PhD Hacks: Strategic Management for Your Doctoral Studies

PhD Hacks

Take Control of Your Meetings to Get the Just-in-Time Mentoring You Need

You eagerly enter your adviser’s office for your quarterly committee meeting, ready to discuss your burning questions. You can’t decide between two dissertation topics– what is the best choice? You ran some regressions and have an estimated odds ratio of 38.2– that can’t possibly be right, is something wrong with your SAS code? You want to present at the APHA meeting but don’t know how to get on the agenda– how do you get your abstract accepted? Surely you will get great advice from your mentors. Yet the meeting quickly disintegrates. An hour later, you have only discussed your mentors’ personal experiences looking at the calorie counts of Starbucks muffins, the resignation of a top obesity researcher, and your city’s “road diet” to build bike lanes. All of that is… kind of… related to your research on the built environment and childhood obesity but none of your questions were answered. What went wrong?

Unfortunately, this is a common experience for students. (Secret reveal: This scenario also plays out in faculty meetings, so you are not alone!) It leads to frustration on both sides: you are not getting the advice you need to overcome your current research hurdle, and your mentors wonder why you have not made progress. You feel demoralized and delay scheduling your next committee meeting. Your advisers become frustrated at your limited progress and failure to stay in contact. The vicious cycle continues.

One of my favorite PhD Comics shows a student’s choreographed agenda for his weekly adviser meeting, which gets derailed when his adviser is late, forgets who he is, and receives repeated interruptions from the administrative assistant and a phone call– thereby leaving only one minute of discussion time. While I can’t help you with that scenario, I can help you design an effective conversation.

Purpose of meeting agendas

A meeting agenda services several purposes:

  • Remind your committee of your progress—You live and breathe your dissertation daily, but your advisers are juggling their own research projects, teaching courses, administrative responsibilities, and advising other students. Unless your advisers have Sheldon Cooper’s eidetic memory, they may not remember your weekly timeline and your reported accomplishments from the last committee meeting.
  • Build an audit trail— It is good practice to create a lab notebook of your methodological decisions, attempts to procure data, alternative ways to present results that resonate with different audiences, and future ideas. The audit trail is also useful for documenting your progress for departmental student reviews, and addressing conflicting advice from your mentors.
  • Prepare everyone in advance— If your committee knows that you are seeking advice on your APHA abstract or which dissertation topic to choose, they can read your draft beforehand and offer concrete tips during the meeting. If your committee has something to discuss, they can put it on the agenda so that you are not blindsided.
  • Keep the meeting productive—By making your end goal and discussion topics clear, you can gently steer digressions on Starbucks calorie counts back to what you really want to discuss. Conversations will evolve, but when you approach the scheduled end time, you can circle back to your goal and check that you have reached agreement on key decisions and have clear post-meeting action items.
  • Make a good impression— Your committee assesses your progress, reports your activities to the PhD Director, shares job and other research opportunities, recommends you to other faculty needing a research assistant, and writes your reference letters. Hollywood glamorizes the “absent-minded professor” image, but you do not want a reputation as an absent-minded PhD student.
Meeting Agenda Hacks

Fortunately, there are some very doable strategies to make your meetings effective, even if you aren’t a Certified Project Management Professional.

Hack #1: Know your own goals before each meeting

What do YOU want to accomplish? Is this a deliverables-focused meeting, where you want feedback on a conference abstract or paper, need to make a critical research decision, or seek to update the committee on your progress prior to your annual student review? Is this an idea-generating meeting where you want input on dissertation ideas, suggestions for an appropriate theoretical lens, or discussion of alternative strategies for operationalizing your outcome variable? Is this a meeting to secure buy-in for your dissertation proposal or upcoming job market plans?

Hack #2: Respect that professors learn in different ways

We frequently discuss how to deliver classroom content to meet the needs of students who process information differently. The same principle applies to faculty. Send materials in advance for solitary thinkers like me who need to read and digest something in advance. Create handouts with tables and visualizations for spatial thinkers. Set up discussion questions for verbal thinkers. When in doubt, remove the guess-work and ask your mentors directly how they prefer to review meeting-related materials.

