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Do’s and Don’ts for Preparing for Your Thesis Committee Meeting

A young woman pins notes to a corkboard.

Every year, after passing the dreaded preliminary oral exam, Ph.D. students are required to meet with their thesis advisory committee (TAC) to assess their progress and plan future work. These meetings can be incredibly valuable, and they provide important check-ins during the sometimes chaotic day-to-day lab work. While preparing for my last TAC meeting, I realized I was asking many of my classmates for tips about how to have a successful meeting. I share some of their advice, and my own experiences, below. Graduate programs have handbooks with important deadlines and more comprehensive details on how to structure the thesis committee, but this post is meant to be a miniguidebook from a student’s perspective.

DO: Contact your committee members very early to schedule your meeting.

Faculty members are incredibly busy, and trying to wrangle four to five of them into one room at a single time is more difficult than one might expect. It is absolutely critical to give them plenty of time to look at their schedules and find a time when they are available for your committee meeting. Faculty input is the crux of all thesis committee meetings, and their advice will be invaluable in guiding your thesis project, so try to make the scheduling process easy for them. Start scheduling your meeting at least two months in advance, especially if it will fall during the summer months. Using a survey-based tool like Doodle or Google Forms can be helpful. If the majority of your members respond with a date that works, follow up with unresponsive members by giving the date and time that works for the others. Sending a “yes or no” option makes responding easy. Once you have the date and time set, send out a calendar invitation and get your room reserved!

DON’T: Forget to schedule your annual evaluation-of-progress meeting with your P.I.

Besides the TAC meeting, most Ph.D. programs require that students meet with their PIs to go over their projects’ progress and address what will be discussed during the meeting. For my department, this should be done about one month before the meeting. Although this meeting is generally more informal than the TAC meeting, it is helpful to prepare any necessary documents, and maybe a presentation with recent data, to discuss with your thesis adviser. This is an opportunity to address any major issues one-on-one, and it may help guide any final experiments or changes to your slides before the bigger meeting. Students should also use this discussion to speak candidly with their adviser about graduation timelines, career goals, etc. Often, during the TAC meeting, these questions will come up, and it is helpful to have already considered your answers and discussed them with your adviser to avoid any surprises.

DO: Start earlier than you think you need to.

I realize this may incite flashbacks of your parents telling you not to procrastinate, but this advice rings true for your TAC meeting. To summarize months of work and data in a coherent way, and not just to someone in your lab who has seen your lab meetings 10 times, is no small task and may require more background slides. For most committee meetings, start to gather your data and figures at least one week in advance, and if you have time, perhaps start structuring your presentation a month in advance. This may vary from department to department, so ask your lab mates and peers to find out how they have done this in the past. You may also want to show the presentation to your PI beforehand, so be sure to incorporate that into your timeline.

DON’T: Try to do it all on your own.

It can be tempting to just assemble your meeting presentation all on your own. You know your data inside and out, right? While that may be true, contact your PI and lab members for feedback on your presentation. They can give tips on the order to present your projects, things to emphasize and formatting styles. One of my previous lab members told me that, for later meetings, you should structure your presentation as you would chapters of your thesis. This conveys that you have thought through the data, and it gives a nice scaffold to frame your results. Your PI can also give insight as to what topics to avoid — if they might bring up issues with committee members or take too much time away from the main topics.

DO: Go into the meeting confidently!

Presenting your data to your committee is the ultimate exercise in trying to gain someone’s approval. As such, it can be daunting and stressful. However, students should think of this as a marketing exercise. You need to sell your project, and your skills, so that the committee members believe in your plans. A past graduate of my program told me that the most important thing is to present your data confidently and concisely, giving them a clear idea of how you have worked hard and planned ahead for experiments.

DON’T: Digress extensively from your data.

With all of the administrative details and professional development that is expected of Ph.D. students, it is important to keep the main purpose of the meeting in focus. You want to show them your work as a Ph.D. student in the lab — this means that data should be the star of the show. Prepare a few slides at the end of the presentation summarizing any class requirements, grant writing and other details in case they ask for it. But remember that dedicating too much time to these details can take important time away from discussing your data and can alter the focus of the meeting. Professional development is equally important as graduation requirements, but the focus of your meeting should be your progress in the lab. This may change as you go through your program, but if you are unsure of how much emphasis to place on professional development, you should ask your PI.

Note that as students near graduation, the emphasis of the thesis committee meeting starts to shift. Students hoping to defend in the near future should prepare a structured timeline of everything they have completed, and the things they still need to complete, to show they have a plan for their proposed timeline. Here, students should present completed projects and submitted publications, and only focus on actual, attainable future directions (not just anything that is possible to do in the lab).

Next week, I will share more details about how to prepare for and succeed in your meeting as the date gets much closer. These tips should give you an idea of where to start when it comes to your committee meeting, but keep in mind that all departments are different. Be sure to contact your peers and ask about their experiences. While the thesis committee meeting is an important learning experience in itself, the process is also a wonderful opportunity to learn from your classmates.

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