Tips For Meeting With A PhD Advisor / Graduate Supervisor That Actually Work


Having meetings with your graduate advisor is often scary. Thankfully, for me, I had some wonderful advisors that tried to make me feel at ease in their office. Don’t get me wrong, my own advisors were tough – but that is a good thing because it means they cared about me what and what happened to my success. That did not prevent me from feeling nervous every time that I would meet with them. I now realize that feeling nervous when you are about to meet your supervisors is also a positive thing, but this meant I was taking their advice seriously. If you are in grad school you need to read this article about the day and the life of a PhD. I am sure you will get it. 😉

I also think it is important to work on your graduate student – advisor relationship, and to try to make the relationship as positive as possible. Why? The more you invest in the relationship, the greater returns you will get from the relationship. It is like any long-term relationship, you get what you put into it. From a practical sense, you are going to need your advisor to ‘back’ you in the future through letters of recommendation, or other roles. Even more practical, having a good working relationship with your advisor is just a lot more fun. Given that some graduate student – advisor relationships are not so fun (or even problematic), I thought it is important to share this information to you.

What I have learnt by completing my own PhD about meeting with graduate supervisors? I have a few tips that I think helped me, and will hopefully help you deal with your own advisor relationships. These are a few tips that I learnt over the years, and the tips are useful for people that are meeting with their graduate supervisors, whether if you are doing a PhD or a Masters degree. Perhaps, these will be important for your first meeting with graduate advisor, but I think these points are most important if you take this as a long-term relationship. If you are just thinking about going to graduate school, I have a recent post based on my experiences on whether a PhD or dual Masters gets you a job.

To summarize, tips to have amazing graduate student – advisor meetings are:

  1. Always go your adviser’s office with some work done.
  2. Do not disappear.
  3. When stuck, go talk to your supervisor.
  4. Try to smile during meetings.
  5. You can talk about life problems.
  6. Always respect an adviser’s time.
  7. Remember that graduate relationships are long-term.
  8. Be explicit.
  9. Focus on graduate student development.
  10. Supervisors should manage their level of guidance.
  11. Advisers should set standards.
  12. In general, be decent human beings.

Would you rather watch the YouTube video about some of these tips for graduate meetings? Check out:

What Is The Difference Between PhD / Graduate Advisor / Graduate Adviser / Graduate Supervisor?

I am going to use the terminology advisor and supervisor interchangeably as I am not quite sure when one is more appropriate than the other.  Some posts on Quora make the distinction based on role, but in my experience, this is minutia that I have never heard anyone get their “knickers in a knot” about it. Of course, there is always a first.

Apparently, you can also use adviser or advisor as well. Oh boy! How bananas is that? However, I believe it has to do with doing your graduate school in British systems than I heard more people use the term supervisor, and doing your graduate work in American systems and than you would hear people use the term “advisor” more. Doing my PhD in Canada, you get a smattering of both terminology, and so I am always a bit confused with some terms (ie. color vs. colour, cheque vs. check, neighbor vs neighbour). Like many things in academia, I think it is entirely cultural and changes from institution to institution.

What Happens In Graduate Student – Adviser Meetings?

The biggest thing that happens during these graduate student meetings is to sort out ideas on how to write a research paper. There is also a lot of debate about how to plan out the idea, and whether the idea is important. A portion of the meeting will also be spent talking about the graduate student’s career and their goals. A smaller portion will be focused on how to plan for the future, and increase their attractiveness in the marketplace.

You should check out this cool guide on writing research papers for graduate students that I put together. The guide took me several weeks to do.

What Are Tips To Meet With Graduate Advisors?

Always go to their office with a least some work completed.

Some weeks you have good weeks where you write so much your hands are reading to fall off and some weeks you have bad weeks where you hardly complete anything. Your job is to have at least 1 sentence completed from the last PhD meeting. If you have only a few sentences written from the past meetings, you should clearly point out why you have only a few sentences written. One thing that I did learn is that if you are having a bad week, you should instantly go talk to your supervisor. A good supervisor will help you navigate why you are having a bad week. They are there to help you either deal with graduate life or to work through a tough problem. It truly helps to talk to them. Generally, when I get stuck, and I talked to my advisors, I was much more productive than when I did not talk to them. The other advantage with doing a bit of work every time you meet with your advisors is that it will make sure that you will complete your degree. A little work is better than no work.

Do not disappear.

Check in with your PhD advisors on a regular (every week or every other week) basis. Your advisors want to make sure that you are not getting into a funk, and that you are making progress on your PhD. PhD students have a tendency to disappear, and this is a sign of issues that need to be discussed. I think most often ‘disappearing’ is a symptoms of either PhD supervisor problems or that you are having ongoing issues with your PhD. Both need to be vetted as soon as possible.