Hack #3: Create a descriptive, action-oriented agenda

Put your name, date, list of attendees, general topic, and meeting goals at the top. If you are meeting with faculty from other departments, health department staff, or other non-university practitioners, also include your contact information. Think about what decisions you need to make (see Hack #1), and create discussion items related to those actions. Triage topics and put the most critical items at the top. Bonus points for adding approximate times to discussion topics to bring everyone back on track if the meeting digresses. Avoid asking big questions out of the blue—I personally find it uncomfortable when students that I do not know well or else am meeting for the first time ask me whether they can join an ongoing research project, obtain data access, or have me serve on their committee. It leads to an awkward pause, as I have no context for understanding the student’s interests, skills, and motivations. These are all legitimate questions and requests, but it is better to put those in an agenda to send beforehand (see Hack #4).

Hack #4: Your meeting is a five-day affair

Send your draft agenda two to three business days in advance, with short attachments that attendees can read beforehand. Relevant materials include two-page concept sheets for your project, a draft PowerPoint presentation for your upcoming conference, or an abstract and exhibits corresponding to the progress you have made on your project. Keep the documents short to increase the likelihood they will be reviewed beforehand. In your email, ask attendees whether they have anything to add to the agenda or want other materials. At the start of your meeting, review the meeting’s purpose and ask whether attendees have anything to add to the agenda. After setting the stage, refer to your agenda as you work through your discussion topics, ending with action items. Immediately following your meeting, type up your notes. I like to append my notes to the bottom of my meeting agenda as a reminder of what we discussed. Send them to the attendees with a thank-you note for taking the time to meet, along with a summary of the discussion, a list of action items, and an invitation to review the notes to clarify anything that you missed. Strive to send that the next day, while the meeting is fresh on everyone’s minds. Not only is it polite to circle back and thank people for their time, but I frequently get the best comments during subsequent email exchanges related to the meeting minutes.

Wrapping Up This Month’s PhD Hack

Reorienting your meetings takes energy and practice. If you are feeling overwhelmed with your workload, it can be daunting to take so much extra time to plan the meeting and send the rapid follow-up. However, you will save time and improve productivity in the long-run as you get better just-in-time feedback and cultivate positive relationships with your mentors.

Anatomy of a dry meeting

This is the sad state of a typical faculty meeting agenda. This is focused on one-way communication and delivery of information that could be read privately. The only action items are the bureaucratic businesses of documenting faculty votes to approve last month’s meeting minutes and conferring student degrees. Procedurally, those votes are important to document, but they do not require an hour-long meeting. The “new business” is a mystery.

Anatomy of an engaging meeting

In this agenda for a monthly project meeting for a simulation modeling project with the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, my colleague and I have a clear objective: make a joint decision with the HIV surveillance staff regarding how to operationalize HIV viral load suppression. We start with a review of our recent work, to orient our team members who have many other job duties and likely do not remember what we discussed in last month’s meeting. We then move to specific discussion topics with focused questions. What you don’t see is that we ordered our topics so that we can meet our meeting objective through the first two group discussions. The third discussion topic is bonus material, in case we have extra time. We shared this agenda a couple days in advance, along with handouts that people could read beforehand and look at during the meeting. Everyone came to the meeting prepared and ready to dive into thoughtful discussions. Although the team has our contact information, we like to also append that to each agenda to encourage people to email us if they have a spontaneous brainstorm or want to share additional materials with us. That strategy to encourage post-meeting exchanges is effective, as our colleagues frequently send us articles, presentations, and reports they encounter and think might be relevant.

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Surviving your #dissertation and the #job market requires a secret sauce of excellent #research, strong work ethic, and effective #projectmanagement. In this new series, Dr. Erika Martin @ualbany will demystify the #softskills required to be a successful #PhD #student.

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Surviving your dissertation and the job market requires a secret sauce of excellent research, strong work ethic, and effective project management. Dissertation advisers typically focus on the first two ingredients. However, project management skills are equally important, and not just for MBA, MPA, MHA, and other terminal degree students who are training for managerial positions. In this series, Dr. Erika Martin will demystify the soft skills required to be a successful PhD student, beginning with hack #1: Take control of your meetings to get the just-in-time mentoring you need.

Author Profile

Erika Martin
Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, Public Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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