Monday, June 7, 2010

Meeting Blues

Meetings rank pretty high on my list of the things I hate. I don't mean conferences or professional gatherings or panel reviews, but rather meetings where I am captive in a room due to a professional obligation for what feels like an eternity, with little intellectual stimulation. I never met a meeting I didn't want to cancel. I am always, always, overjoyed if any sort of meeting is cancelled, and I feel like I have received a tiny precious gift of extra time.

In my advisor's group, we had these long weekly meetings with all group members, where we would go around the table and everyone would tell what they had been up to. It went on for hours, and then I'd talk for 2 min and that was it. It was one of my first experiences being a member of a captive audience and I resented it for the most part. Most often, the updates shared were brief and disconnected and of little meaning to anyone but the advisor and the person giving the update. But occasionally, someone would have a breakthrough or was presenting someone else's breakthrough or was giving a practice talk to go to a conference, and then it would really be fun and stimulating and I was grateful we had these meetings. I started suspecting it was not me missing a "meeting gene", but rather the suboptimal organization of meetings that was causing me grief.

With becoming faculty came faculty meetings. And committee meetings. I used to think that no one in their right mind could enjoy faculty and committee meetings, but was I wrong! There is a subspecies of Narcissistic Loudmouths who enjoy listening to their own voice much rather than going home to dinner; my theory is that their spouses are also fed up with the round-the-clock patronizing monologues, so Narcissistic Loudmouths are encouraged to stay at work for as long as they wish.
Faculty governance is a wonderful concept, in that everyone can in principle be heard and decisions are made after thoughtful discussion among peers. In reality, it doesn't work like that: the Loudmouths take over and no one can get a word in edgewise. There are some very smart and thoughtful but quiet people in my department whom I would actually like to hear from, but who either avoid coming to meetings or, when they do, they don't participate. The louder and more obnoxious you are, apparently the more attention you get. Faculty meetings imitate life.

When I became faculty, I also started building my own group, and, as I was taught during my training, we started having group meetings. While I was engaged the entire time, I found that most students were, just like me before them, looking painfully bored throughout the meeting, and I couldn't go into sufficient technical detail when needed with anyone, not with everyone just sitting there dying of boredom. So within a year or so I stopped having the group meetings, and switched entirely to weekly 1-on-1 meetings. Overall, that's much more time spent on my side, but all the time is very effective as I can engage with a particular group member as much as he/she needs. And I still get the little burst of joy when the 1-on-1 meeting is over quickly or if the student cancels.

After the first couple of years on tenure track, I tried instilling group meetings on top of the 1-on-1 ones, with frequency depending on the current group size and teaching and travel schedule. However, if the meeting is in the middle of the day or late in the day, I am always interrupting doing something else; if in the beginning of the day, the meetings destroy the early-morning thrust that I like to use to attack some intellectually nontrivial tasks. Overall, however frequently we'd have the regular group meetings, I realized I still dreaded them and they were still not an efficient use of anyone’s time.

So what I settled on now, and I think it's a sustainable model for me and my group, are 1-on-1 weekly meetings (from about 20 min in duration for new students to 1 or 1.5 hours for senior students and postdocs, duration flexible), with larger group meetings organized as needed. We don't meet as a group unless there is something of interest to all: breakthroughs, interesting work by others, people presenting at conferences. Just like when I was a grad student, these types of meetings – where the meeting is content driven, rather than the meeting being a must regardless of content -- are much more engaging for everyone, and I think we have them on average once a month. Over the summer we meet more often as a group, since (a) everyone has more time and (b) it's an important integrative experience for the interns and undergrads who augment our group over the summer. No one seems to mind. Maybe because during the summer often there's also pizza.

I have colleagues who swear by group meetings and actually have them several times a week. I have a couple of collaborations that require weekly meetings and they are OK (if I don’t forget my laptop). I am in a hard STEM field, and for my specialty my group size (~10 people, of which 1 postdoc) is on the large side. My understanding is that, in certain fields such as, e.g., biomedical sciences, groups of 30+ with many staff and postdocs are common, but I may be mistaken. Such groups do exist in my broader field (not in my specialty) but are very rare (which has to do with primary sources of funding, but that's a topic for another post). There is probably a critical group size where it becomes impossible to have weekly 1-on-1 meetings with everyone; rather, a more feasible model is likely a large group meeting and then individual ones as needed. I suppose in groups with many staff and postdocs, a majority of issues can be resolved without the PI.