Now, PhD advisors vary in how much they care about your success, but most are going to care a lot and make sure that you are not getting side-tracked by other things in your life. Every person who has done a PhD knows that it can easily get sidetracked on other life projects. You have to dedicate your time to the degree to get it done, and checking in with your supervisors will make sure that things get done.

Actually, I think it is easy for academics to disappear, and I think it is partially because of the distance between action and outcomes. I wrote a blog post about the software, and why I am trying to create an academic writing group to help PhD students with this problem.

When you are stuck on a problem, go talk to your PhD advisors.

This is so me! 🙂 I was not the disappearing kinda person, but I was the stuck-in-rut kinda person. I would toil at one problem too long, and forget that I can ask people for help. Some of the things I would focus on are programming problems, getting stuck on operational definitions, or writing too much without getting feedback (You really should read this blog post about how to get feedback on your writing in graduate school). I am getting better at asking for feedback, checking in to get help, and knowing when I am getting stuck, but you really need to check in with a senior researcher who can identify dead-ends. This is your supervisor’s job! Make sure that you leverage the experience they possess by having a conversation about your problem with them. Better yet, you will actually have a lot more fun when you are open and honest with your advisor.

My supervisors would always give me a list to tackle over the next week (ie. do step 1, 2, 3). I loved these lists! They made my life so easy and manageable. If your advisor does not currently provide lists of what to tackle, you should ask for them until you get used to the ebb-and-flow of research.

You can talk to PhD advisors about occasional life problems.

Completing your PhD is a lot about life, and you have to deal with life issues openly. Here, you have to be careful not to disclose too many life problems or you will sound like a slobbery mess (aren’t we all as humans). However, talking about issues that you are dealing with at home is actually a very healthy thing to help our your PhD. Believe it or not, but your supervisors likely already had similar life experiences. Many of the experiences that you have are not new to academics. They are new to you, yes. The fact that these problems might not apply to a lot of other careers is precisely why should have a conversation with your advisors. Who else are you going to talk to? I actually found that my mentors and advisors have all been very wonderful with helping sort things out with my life. (By the way, thank you if you are one of them and you are reading this post).

Think in terms of status-position and time with your graduate supervisors.

This took me a long-time to understand, but you ought to think about status-positions of people in academia. My supervisors were never really concerned about status-positions, but some people are. However, the key is not whether someone does occur about status, but it is important to give someone who is of higher status, more respect. What do I mean by status? Here, I am talking about status-position in terms of deferment of people onto someone else depending on their social standing. You can usually observe status quite easily. For example, in a doctor’s office, a patient that waits longer for a specialist because the specialist has significant status relative to the patient.

However, in academia, it is difficult to observe status. The only way you observe status is by small cues that you observe over time. Because of this difficulty in observing status-position, I would highly recommend giving all people respect in academia, and giving extra status to people depending on their academic rank.

How do you give people extra respect? Generally, I always try to arrange my schedule to meet other people’s schedule. I also try to do most of heavy lifting on papers. I will try to also take notes during meetings, and generally just be the person to piece things together. I try to address people more formally until I get to know them, and even then, I might ask how they want to be addressed.

It is important to give this respect as much as possible, not because other people care, but because people that are of higher status-position generally have a lot more commitments and are busier. They simply just will not have any flexibility in their schedule, whereas, PhD students generally have more flexibility. You simply will not be able to meet with anyone else you try to be flexible and show others extra respect.

Graduate / PhD advisors are people too.

This is based no my own experience as being a PhD advisor. Advisors have up days, and down days. For example, you might get a paper published, and all is well. More often than not, you will get a paper rejected, or you are up all night with young kids. If you are a graduate student, you meet your PhD advisor, and you realize that they are not at the top of their game that day, just cut them some slack.

Personally, I feel bad for those off days, but I try to make up for these off days for as many positive, good days as I can. This obviously fluctuates, but just know that your PhD supervisors are trying to do their best to make your PhD experience a good experience.

Try to smile during your graduate meeting.

Many graduate meetings are tough. They ought to be because you are learning about something new, and there often corrections and changes with your work. This learning process is tough because you will realize that 2-3 weeks of work was going in the wrong direction. (Personally, I am getting more and more used to this process as I get more and more paper rejections). I don’t know of anyone that enjoys this process of getting your work critiqued.

Thus, it is important to smile and have fun during these tough meetings. Why? Smiling and trying to have fun helps to emotionally deal with this negative feedback. I can’t stress the importance of making sure you have positive affect before, during, and at the end of each meeting. If a meeting was fun, than you feel like you want to get back to work right away. Graduate meetings that are less fun generally take a bit longer to recover from, and make it difficult to get back to work.

