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Meeting with your advisor

Created May 17, 2021

My meetings with advisees have varied widely in format over the years. One advisee came in every week with a typed, numbered list of agenda items to discuss. Another advisee just spoke off the cuff about what happened each day of the prior week, pulling up figures or files from their laptop as thoughts came to mind. Some advisees seek out debate and discussion around ideas and priorities. Others clam up when faced with probing questions, and even avoid proposing ideas to avoid questions. I like and respect all of my current and former advisees and broadly understand their behavior. Still, not all of those meetings were equally productive.

Few students have training regarding what they should be doing at meetings. I also realized that some meetings are more painful for students than necessary because they didn’t understand my goals and perspective. Thus, this document aims to shed light on these interactions and offer advice about planning and executing meetings.

The advisor perspective

Understanding your advisor’s motivations may help you engage more productively, so let’s briefly consider this perspective.

My personal perspective

First, I enjoy advisee meetings because it is rewarding to watch a student grow and make progress. Second, it is my job to advise students, and I chose to take the time for each of my meetings. So advisees should not feel like they are wasting my time or asking me for a favor. Third, meeting students and offering thoughtful feedback is cognitively challenging. It would be much easier to skip meetings and simply say, “you’re doing great!” By making time to meet and offering advice, I am (happily) offering a resource.

I mention the above because I know advisor meetings can be stressful, particularly if you are struggling or if your advisor is not actively voicing their support. If you are struggling or stressed, it may be helpful to consider your advisor’s perspective and keep in mind that they ultimately benefit too if you succeed.

I understand that my advisees won’t use meetings to share details of every thing they have done that week. I do want to know if they are considering a significant decision or choosing an area of inquiry to pursue. I’ll want to probe those decisions to make sure that they are reasonable. Sometimes we’ll agree that the plan is good, and I’ll simply be glad to know what is happening. Sometimes we’ll adjust the plan based on insights that arise from the discussion. And sometimes, the advisee will come in with a plan but be unable to answer questions about it and have to abandon or revise it. In any case, I’m happy if the discussion speeds up the process of knowledge discovery, and in no case is my goal to criticize my advisee personally.

Other advisors

Many advisors should share some of the above perspectives, but also have differences. Some advisors want to be friendly and avoid confrontation, but this may come at the cost of not getting constructive feedback that could advance your work. Other advisors may level personal criticisms or lose their temper–I don’t have much to say about these very challenging situations other than that I understand how difficult this is. Many advisors are not clear in explaining what they want from you, leading to added stress or frustration.

In those situations, keep in mind that your advisor was hired primarily to be a scholar, and most advisors have had little training in advising. Your advisor may think that they are doing a good job, or they may be treating you how they were treated as a student. Keep in mind also that they need to focus on their own career and not just yours. Ideally, the two align (e.g., publishing is helpful for both of you), but misaligned incentives can be sources of stress for everyone.

I hope you have a rewarding relationship with your advisor, but if there are challenging parts, do your best to navigate them and get what you need out of your meetings. “Managing up” is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career, and this is an excellent time to start practicing. You can still come to meetings with the ideas that I outline below. I would also recommend talking to your advisor’s other advisees to hear from them about what makes effective meetings and how to best get what you need from the interactions.

Meeting goals

Your overarching goal in a meeting should be to advance your research and planning. Spend a little time informing your advisor of your progress, but not at the expense of addressing hurdles to your continued progress. You should plan what you want to achieve in each meeting and think ahead about how your advisor can help.

What to discuss

A list of potential meeting topics is listed below in Section 3. But first I want to offer some general advice.

The time and effort that planned work will take is generally a good thing to discuss. When I make a task request, I sometimes ask, “how long do you think that will take?” I only want an order-of-magnitude estimate (an hour, a day, or a week). Sometimes I am badly miscalibrated, and what I thought was an easy request is actually difficult for a reason that I didn’t appreciate. Once I understand, I may retract my request if it is too much work for the potential benefit. Even if your advisor doesn’t ask about time, you can preemptively bring it up (“I could do that if you think it would be valuable, but it may take me a few weeks because xxx”). Perhaps they didn’t understand the scope of the request. Or perhaps they believe it is still important even if it is hard, and they can explain why. It is better to resolve this with a quick conversation than to let the request consume lots of time.

It is generally wise to communicate about outside hurdles to your progress. If a class project or other obligation occasionally slows you since the last meeting, it could be helpful to say something like, “I’m a bit behind this week because of xxx, but I’ll make it up next week.” But be careful–saying this too often suggests that your research is a low priority. If I repeatedly hear that classes or professional societies are significantly interfering with an advisee’s progress, I will likely suggest a change to those other activities. If you are suffering from health challenges or other serious impediments to your work, you should keep your advisor informed, and expect reasonable accommodations.

