Mastering Your PhD: Getting the Most Out of Progress Reviews

You will meet with your supervisor from time to time to present data, exchange ideas, and discuss failures and possible solutions for moving forward with your thesis research. These regular discussions are key to your success as a Ph.D. student. Below we provide tips and tricks to ensure you get the most out of these meetings.

Be prepared

Start by thinking about what you want to get out of the meeting and writing down your current challenges. Perhaps your samples aren’t as good as you had hoped, and you need guidance on what to do next. Maybe you need feedback on an abstract you’ve prepared for an upcoming meeting, or you gave your supervisor a manuscript to review weeks ago and haven’t seen it since. It is unlikely that you will be able to solve all these problems in a single meeting, so prioritize those that your supervisor will be able to help you with. Pick, at most, three topics you want to discuss at the meeting and be clear about the type of solution you want. For instance, bring up the manuscript that is still on your supervisor’s desk. Aim to set a date for a meeting to discuss the manuscript (thereby implying that your supervisor will have looked at it by then). You might even want to bring a list of these discussion points to the meeting.

Stick to your plan

During the meeting, the conversation may stray in various directions or grind to a halt when your supervisor gets a phone call. Whatever happens, remember what was on your agenda and bring those issues forward again. As you gain experience, you will find the right balance between flexibility and focus. This is a skill that will be valuable throughout your career.

Have your data ready in a presentable format

Progress reviews are not just about showing and discussing data. But, since you are doing a research project, the content–whether it’s data, computer code, or the like–will play an important role in your progress review. So make sure you have the data available. Bring it to the meeting in a form that works well in discussions with your supervisor. For example, bring printouts so you or your supervisor can make notes on them. Make sure you’ve done the right analyses and calculations. It’s a good strategic move to start the discussion with a discussion of your positive progress, such as results of a new analysis, not with problems or frustrations.

Hone your to-do list

In discussions such as progress reviews, we tend to focus on activities that we feel we need to do but that aren’t going that well. We ask for more attention, a quicker response, better equipment, more conference visits, and so on. It is important to express your needs but ensure that you also pay attention to two other categories of activities.

First, to accomplish more of the things on your to-do list, make sure there is also a stop-doing list. Discuss with your supervisor the activities you want to spend less time on, and why. For instance, coordinating the weekly group meetings has been a good experience, but now that you are wrapping up your thesis it might be time for someone else to take over this task.

Second, confirm what’s working well. Note the activities that you want to continue doing. Praise your supervisors for contributions you’ve found helpful. For instance, if your supervisor returns a manuscript to you promptly, let her know you appreciate that. Everybody likes a compliment, including supervisors.

Building rapport

Progress reviews are serious business, but there’s more going on in these meetings than the agenda. Another objective is to build rapport with your adviser. Allow time for some informal chitchat. Depending on your relationship, a bit of humor can make the discussion more relaxed.

Handling unexpected criticism

You go into the meeting well prepared, anticipating a fruitful outcome. Then your supervisor starts haranguing you and listing all kinds of things that have gone wrong. Most of the accusations are new, or they’ve never been mentioned in such an explicit way before. It is clear that your supervisor is not a great communicator, but that is of little help now. It’s likely that your supervisor has saved up these criticisms for an occasion like this meeting, determined to vent them all at once, even if they’re no longer relevant. You start to argue. Your supervisor is not in the mood to argue and hardly listens. The list of complaints grows longer.

Here is a survival strategy. First, forget your agenda. It’s unlikely that you’ll make progress on the points you planned to discuss once the meeting takes such a negative turn. Second, listen, don’t argue, then summarize the accusations and repeat them back. This demonstrates that you’re taking them seriously. Finally, try to set up a new meeting to deal with the lists of complaints. Emotions are running too high to allow you to transform complaints into actionable solutions right away. Take the haranguing seriously but remember that, following the tirade, your supervisor may feel relieved. From his perspective the air has been cleared and your collaboration has regained energy.

That one last problem

Most meetings, however, go more smoothly. You make it through your agenda and everything on your agenda has been discussed. But there’s one more issue that you want to raise but are afraid to ask, so you put it off to the end. Bringing up a major concern at the end of a meeting is not the best or most effective method, but at least you had the guts to do it. Next time, deal with the important stuff earlier, even if it’s awkward and unpleasant.

Make an actionable plan

Here’s something that happens often, but you should do your best to avoid it: You walk out of the meeting thinking it was fruitful only to realize later that little progress was made in creating practical solutions. The two of you agreed that you should spend more time getting better samples–but what should you do tomorrow morning? Keep the discussion focused on solid, achievable action points. You may have to adjust them later, but defining an actionable plan is the next essential step toward success.

Value these moments of interaction with your supervisor. They may be chaotic, infrequent, interrupted by others, and sometimes a little more critical than you would wish. But if you are well-prepared, those meetings will make a magnificent contribution to achieving your main goal, the completion of your Ph.D.

Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 9: The Postdoc Has Two Faces

Studying the Self Scientifically