So how does your group operate in terms of meetings? Mostly 1-on-1, mostly group meetings, or a combination?

How large is your group? What's your field?

What do you feel the pros and cons are of how meetings are handled in your group?

If you are a student or postdoc, do you have as much time as you need with the PI? What about the attention you get from postdocs or staff members?

Alternatively, cast your vote in the poll below.

What is your group's dominant research meeting format (meetings where the PI is included)?
1-on-1 (or PI with a small group according to project) as well as regular full group meetings
1-on-1 (or PI with a small group according to project) with occassional full group meetings
Regular full group meetings, with 1-on-1 as needed
I rarely see my PI in any format
Other (please describe) free polls


Cherish said...

I can't say much about my PhD experience, but when I was working on my MS, we had a couple types of meetings. First, when I was working on a particular project, we had weekly meetings that involved everyone in the project. My advisor had 9 students, however, so not all his grad students were at the meetings as they were working on other projects. Second, he would have a meeting at least once a semester where we had pizza and made sure we all knew each other. These were always fun and the discussion light, although some of us would end up talking details after the meeting was officially over. My advisor was usually available when I needed him, but often I was working with other grad students, so I usually would talk things over with them first and ask him as a last resort.

I know another prof in that department that had weekly meetings where each of his students had to take turns giving presentations on research. He wanted to make sure everyone had good presentation skills, especially concerning language. It was a good idea, but the fact that it was on a weekday evening and often lasted a couple hours would've made me nuts.

Micro Dr. O said...

Our lab has meetings twice a month, which I really like. We generally cancel them if lots of people are out of town or can't make it for one reason or another. Our PI isn't at all the meetings, but is at most. One person generally presents, either on a grant they're writing, a technical problem, or a new finding that requires a new direction. This way the meetings are content-driven, yet keep the PI updated on what's happening in the lab. If we have specific issues to talk about, then we'll talk to our PI one-on-one.

Anonymous said...

My group is about 14; I'm in a hard STEM field, but our work is bio-applied, so we get NIH funding. I like to have a weekly group meeting where one student presents. If they don't have new data to discuss or a conference talk to practice, then they can substitute a presentation about a recent article from another group doing related work. I think this is very important to help students develop their public speaking skills. The full lab group is also divided up into smaller "working groups" that are project specific. I meet weekly with the working groups; everyone gives an update and is expected to participate. Since they're all working on similar projects, I expect them to be engaged in everyone else's update. I completely agree with you about faculty meetings and committee meetings - generally a huge waste of time while a few blow-hards listen to each other and I sit there wishing I could be answering email or editing a manuscript.

prodigal academic said...

This is a timely post for me--thanks for posting! I am evaluating our current meetings to see how they are working. What we currently do is a mishmash. We have one on one meetings as necessary. We meet weekly as a group for 20-60 minutes. We used to take turns presenting papers, but that has fallen off due to various reasons. Now, we mostly just discuss lab supply, upkeep, and other group business, so the meetings are short.

We do this because we are also a part of a larger meeting of 2-3 professors' groups where 2 students per week present their latest results (or an interesting project related paper) to a larger audience of 2-3 research groups. This discussions are usually interesting, and this keeps a small amount of pressure on, since my students present every 6-8 weeks or so.

I am thinking about either eliminating my own group meeting, or making it more formal so we discuss more science. I am a little reluctant to do this so early in getting my group set up. Thoughts?

GMP said...


Let me answer your question in a roundabout way.

I think it's universally accepted that the students should get a chance to present; certainly all the comments (Cherish, MicroDr.O, Anon, you) bring up that component.

I think it's optimal that a student present every 2-3 months, with longer times perhaps for younger students who are ramping up. If much more frequently than this, there is little chance for progress in between presentations and potentially too much time burden on the student who also has classes and homework etc.

