The other day I was strolling back from a leisurely gossip session coffee with @ researchwhisper at Pearson and Murphy’s cafe when I ran into one of my favourite academics, let’s call him Ned. Why is Ned one of my favourites? Well, I know this sounds like a stupid reason, but Ned knows how to rock a meeting.

I’m always happy to go to a meeting run by Ned (and not just because he always has a spare pen when I have forgotten to bring one). Ned always has a good reason for calling a meeting and knows what he wants to achieve from it. He is ruthless about keeping the meeting on time and on topic, while appearing to listen to all points of view. I have learned a lot about how to give good meeting from Ned: a skill that’s vastly under rated in academia in my opinion.

If you think about it, running a meeting is an essential skill for a PhD student. You will need to have regular meetings with your supervisor during your study and it’s likely, if you go on to a career in academia, that meetings will be a fact of life. As with anything these days however, there’s technology which can help you communicate and be more organised. So here’s my 5 steps towards better meetings – with an extra helping of apps!

Make sure you need a meeting in the first place

We have amazing technology in universities these days: email (as much as I hate it), instant messaging, phones, Twitter, Facebook. We do not lack ways of speaking to each other. Face to face meetings are good for discussing ideas, making decisions and talking things out – but should be saved for best so they don’t interrupt work too much. Weeks may go by when you have just been reading stuff and noodling around. If you are more or less happily immersed in your work, there may be little point in meeting with your supervisor in person. Write a short status report in email and ask them if they think anything warrants a face to face meeting.

There’s plenty of creative ways to share work in progress between, or instead of, having meetings. Sometimes you wont have writing to share, just a bunch of reading and notes as well as other cool stuff you have found. Consider using cloud databases for this – evernote is excellent for keeping track of web pages and photos of things (like the state of an experiment or something you have built), photos and audio notes. You can share the database with your supervisor; just tag stuff which might interest them so they can visit anytime and see bits of your work in progress. You can share and build bibliographies together in Mendeley and other cloud referencing apps. Photos can also be stored as a kind of journal / database using Tumblr – excellent for those in art and design disciplines. Other people I know keep a private blog, which they invite the supervisor to make comments on – great if you like to write in ‘chunks’.

Pick the right venue for the meeting

I never met my PhD supervisor outside of his office the whole time I was studying. I found this odd because with my masters supervisor it was entirely different. We were both working mothers and found it easier to meet in our respective homes, complete with our kids running about (sometimes naked except for their gumboots – don’t ask). Location just doesn’t matter to me, but clearly it did for my PhD supervisor. I’m sure part of the reason we were always so professional and polite with each other was that meeting was always on ‘work turf’. This set up boundaries, but useful ones – horses for courses as they say. There’s not really an app for that yet, but of course you don’t even have to leave your office for face to face meetings if you have Skype. If you do, check out the crowdsourced Thesis Whisperer map to thesis writer friendly cafes if you want to mix it up a little.

Be prepared

It goes without saying that if something has been circulated before a meeting your supervisor should endeavour to read it. Sometimes supervisors just can’t read it in detail because of the sheer amount of other reading that must be done (my ethics committee paperwork sometimes exceeds 700 pages…). If you want a deep reading, say so and, better still, highlight the areas you are worried about using the comments and highlighters in Word or the notes function in Scrivener. Alternatively you can try any number of shared document sites like Google Docs, a.nnotate or Freedcamp to work on documents collaboratively. I use ‘good reader’ to go through student work, which enables me to mark up and save PDFs on my ipad.

Make good records

Part of being prepared for a meeting with your supervisor is generating a list of questions or problems. Share this in advance of course and bring a copy to the meeting (if your supervisor is anything like me, they will forget to print it out). Make sure you have a good way of remembering the discussion and the decisions you make. Several of my friends have a light scribe pen, which allows you to touch the notes you have made and listen to what was being said while you wrote it. I always have technology envy when I see @scottmayson use this gadget, so I recently downloaded an app called ‘audio note’ that purports to do a similar thing (but I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t comment on its functionality).

Close the loop

The best way to record the outcomes of the meetings is to make a list of ‘action items’ and ‘items outstanding’ and circulate minutes to your supervisor and yourself containing these items. I use an ipad app called ‘errands’ for keeping track of things I said I would do for people – I like it because it’s really simple and pings at me when I forget stuff.

Occasionally I have been asked to help resolve disputes between supervisors and students. One thing I have noticed is that there’s a lot of “He said / she said” going on – people claiming something about the other person, usually with no evidence. Now please listen to Aunty Thesis Whisperer: I can’t stress enough the importance of making a note in your diary of the time and date of each and every supervision meeting, as well as an outline of what was discussed. There’s any number of online diaries for this purpose – you should automatically get a calendar with your uni email address. Never – ever – throw out a single peace of email or paper correspondence to do with your degree.

Have you got any good meeting related tips or technology you want to share? I’d love to hear more.

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