Graduate Student – Graduate Supervisor relationships are surprising long-term.

Most graduate advisor – student relationships are quite long-term, so keep that in mind when you start working on a project together. I continue to talk and work with my advisors well after both my Masters and PhD were complete. My advise is for you to take establishing a relationship with a potential advisor seriously. You will continue to work with this person a lot longer than you ever thought you would. I would suggest that you take your time with establishing this relationship, and for you to ask others for advice on both what your role will be in the relationship and what expectations will be in that relationship. You should also seek out advice on the relationship from a trusted advisor, perhaps a more senior PhD / graduate student who could help you but does not have a vested interest.

Everything in academia takes a long time. You should check out this post where I go into detail about why and how long it actually takes to get your doctorate in business.

Be explicit. The creation of knowledge is filled with ambiguity.

I am always surprised on how ambiguous doing research is. Ask me any day if I know what the ‘right’ answer is to a problem, and I will never be able to tell you. Working with someone else, you will always run into moments of ambiguity, so you should be explicit as much as you can, short of writing up contracts. You should be asking for clarification in what the advisor expects you to do, and what your role is. It is important to do this fairly often because often no one knows for sure who’s knowledge is who’s when you are making ideas. If you are uncertain about what you should do, or if the advice you are getting is good, you should talk to your fellow PhD / graduate students about what their opinion is on the situation. If things get real ‘hairy,’ you should go chat senior professors to get their advice. I actually find most people are really helpful if you give them a chance.

Much of this advice is from the perspective of the graduate student, so what about advice for the supervisor?

What do you need to do to be a good graduate student supervisor during these meetings?

From my perspective, being a good PhD supervisor is difficult. Your advising style also effects how your meetings go. You probably should get a license to be a graduate student supervisor. I wonder what the test would look like? 🙂

What does it take to be a good supervisor? It is a lot like being a good manager, and the characteristics that help you to be a good manager is likely going to help you be a good grad student supervisor. You should check out this video of me talking about these issues on YouTube:

Graduate meetings should focus on grad student development.

What you should try to do is nurture your graduate students, and try to focus on a growth mindset with the graduate student. For example, you should look for ways to help your graduate student grow as a scholar, such has learning the craft of thinking of a research question, or responding to reviewer comments. I know that this might seem counter-intuitive because from the advisor’s view, they are trying to maximize the productivity for their lab / group, and focusing on graduate student growth is rather wasteful. This is something that I teach in the classroom (from a business perspective), and a lot of people do not get the idea immediately.

However, the way that you get your students to perform is by helping them, and removing any barriers. This will eventually grow your academic productivity because the better your grad students perform, the more papers you will eventually produce. From a probabilistic point of view, I say ‘eventually’ because it will take longer, and not every graduate student will become a high-performing scholar.

In my googling for this following video, I found some interesting results that surprised me about graduate advisor relationships:

Advisors should think about adequate managed guidance.

Early on in a graduate education, you are likely to provide more supervision and guidance. You might have detailed rubrics and guides to help graduate students. However, as the graduate student grows as a scholar, you should think about ways for the graduate student to make their own mistakes, even when you do not want them too. I have learnt that a large part of being a PhD supervisor is letting go, and letting people make their own mistakes. This is tough, but like being a parent, you have to make measured judgments on how much you should teach and how much you should let the person learn. As a student, you learn more readily when it is your own mistake – trust me, I made many mistakes.

The job of the graduate advisor during meetings than is not to always do everything for the PhD student. Rather, it is to decide how much guidance you should give. Luckily, my advisors were great, and they made this active choice routinely. They forced me to learn a lot on my own, but then were always there to help when I was stuck.

Supervisors should set a high but obtainable standard.

Again, deciding the standard you want from the graduate student is a judgment call, and an active decision. You should have a negotiation or a conversation with your student to decide what and where they want to go to. If they want to go to a top university, then the bar has to be set high.

During each meeting, doctorate supervisors should remind their students of the standards they set. I found this extremely useful with my own education because it reminded me of why I was doing so much work. It set the tone and quality of the conversation.

Be supportive and a decent human being.

For both the perspective of the graduate student and the advisor, you need to be supportive. Each meeting is not going to go perfectly, and their will be mistakes made. However, graduate meetings are a negotiated process to push attendees to think in different ways. Thinking in different ways is challenging, and emotional, but the focus should be on tearing down and rebuilding ‘the idea’ until everyone is satisfied with the outcome. You are only leveraging each others’ abilities, so that each other will prosper from the work.

Are you thinking about getting your PhD? You should really read this post where I go into detail about what not to ask a PhD.

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