For a relatively large group, the ~3 month period between presentations is easily accommodated via weekly meetings (such as what Anon described with 14 people). But when the group is small, the audience is small and having weekly presentations makes little sense. I remember having weekly meetings with my 4-student group when I started, and it was kinda depressing -- always the same teeny tiny audience, turnaround time too short...

Back to your question: it seems your students are getting a chance to present every 2 months in the 2-3 PI meetings, right? So I think they are all set in terms of honing presentation skills, and my advice is that you simply go with the 1-on-1 meetings for now if it feels right and not worry. I do however recommend that you meet 1-on-1 every week, some students will really not progress unless they have these regular checks; I have had a couple of students go on for months doing nothing when I was relying on them to come to me as needed.

I like 1-on-1 meetings weekly, plus like you I have a couple of weekly multi-PI collaborative meetings where students present with a few-month period between presentations, and an occasional group meeting thrown in every 3-4 weeks where it's just my group and someone presents plus we address some housekeeping issues (who travels where, what needs to be purchases, upcoming deadlines).

Pardon my longwinded way of answering your question: I think you're fine if you cancel group meetings altogether for now; you can always go back and revisit in a few months, as your group grows.

Hope this helps!

prodigal academic said...

Thanks, GMP. You have definitely given me lots of great advice to think about. I probably will end our regular group meeting, but I was thinking of doing 1-on-1 as needed. You bring up a great point about the definition of "needed".

irongrrl said...

Hey GMP, I have had the benefit of getting perspective from two groups. I just finished my PhD in a STEM field. My official adviser is a famous dude with a large group (~25 people, about half grad students and half post-docs/visitors). There are weekly group meetings that he is very strict about maintaining; we are essentially never allowed to skip one. Group meeting consists of two presentations, one research and one literature. With this schedule, everyone in the group gives a presentation about twice every four months or so. There are also four smaller "working groups", that each meet with the PI once a month. Finally, there are 2 one-on-one meetings every week. So, once a week, there is a working group meeting (2-3 hours, since the 4-6 people in the group each give an informal, 20-30 minute presentation that the other groups members are expected to be engaged in and give feedback on), 2 one-on-one meetings (1 hour each), and a group meeting (usually around 2 hours). Since the one-on-one meetings don't come around often for each group member, more frequent feedback comes in the form of working group meetings and monthly reports. Group meetings are useful for improving presentation skills, and help the rest of this large group stay on top of everyone's research. For such a large group, it would be difficult or impossible to have a formal one-on-one meeting with the PI more than about once a month. So, the working group meetings make up for the lack of individual interaction. This is definitely a lot of time dedicated to meetings, and I do not feel like that time is always efficiently utilized, but I am not sure how else it could be structured. I personally feel that dropping the working group meetings and replacing them with all one-on-one meetings would be a more efficient way to advise people, especially confused new grad students.

My co-adviser is not so famous (yet), but is a rising star and still much more laid back than my primary adviser. There are weekly one-on-one meetings and weekly group meetings. The group used to be smaller (about 8 people), but has recently become much larger (14). The PI has maintained weekly one-on-one meetings (1 hour each), which is an immense time commitment on his part, but not impossible. We are free to cancel one-on-one meetings and group meetings if there is nothing to discuss or if attendees are missing. But the weekly schedule is pretty consistent. The weekly one-on-one meetings are tremendously helpful, I developed as a scientist so much faster in this environment. The weekly group meetings are also a nice way to hear about other research, or (less often), an interesting paper. There is one presentation per meeting in this group, the meeting is 1 hour, and everyone is generally pretty engaged. The relaxed atmosphere of the group enables discussion.

In both cases, I feel that I get the most helpful feedback during one-on-one meetings, and I enjoy group meetings so that I can keep up with everyone else's research. This is especially nice in my second group, since the research projects in this group span a broader range of topics and I have learned about many new things in these group meetings. They are also extremely useful for becoming comfortable with giving presentations. Since this is such a critical skill for a scientist, I would err on the side of more group meetings rather than less. This is of course from an advisee's POV.

GMP said...

irongrrl, awesome comment, thank you! This is a post in its own right.