Making the most of meetings with research students

tl;dr here are my standard questions for one-to-one meetings with research students

  1. what’s your research question in one sentence?
  2. can you show me the thing that you’re currently working on?
  3. are there any upcoming dates I should be aware of?
  4. what’s your next step? What’s getting in the way?

Being a good research supervisor takes time, but it’s really very rewarding. From PhD & MPhil students through to undergraduate research project students1, there are lots of meetings to be had. And everyone knows that meetings suck, or at least that bad meetings suck.

So, here are some thoughts in my brain for conducting effective one-on-one meetings with research students. As research student numbers grow, I wanna have a good “template” for each meeting, and then vary as necessary.

(Default) meeting agenda

What’s your research question in one sentence?

Look, I still find this hard sometimes—but it’s an important skill to be able to clearly articulate what your research question is in any particular project. Since it’s only once sentence, it doesn’t take long, and having this weekly practice at articulating it (with feedback) means that when it comes time to write things up, much of the hard thinking in articulating things is already done.

Can you show me the thing that you’re currently working on?

In every meeting, I want my student to show me a thing they’re working on. It might be a piece of software, it might be a piece of writing (e.g. a paper draft or thesis chapter), it might be a piece of hardware/music/art. I wanna see something that you’re working on.

I’m a livecoder, so I love live demos, and being able to give a short demo of one’s work-in-progress is a good skill to develop (you never know when you’ll get an impromptu chance to show off what you’re working on).

Philip Guo also emphasises how helpful it is to have a thing to talk about in a research supervisory meeting (see the “Intermission” video in the linked blog post).

Are there any upcoming dates I should be aware of?

It’s hard to remember all the admin dates for different courses/programs/paper deadlines, and I can’t remember all that stuff for every student. Instead, tell me if there are any dates coming up which I/we should be aware of.

What’s your next step? What’s getting in the way?

Students don’t get that much face-to-face time with their supervisor—even with an attentive one. So it’s important to make sure that after each meeting there’s a clear next step, and in particular that if there are any “blockers” we can discuss them there and then, and brainstorm strategies to deal with them.

This is a work-in-progress

There are lots of general tips on how to run an effective meeting, and while there’s some useful stuff there I’m keen to develop a strategy which is tailored to the supervisor-_research student_ scenario.

The other things which the above questions don’t capture is the need to build rapport; this includes stuff like finding out how students are coping with life more generally, and pastoral care is an important part of being a supervisor as well.

Obviously sometimes there are specific things to discuss relevant to a particular student/project, and in those situations I’ll tweak the agenda as necessary. This “template” is hopefully simple and helpful, though, and I’ll let you know how it goes 😊 If you have any comments/suggestions, then I’d love to hear them; let me know on twitter.

  1. You’ve probably heard that CS enrolments are through the roof—it’s a great (if a bit hectic) time to be a CS academic (even a multidisciplinary one 😉). The enrolment thing isn’t just a first-year problem, either—the pipeline is full all the way through to the “capstone” research projects that many students take at the end of their degree.