How to have productive meetings with busy mentors
posted on June 30, 2021

How to have productive meetings with busy mentors

by Ari Benjamin with help from Ilenna Jones and Nidhi Seethapathi

It can take a few years before meetings really start feeling natural for new grad students. Here are 10 tips we’ve come up with for how to set meetings. These aren’t perfect for any one mentor or any one mentee, but hopefully will be a little helpful for everyone.

0. People love mentoring

Reach out! Don’t hesitate! Many students wait to ask for help out of fear of bothering someone. But many more senior researchers actually enjoy helping younger ones, and remember all the help they received from their own mentors. If you often tend to work independently, err on the side of asking for help more often.

Planning and preparing

1. Set meetings in advance.

It’s important to have regular meetings, but it can be scary to schedule a meeting when you don’t know what you’ll be talking about yet. Don’t worry about that. There will always be something important you can talk about. Setting meetings early gets you on their busy schedule and encourages you to think about how to communicate your mind. It lets you get a peek inside your mentor’s brain and lets them get a peek inside yours. As the meeting approaches you will be able to decide what is most important.

2. Set aside time the day before to prepare.

Why take time away from research to prepare materials about research? It seems counterproductive. But, unfailingly, research is limited not by slow production but by clarity and vision.

3. Plan to lead the agenda.

You’ve thought a lot more about your projects than your mentor. The natural power dynamic between a mentor and mentee, though, means that more often than not the mentor ends up steering the conversation. It is crucial that they hear what you’re thinking enough to understand your thought process. Until they do, they might not know what you need to hear. Gentle cues like a meeting agenda, slides, or other prepared materials can go a long way in getting the conversation you need. You can even send over an agenda ahead of the meeting.

4. Plan a followup during this meeting.

Like setting meetings in advance in general, this seems hard at first. It’s normal. If there’s nothing to follow up on, just set the meeting a few weeks away (1-10 or more, depending on your relationship and whether this is your primary advisor).

The meeting itself

5. Think beyond project updates.

The work of a meeting could be anything. Some possibilities include asking specific questions, asking about the high-level context of a project, learning their bird-eye view of the field, brainstorming together, writing an abstract live together, reading text you’ve written aloud, re-aligning project directions, and discussing how a project fits into your research portfolio.

6. Start with the basics.

Context-switching takes time and mental resources. Your mentor has, unfortunately, too many contexts to keep up with. Start the meeting with some basic information that your mentor already knows. Especially busy mentors may even have forgotten some basics entirely, and some introductory framing can give much-appreciated cover. If you’re meeting about something else, spend some time summarizing or highlighting the issue (such as the content of reviews on a submitted manuscript)

7. Shared time is precious.

There are some tasks that shouldn’t be left to meetings. Avoid going through written text line-by-line, for example. While some detail-oriented mentors will enjoy or even request this, try to make sure that high-level questions take priority. So if you wrote a new version of a manuscript, instead try to summarize the key problems you perceived and the key changes you made. Also, know that it’s okay to end a meeting early if you speed through your agenda.

Some things to keep in mind

8. Refuse to be confused.

It’s very important that you be open about what doesn’t make sense to you. But it may be hard to signal confusion when you feel you “should” know something. Professors can be intimidating! But, like it or not, learning comes from exploring points of confusion. Often, the mark of a good academic is not one who “knows everything” but someone who is honest about not understanding even the “basic” things. Of course, don’t go overboard: offer to keep the conversation moving forward if you can just look it up later.

9. Discuss milestones.

It’s good to be transparent about timelines. Some people create a shared calendar about research and career milestone goals: conference submissions, paper submissions, candidacy date, fellowship submission, etc. Regardless of whether you create an actual calendar, have strategic meetings once or twice a semester to chart out plans to achieve the milestones and evaluate progress. It’s up to you to keep track of what needs doing when.

10. Be your own best ally.

Students often hesitate to speak up when things aren’t going well. Put your interests first and feel free to let your mentor know how you are feeling. Say something if you ever feel stuck (for weeks, say) or like your project is not going the way you want it to. Say something if you feel there is something fundamentally wrong in the way you are approaching things. Your career goals and your mental health are very important, to both you and your mentor. Your mentor has a million things on their mind and may not have the bandwidth to worry/notice.