Back to all Advice

Meeting with your advisor

Created May 17, 2021

My meetings with advisees have varied widely in format over the years. Alice came every week with a typed paper agenda of items to discuss. Sanjay 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. Yang would seek out debate and discussion around ideas and priorities. Ava would 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. But not all of those meetings were equally productive.

Few students have training regarding what they should be doing at meetings, and few initiall understood my goals and perspective. Thus, this document aims to shed light on these interactions and help you engage with your advisor more productively.

The advisor perspective

Personally, I enjoy watching advisees grow and make progress. 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. Consider also that 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 know advisor meetings can be stressful, particularly if you are struggling or feel unsupported.

In a meeting, I am most interested in knowing about significant decisions my advisee is considering. I’ll want to probe those decisions to make sure that they will achieve the intended objectives. 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 may share some but not of my perspectives. 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 understand how difficult this is. Not all advisors are clear in explaining what they want from you, leading to added stress or frustration. If you feel unclear about your advisor's expectations, keep in mind that many advisors have had little formal 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. I hope you have a rewarding relationship with your advisor, and if there are challenging or stressful parts, it can be helpful to ask questions and try to get explicit guidance about expectations. “Managing up” is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career, and this is an excellent time to start practicing. You can also come to meetings with the ideas that I outline below, which are usually quite effective, and ask your advisor’s other advisees about how they work most effectively.

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

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 a casual 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, 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 classes or professional societies consistently interfer 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 can 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 thought that the advisee had agreed, but at a future meeting they say, “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 it right away rather than ignore it. 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 more 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 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.

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. 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 your priority tasks 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? Make sure to have supporting information available for use if needed. 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 I usually prefer to see an advisee 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 in person, or you can add a note to the paper to draw your advisees attention to them.

  3. Draft presentations may be useful to look at together. Generally, best is to flip through the slides quickly, noting your key messages on each slide. You don’t have to present it as though your advisor is the final audience.

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 and valuable.

  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 with your advisor, and can be useful for your own tracking of your plans.

* Advisee names above were changed to protect their privacy


Use the following link to register to receive very occasional updates about new offerings on this page. I will not share your information with anyone.

Go to the registration form