How to Meet with your Advisor
So, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.
Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.
Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!
Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.
Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.
Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.
Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.
When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.
Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.
Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.
Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.
Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.
So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.