November 12, 2019

Preparing for a thesis committee meeting

When my first PhD thesis committee was approaching, I realized that I had no idea what to do or how to prepare. I solicited advice on Twitter (twice!) and the Grad Student Slack group, and spent a couple days on Google.

This process is going to be different for people. Ultimately, the most useful advice I saw before I started is that as the PhD student, you are calling and running the meeting. The meeting should be helpful to you and your project. Prepare for your meeting with that in mind!

Below, I have outlined the timeline and steps I took for my first thesis meeting during the fourth year of my graduate program (starting the process about 1.5 years after my qualifying exam and ultimately having the meeting ~2 years after my exam).

Scheduling the meeting: I asked for the availability of my advisor and my busiest committee members for a 3 month period 3 months out. (i.e. in May, I asked for availability in August through November). Set the committee meeting date and time using a doodle, making sure to CC all of the professors’ administrative assistants.

Meeting with each committee member individually: In the interim months, I met with each committee member individually to go over the the progress that I have made on my project. This process was super helpful in identifying experiments and questions I should address before my meeting.

Preparing a 2 page summary: One week before the meeting, I emailed out a 2 page summary of my progress with: Advisor & Committee Member names, Summary of Milestones since last meeting, Research Progress, Goals/Anticipated Progress for next 6 months, Problems, Issues, Concerns, and Other Research Activities

  • Summary of Milestones: PhD program requirements (course requirements, presentations, TAs) and conferences attended
  • Research Progress: short paragraph on background/gap in knowledge/goal and schematic of aims. For each aim, I included purpose, approach, results, and a plan for moving forward.

Meeting with individual faculty members and sending out the summary helped (I think) bring everyone up to speed so the actual meeting can focus on more specific feedback. The structure of the research section and whether to send a summary may change as you go through the PhD.

Slide Deck: I ultimately put together 35 slides for a 2 hour meeting (not including the title slide and acknowledgements). After putting together all my data on slides, I made to sure walk through the slides with my lab with enough time to go back and make edits.

  • Meeting Goals & PhD Timeline: At the beginning, I identified the goal of the meeting. For me, this included a timeline of when I want to submit and graduate (based on previous conversations with my advisor).
  • Thesis Project Results: Only included the bare minimum of background and data to show my results and challenges. This is a really hard process because we want to show more data = more productivity, but too much data can muddy the story/derail the meeting. (You can always put data in backup slides!)
  • Next Steps: Finally, listed clearly the questions I want to answer next with the experiments I want to do.

Reflections post-meeting: I could have done a better job of keeping the meeting on track and useful. I fell into the trap of answering whatever question came up, which led down a rabbit hole of talking about technical questions or other data. Luckily, one of my thesis advisors clearly asked about half an hour before our meeting ended, “Can you prioritize what experiments or questions are most important in the next year?” This led to a discussion with some pretty clear directions for me to pursue. All-in-all, a pretty successful meeting, and I know what experiments I want to do next before starting to organize my next thesis committee meeting.

Some useful resources I found in the process:

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