Saving time, getting results: Tips for effective meetings with graduate students

Jeanne VanBriesen at the June 2009 Leopold Leadership training.

Jeanne VanBriesen at the June 2009 Leopold Leadership training.

Note from Pam: Time management comes up in conversation at the Leopold Leadership Program as an ongoing challenge for busy faculty. How do you add to an already full plate? Peter Redstone, a leadership trainer for our core training, facilitates discussions on this topic with Leopold Leadership Fellows and other academic scientists who are linking their knowledge to action. He learned several time-management strategies from Jeanne Van Briesen (2009) that he shares during these conversations. Here’s an interview with Jeanne about how she focuses her meetings with graduate students and postdocs.

Pam:  We know that Peter often shares your time management strategies. What’s one?

Jeanne:  A few years ago I realized I was doing most of the work prior to my one-on-one meetings with my grad students and postdocs. They didn’t come in prepared, but I reviewed all my notes before seeing them. I reversed the situation by requiring them to submit a one-page update on their project before they could “earn” their hour with me.

Pam:  Besides saving time for you, are there other benefits to this practice?

Jeanne: Definitely. One is that the students get practice writing clearly and concisely about their work. They also have to include an “ask” for me in the one-pager, which means they have to articulate a goal for our meeting. This has proven very effective in focusing the conversation. Seeing their updates and hearing what they need help with has helped me track their progress and improve my mentoring. I’m able to more carefully tune my interaction with them to push the research and their professional development forward.

Pam: Is there a template you use with your students?

Jeanne: Not for the weekly meetings, no. The only guidance I give them is “about a page, clear, concise, no cut-and-paste from other things.” I tell them if you can’t come up with a page, you aren’t ready for a meeting.

Pam:  How often do you meet with your students?

Jeanne: I schedule weekly meetings, but the students always have the option to cancel if they can’t get a page prepped. And, if they don’t submit the one-pager, I have the option to cancel too (taking the hour back for my own work). They really do have to “earn” the time to talk about their research with me by showing they’ve prepared. This sends a strong message about the importance of the time we spend together.

Pam: What do you do if they don’t submit a one-pager?

Jeanne: If they don’t submit something, they are responsible for canceling the meeting and letting me know that they won’t be coming. If they cancel two weeks in a row, I insist on a meeting to discuss their workload and how they are managing their time. Usually just the idea of having to meet with me about time management is enough to get the work started again.

Pam: Do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting to implement this practice?

Jeanne: Give written feedback on the one pager. If they know you are reading it and thinking about what they wrote, they will take it more seriously. This also gets them used to the fact that you will provide critical comments on their writing. It can be tough for students to get a first paper draft back with hundreds of redlines and comments. If they are getting weekly feedback of this type they get used to it, and it is not so daunting.

Pam: Are there any other time management strategies you have that you’d be willing to share?

Jeanne: Different time management strategies work for different people because we approach our work and our lives differently. Once you find tools and tips and tricks that work for you, integrate them into your daily activities till they are habits. Enlist people around you to help you keep to them. I have a scheduled writing block every day, and when someone asks for a meeting during that time, I am up front about why I can’t give them that time. A meeting booked with myself for writing is just as important as a meeting booked with someone else!
What time-management strategies are working for you? Leave us a comment or post a tweet.

Jeanne Van Briesen is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a Leopold Leadership Fellow. She directs the Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems.


7 thoughts on “Saving time, getting results: Tips for effective meetings with graduate students

  1. Liz Hadly (Leopold Fellow) also suggested to me a time-saving strategy for grad student mentoring…. She said that many grad students need to hear the same feedback, be it about strategies for good writing, how to mentor undergrads, how to select thesis committee members, etc. Liz suggested discussing these topics at grad student-only lab meetings so that they can all hear it at the same time and so that they can learn tips from one another. This augments one-on-one meetings about individual projects, of course, but prevents covering the same kind of stuff in many individual one-on-one meetings.

