructive feedback and directions and they are ignored.

Agree on the milestones you can meet. Record action items. Who is doing what and by when.Note pad and Pen taking minutes and recording action action items

After the meeting post minutes.  Even though you and your faculty advisor each took notes, it’s important to have minutes. You can send them out with the next agenda as well. By sending the minutes or a quick recap of the meeting, you can summarize action items.  You can summarize the deliverables as well.

The Key to all thisis to start early.  Have meetings even if they are only for 10 minutes.  Meeting 1 x a week for 10 minutes can make a difference and move you closer to the finish line – graduation.

When in doubt ask even when not in doubt ask.  You may find you have discovered an unclarified point.

Maintain on-going discussions about expectations with your advisor and yourself.  Take home to reflect on your expectations and goals.  They do change over time.

Remember you are preparing yourself to contribute new knowledge to your field.  You are giving shape to a “new” you from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. The adventure of discovery and meetings should assist you in that process.

Finally, remember your advisor is not a manager.  It’s important to see your advisory as a catalyst and a facilitator.

You are in control of shaping your own graduate career. It’s up to you to get to the finish line and you will.

PhD comic strip about meeting with a professor where you did'nt do your work and he forgets about is as he is distracted

Fireside Chat: Advice from Faculty About the Dissertation

How do grad students learn about how to write a dissertation?  I thought about my own experience as a first-generation grad student.  There must be a better way to assist grad students.

I found a way. And in this chat I will share the experience of others who successfully completed the process and some who were going through the process. But first let me tell you how I found a way.

I happened to be visiting an experienced Graduate Dean seeking informal mentoring when I was invited to attend a special workshop. This workshop was a Dissertation Workshop for graduate students. I thought, what a novel idea. How can I do something like this for our grad students. And, so I did.

Using that workshop as a model, I expanded the idea to include master’s as well as doctoral level students. The first Thesis and Dissertation workshop was held on my campus in October 2000.  It was a great success.  We had a full house. Faculty from diverse disciplines were invited to serve on a panel and give their best advice to the attendees. They ranged from having just finished their dissertation (newly appointed Assistant Professors) to well established faculty (Professors).

The students asked lots of questions.  One student captured the experience of attending the workshop as follows.  “This is the first thing like this that we have had as graduate students.  It makes me feel like I am part of a community of scholars.”

The Faculty shared great wisdom and I have the luxury of having saved my notes and am able to share their insight with you here. Much if not all of what they said holds true today and my hope is that you will find one nugget that will be of value to you.  You may want to read the fireside chat on Dissertation Expectations.

Preparing the Way. Faculty had much to say about how important it is for you to get started right away. Do not let the first semester slip by without you taking action. They recommended that you:

  • Attend dissertation proposal meetings and defenses in your program right away.
  • Select a topic you like, and feel is important.Sometimes that topic will be selected for you by the funding agency, if not, you will want to be passionate about your topic.
  • Explore several possible dissertation questions.
  • Consider multiple designs and don’t prematurely foreclose on your topic.

One faculty talked about how important it was to prepare. He said the following. “If you don’t prepare the way – set the stage – you’ll end up like I do on Saturdays.  I spend the day going back and forth to Lowes rather than making a planning check-list and making only one trip.”

Advisors. Selecting your faculty advisor is a major commitment. You may want to read the Fireside Chat A Mentor Saved the Day and do better than I did.  Sometimes you may not have a choice in that your funding is tied to a faculty advisor. Be mindful. Everything is rosy during the honeymoon or early phase and it can get difficult during the middle of the process. You don’t want to divorce your major professor as I did (that’s for another fireside chat) or have them divorce you.

  • Choose an advisor with great care.
  • Expect some bumps in the road in working with your advisor.
  • Consider the advisor’s work load and promptness in reading and providing feedback.

This faculty member says it like it is. “At times during the dissertation process, you won’t like your advisor.  I pride myself on not hating anyone, but I hated my advisor at times. Now that I’ve graduated, I don’t hate him.”

Committees.  Think about committee membership in several ways.

  • How academically helpful will they be?
  • What is the social/political make-up of the committee?
  • What scientific paradigms do they represent?
  • How liberal or conservative are they scientifically/methodologically?

Never forget that there is a standard unspoken protocol. It is this. “Committee members usually defer to the dissertation advisor. That is the way the system works.”

Process.You will find that you are excited to begin. Your family will keep asking you, “When will you be finished? What is it you are working on?”  The dissertation process is different from anything you have done in the past. As one professor stated, “The ‘bells’ that have rung in your past will probably not ring for you when you do a dissertation. You are largely on your own.”

  • Be proactive, not simply reactive during the process.
  • Remember that the dissertation process is a tutorial one – you and your advisor.
  • Map out the entire dissertation and then break it down into smaller subparts and tasks.
  • Set short term goals relative to the dissertations subparts and hold yourself accountable.
  • Identify technical and emotional social support assets.
  • Get by with some help from your friends.