Finally, keep in mind that your advisor is an expert and a resource beyond just your research project. Ask them occasionally about career advice, introductions to other experts, job leads, and other topics. You could include these topics in a meeting agenda or save them for other informal conversations.

Responding to advisor requests and suggestions

Be respectful of your advisor’s feedback by following up on their recommendations and reporting back. A frustrating interaction for me is when I request a result and then ask about it at a future meeting, and the advisee says, “Oh, I forgot about that. I’ll look into it next week.” This puts the responsibility on me to remember the request, and it uses more of my time to repeat the discussion. That is not to say that you need to do every single task your advisor suggests. If your advisor gives you a suggestion or request that seems difficult or unreasonable, it is usually best to discuss right away than ignore it (Section 2.1). Or if you realize after the meeting that there was some problem with the idea, you can explain at the next meeting. Then your advisor will know you have been thoughtful with your plans.

Responding to advisor guidance and priorities

When considering an advisee’s tasks and goals, I will generally attempt to fill a vacuum. If I sense that an advisee is directionless or stuck, I will propose directions to go. On the other hand, if they have a plan, and I see that it is well-thought-out, I will happily stand back and play a supporting role.

As an advisee, you may feel like an advisor’s probing is criticism, and thus try to avoid it by not proposing ideas. This is unfortunate because you lose some ownership of the research direction and miss the chance to grow from the discussions. I understand (and have personally experienced) that “guidance” can sometimes be delivered in a brusque or even attacking way–this is incredibly difficult, and I believe it to be unproductive, but it is sometimes a reality. And even when questioning is offered in a more empathetic way, it can still feel like a personal criticism. But the more you can set aside defensiveness and engage with the intellectual conversation, the more you have the chance to benefit and grow from the conversation.

Possible meeting agenda topics

To be productive in your meetings, you should plan what you want to accomplish. You should also be realistic about how long your agenda will take. Make sure to put critical issues at the start of the meeting to ensure you get them resolved.

Below is a list of potential agenda items. Don’t include all of these items each week, but you can browse this list when considering what to discuss. I recommend bringing a copy of your agenda to the meeting and showing your advisor what you want to address. The agenda could be on paper, or it could be the first slide of your slide deck. Your advisor may revise or add to the agenda–that is fine, and it’s better to do this in an organized way rather than just let the conversation flow erratically.

Quick recap

Give a quick big-picture update. What are you working on right now? What key decisions were made at the last meeting? Your advisor has probably thought about dozens of projects or tasks since you last talked, so it is good to refresh their memory. But don’t take too long on this, as you want to spend most of your time looking forward.

Research progress

  1. Summarize important new results since the last meeting. Don’t list everything you did, but mention anything surprising or significant.

  2. What are your interpretations? Are there any unexpected results? If you are dealing with surprising results that you want to discuss, make sure to bring supporting information. Your advisor can’t offer much feedback without understanding details of the approach you used or seeing intermediate diagnostic information.

  3. Are you stuck on any problems? Do you need advice or assistance?

Draft written or presentation materials

  1. Do you want feedback on new materials?

  2. It is generally not efficient to flip through a paper page-by-page during a meeting. It takes a long time, and it is useful for your advisor to see your manuscript as a stand-alone document (like the reader will) without you providing extra context. But if there are key decisions to be made or figures you are stuck on, you can talk about those or point them out for later consideration.

  3. Draft presentations may be useful to look at together. Generally, you don’t have to present it as though your advisor is the final audience. You can flip through the slides more quickly, telling them key messages that you plan to discuss on each slide.

Planned next steps

  1. What are you planning to do before the next meeting? Think about this before the meeting, and think about how those plans fit with your big-picture goals. Be prepared to discuss the pros and cons of various opportunities. A key role of an advisor is to ensure that you are focusing on the right activities, so this discussion is important.

  2. What do you need from your advisor (e.g., review of a draft paper, help acquiring data)?

  3. Big picture plans (to be discussed on occasion)

    1. What are your big-picture priorities right now?

    2. What is your target timeline for completing your next talk or paper?

    3. What is your target scope and timeline for your thesis?

Administrative items

  1. Upcoming meeting or conference logistics.

  2. Paperwork, reimbursements, purchases of equipment or software, etc.

  3. Possible future coursework.

  4. Upcoming trips or personal items that might be relevant to your advisor.

After the meeting

It may be helpful to follow up after a meeting with an e-mail. You can provide materials you discussed (e.g., a paper draft you want feedback on, a link to a conference you mentioned). It can also be helpful to restate your plans (“To recap, I plan to ...”). This can help identify and clarify any potential misunderstandings, and may serve later as a reference to justify the plan you have been following.


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