  2. A pre-meeting report is a GREAT tip from Jeanne that, after I heard about it a few years ago, I modified somewhat but have found invaluable. I used to often not find time to review my scattered notes before meeting with a student or postdoc in my (microbiology) lab and so I usually entered the conversation “cold.” I took the above tip and changed it to “Send me a powerpoint presentation by 8 a.m. of the day we are meeting. This should restate the question you are asking, the approach and then recent data. It should end with next steps.” I then look at and THINK about these at home, after breakfast, before going into work, making me well prepareded for the one-on-one, hour-long conversation later in the day. As I am reviewing these (I have a group of ~12 and meet biweekly with each), I enter my questions and thoughts in the comments section of the slides in caps, to distinguish them from the student/post-doc’s comments. I really enjoy thinking quietly about the data rather than what used to happen which was being presented with it during the meeting and having to think FAST about it. That old approach is not the best way to look at complex datasets (not only because I’m not that quick but also because the presenter would inevitably give me their interpretation with the data which biased my own thinking).

    Another variant I have developed is to have a running powerpoint that melds ALL these biweekly presentations for any given person into one file for each year that I label “00Smith13.ppt”. The “00” makes sure it is easily found in my “Archival” folder for Smith. The “13” is just because they can get too big if they span multiple years. So, I just add each biweekly presentation to that master so I have a compilation of them all. And that is what I have open as we are talking, one-on-one in my office. That way, as the conversation unfolds, if they say, “I think the answer to that is in a slide I sent you a couple of months ago,” we just scroll up to find it instead of having to search each report individually. I can also forward this master file to a new student so they can see the entire thread of conversation and data.

    To make this most effective, I bought a 20-inch (50 cm) monitor that I have positioned at my “talking table” that I connect to my labtop (my only computer) by a separate cable. This was needed because there was no way for someone in my office to see my desktop monitor easily without leaning over my shoulder. It was well worth the few hundred dollars and I just unplug my desktop monitor and plug this one in for such meetings.

    My policy on cancellations, by the way, is that they are not allowed except in extraordinary circumstances. If they don’t have the amount of new data they’d like to have, then all the more reason to meet and the conversation can rise to the 30,000 foot level instead of the usual “what worked/didn’t work in that experiment”! Those zoomed out conversations are great for reassessing the overall direction of the project or portfolio of projects.

  3. I’d like to introduce John! One of our many dinner table conversations (yes, he’s my husband and, therefore, listens to many Leopold Leadership stories) prompted me to share Jeanne’s time management strategy. John’s lab is at Stanford School of Medicine in Microbiology & Immunology. His “night job” is Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

  4. Jeanne provides such a good example of using some simple boundaries and clear expectations to improve the quality of recurring meetings. Think how many hours a year are involved! I love to share this practice of Jeanne’s in Time Management training sessions. People familiar with the Heath Brother’s ‘Switch’ strategies will recognise the way she has artfully ‘shaped the path’. I’ll bet that it didn’t take long for it to become an established habit with her group – ‘the way we do things here’.

    Time has got to be our most precious resource – one whose finiteness should not be in doubt! And yet for academics who may be juggling demands from research, teaching, admin, outreach and more – not to mention their families – time management can be a major challenge.

    I’ll be offering a webinar on time management for the 2013 Leopold Fellows on the 21st November – time still to be confirmed – for anyone interested in pursuing time issues further and picking up some tips of the trade, including another of Jeanne’s great practices.

  5. Thanks Pam for conducting the interview with Jeanne and for posting the blog. Her strategy, as well as those shared in the replies to the blog from Jessica, John, Dawn and Peter, were really helpful. I’m going to start doing this ASAP! I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s webinar with Peter to learn about other time management strategies. Thanks to the LLP for setting it up!

    • So glad you found this helpful, Jennifer! As you experiment, let us know what time-saving strategies you find most useful in your work.

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