One doctoral student in attendance summed up her experience and how your mindset makes a difference.

“As a doctoral student at the dissertation stage, I’ve discovered two attitudes among students. 1) This is what I have to do, and 2) This is what I chose to do because I have a passion for it.  What a difference it makes to have the second attitude!”

Fireside Chat: Dissertation Expectations

Everyone has expectations – your professors, your committee members, even the Graduate School.  Expectations about your dissertation.

The most important lessons are the following.

  • You are not in Grad School to get tenure.
  • You do not have to win the Nobel Peace Prize for your dissertation.
  • That Big idea you have will last you a life time so, just do a small piece of it for your dissertation and graduate.

You were selected and admitted into the program because faculty and the Grad School saw promise and potential in you. You do have outstanding qualities.

Graduate School.  The Grad school has its own expectations of you.

  • To exhibit and practice only the highest and ethical research standards.
  • To create new original and independent knowledge.

In the process of doing your dissertation, you will enhance your critical thinking skills, be able to critique and transfer knowledge.  The one thing that is different today is that the “Ruler Lady” is no longer employed to measure your margins, so your dissertation can be bound.

Today everything is electronic, and the format can be quite different.  For example, in some disciplines 3 publishable papers or a more creative format may be used in place of the old standard format. A standard format may consist of an introduction, literature review, methodology, results and discussion, conclusion and implications for further work.

Advisors.You may be wondering about the expectations of your advisors.  They want you to be independent, take responsibility, ask questions, and transition from novice to peer and be able to take the lead. It’s also important that you be respectful of their time.  Your dissertation is not the only one they are supervising.

Questions you should ask.

  • What should the dissertation look like? Are there chapters? If so, how many? It is a collection of papers that you co-author with your major professor?
  • Who owns the data you are collecting – you? The funding agency? The Industry sponsors? What implications does that have for you to publish your work?
  • Will your prospectus/proposal for the dissertation be agree upon by all committee members? By the funding source?

These are important questions to explore with your major professor and confirm by looking at other examples of recently “published – on-line” dissertations in your program.

Management of Your Dissertation. Your expectations for the management of the dissertation should be clear.

  • How will the drafts be handled?
  • Will the entire document be handled by your advisor before it goes to the rest of the committee? Will it go chapter by chapter?
  • What is the amount of lead time you need to give the reader(s) to review and give you feedback?

It’s unrealistic to expect that if you turn the material in today, that it will be read in two days.  You need to ask what the appropriate protocol is for your program. Keep in mind, the committee and/or your chair have other responsibilities besides your dissertation.

The Chair. It’s important that you as the student have regular meetings with your chair.  Be sure to be prepared.  Come to each meeting with an agenda and leave with clear action items.

Questions you should explore with your chair include:

  • How will meetings be scheduled in advanced?
  • How often will I meet with the whole committee to provide progress updates and receive feedback?
  • What can I expect at those meetings?
  • Will I be meeting one-on-one with committee members? If so, how often and for what purpose?

You want to be very careful as to who you select for your chair.  Sometimes, that decision is made for you by the funding source (your chair).  If that’s not the case, do your due diligence and ask your peer mentors for advice.  Be sure to check out the chair’s completion rate and the median time-to-degree to finish for their students. The same can be said for committee members. You may want to read Fireside Chats: A Mentor Saved the Day; Preparing the Way.

Resources. There are resources to assist you. You do not have to blaze the trail by yourself.  Most Graduate Schools have workshops that can be a great value to you. But, you need to make the effort and get to them.  You probably have found numerous on-line resources on “How to write a dissertation.”

Most importantly, get a support system-group in place now! People who can encourage you as you go through the process. People who understand what you are going through. People who can celebrate with you at the finish line – graduation.

You may want to hire a professional editor. Especially if English is not your first language.  I always used an editor as I prepared my grants and manuscripts for publication.

There are writing and thesis institutes where you can spend a focused week on writing.  Attend workshops on writing.   Take advantage of every available learning opportunity even if you have to sneak out of the lab.  They will be valuable to you as you proceed through the process.

Imagine.  Finally, before you begin, Imagine.  Imagine yourself at the end defending a successful dissertation. Finished!  Just defended your work. You are now preparing for graduation and the celebration that follows.  Feel what that feel like.

Now, remember that feeling and go there every time you hit a brick wall, face a hurdle or challenge.  Keep on going. Go over, under, around, and through the challenges to your goal. That feeling and how you saw yourself as graduating…that will assist your spirits and help you to stay on task.

I always tell my students, “Never in the middle ask why am I here? Remember you goal and what it’s going to feel like when you finish.”  You will get there!