Ask Science Woman: How do I prep for a committee meeting?

Here's a post from the archives (originally published February 20, 2006).

Here's an email I recently received:

Dear Science Woman,
I am meeting with several of my committee members tomorrow to discuss my data. the data is not totally analyzed and is not looking too pretty so far. The problem I have is that this is my first "data meeting" and I am not sure how to prepare or what to have together....I was just wondering how you've presented [data to your committee] or how formal of a meeting these things are.

Here's my stab at a response. What would you have told her?

"I think a key thing is doing some sort of preparation. Even if I am just feeling totally lost as to what the data is telling me, I try to have some sort of "narrative" or plan as to which order I am going to present things and what I am going to say about them. (maybe something like: prompted by this question, I did this analysis, and here's the graph, and I see this trend, but I don't know what it means, so I tried looking at the data this way...)

I usually bring copies of all key graphs for each person at the meeting - that way they can draw on them if they want. Graphs are definitely better than tables. I also usually have some extra graphs/stats/tables in reserve for just me, in case the conversation goes in a different direction than I had anticipated. Doing this means that I often spend the afternoon before a meeting trying to think of all the different graphs/stats that people might ask about and at least taking a quick stab at doing them.

If you are going to cover a bunch of stuff, it might be worth typing an outline or some bullet points for your committee members to keep in front of them. In my mind, having an outline and some graphs for your committee makes it look like you are accomplishing something even if you feel like you are stuck.

I've also found its hard to take many notes in a meeting and I need to have notes. So its best for me if I can have an hour or so immediately after to the meeting to just try to write down the suggestions and make some sense of them. I'm guessing a tape recorder would be really helpful, but I've never dared try something like that."

Got a question for me(and my infinitely wiser readers). Send an email to: science (dot) woman (at) gmail (dot) com.

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I always make powerpoint presentations, even if I'm just going to my adviser's office for a one to one meeting. This way I can put all the key plots into one file, then he just puts it on his computer and we look together. I also sometimes find putting a "complete" powerpoint together helps me organize my thoughts. Sometimes as I make the presentation I come up with new questions and make different plots.
This isn't very different than the suggestion of printing them out and sometimes you won't have access to a projector or a room that can handle one, but for a committee meeting it's always nice to have large plots for everyone to look at together, where you can point to parts of the plots that make sense and parts that are confusing. You can still have your outline and then a notebook to jot down ideas as they come up in the meeting.

As a professor who has been in these types of meetings for the last 22 years, my best advice is to (1) be sure that you remind the committee members exactly what questions you are trying to answer with your research and (2) talk about waht you need to do next to move the problem forward.

At this early stage, no one should expect you to have all of the answers, but you should have a very good grasp on the questions.

If you have a good understanding of the questions, and you are sure your experimental approach is appropriate, then you can worry about the data, and why they don't seem to move the problem forward. Do you need a more sensitive technique? Larger sample size? Better statistical analysis? Repetition under different conditions?

The committee should be favorably impressed if you have thought about how to move from where you are to where you want to be, no matter what the data look like at this early stage.

Good luck with your meeting, and remember to breathe.

As a professor who has been in these types of meetings for the last 22 years, my best advice is to (1) be sure that you remind the committee members exactly what questions you are trying to answer with your research and (2) talk about waht you need to do next to move the problem forward.

I agree with Tex. At an early stage it can be impossible to think up every possible permutation of various views. Come to think of it, all the stages can be like that! LOL! I have found that if people can see you are doing your best with what you have chosen to focus on, they usually won't fault you because your view was different from theirs.
Dave Briggs :~)

I tell my PhD students that these meetings are as much about the advisor (e.g. me) as they are about the student. A good committee is there to judge the progress of the student, to make sure the student and advisor are communicating, and to make sure there will be a thesis (and hopefully publications) at the end of this process. The committee provides peer pressure to the advisor to make sure he/she is doing a good job. If you chose a good committee, they will challenge you and your advisor and not just be a rubber stamp.

Most students have problems with their projects along the way. The committee will not expect you to be finished with your project yet, especially not at your first meeting. But it should start to become clear that you are going in the right direction and that the direction you have chosen is going to be successful. If not, it is your advisor's job to fix your project soon, and it is the committee's job to pressure your advisor to do that.

Here are some tips: Plan for a meeting that will last about an hour, but which should finish on time. Expect the committee to want to talk amongst themselves at the beginning and the end of your presentation. Bring a summary of your academic progress (class requirements, etc) and enough slides to fill up about 30 minutes (about 30 slides). The committee will likely ask lots of questions, so a 30 min talk will take longer than planned.

Have someone proof-read the slides for you. It is embarrassing to have a bunch of typos in your slides, and it reflects badly on your technique (if you aren't careful with your slides, how careful are you with your experiments?).

Above all, make sure that you and your advisor are on the same page about requirements, classes, projects, timelines, etc. The two of you should not disagree about something important in front of the committee.

These meetings are about plans for the future, and mapping out a strategy to finish your thesis on time and with publications. Approach the meeting from that point of view.

Remembering to breathe, as mentioned above, is another great point.

I agree with many of the comments above as well.

What I've learned throughout the years, is to always bring the 'subsidiary' data/information. It seems that within the first 10 minutes, a committee member will ask about the data behind the data, and then you got to run to your office or, worse, say you don't have it handy. So, by the end of my graduate student career I would open up tons of files on my computer and/or bring hard copies, so I could be ready to say "sure, I have that spreadsheet right here".

But, as Tex said above...being prepared on a scientific/conceptual level is more important than simply being prepared with data and paperwork.