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Saving time, getting results: Tips for effective meetings with graduate students

Note from Pam Sturner, former Executive Director: Time management comes up in conversation at the Leopold Leadership Program as an ongoing challenge for busy faculty. How do you add to an already full plate? Peter Redstone, a leadership trainer for our core training, facilitates discussions on this topic with Leopold Leadership Fellows and other academic scientists who are linking their knowledge to action. He learned several time-management strategies from Jeanne Van Briesen (2009) that he shares during these conversations. Here’s an interview with Jeanne about how she focuses her meetings with graduate students and postdocs. Pam:  We know that Peter often shares your time management strategies. What’s one?

Jeanne:  A few years ago I realized I was doing most of the work prior to my one-on-one meetings with my grad students and postdocs. They didn’t come in prepared, but I reviewed all my notes before seeing them. I reversed the situation by requiring them to submit a one-page update on their project before they could “earn” their hour with me. Pam:  Besides saving time for you, are there other benefits to this practice? Jeanne: Definitely. One is that the students get practice writing clearly and concisely about their work. They also have to include an “ask” for me in the one-pager, which means they have to articulate a goal for our meeting. This has proven very effective in focusing the conversation. Seeing their updates and hearing what they need help with has helped me track their progress and improve my mentoring. I’m able to more carefully tune my interaction with them to push the research and their professional development forward. Pam: Is there a template you use with your students? Jeanne: Not for the weekly meetings, no. The only guidance I give them is “about a page, clear, concise, no cut-and-paste from other things.” I tell them if you can’t come up with a page, you aren’t ready for a meeting. Pam:  How often do you meet with your students? Jeanne: I schedule weekly meetings, but the students always have the option to cancel if they can’t get a page prepped. And, if they don’t submit the one-pager, I have the option to cancel too (taking the hour back for my own work). They really do have to “earn” the time to talk about their research with me by showing they’ve prepared. This sends a strong message about the importance of the time we spend together. Pam: What do you do if they don’t submit a one-pager? Jeanne: If they don’t submit something, they are responsible for canceling the meeting and letting me know that they won’t be coming. If they cancel two weeks in a row, I insist on a meeting to discuss their workload and how they are managing their time. Usually just the idea of having to meet with me about time management is enough to get the work started again. Pam: Do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting to implement this practice? Jeanne: Give written feedback on the one pager. If they know you are reading it and thinking about what they wrote, they will take it more seriously. This also gets them used to the fact that you will provide critical comments on their writing. It can be tough for students to get a first paper draft back with hundreds of redlines and comments. If they are getting weekly feedback of this type they get used to it, and it is not so daunting. Pam: Are there any other time management strategies you have that you’d be willing to share? Jeanne: Different time management strategies work for different people because we approach our work and our lives differently. Once you find tools and tips and tricks that work for you, integrate them into your daily activities till they are habits. Enlist people around you to help you keep to them. I have a scheduled writing block every day, and when someone asks for a meeting during that time, I am up front about why I can’t give them that time. A meeting booked with myself for writing is just as important as a meeting booked with someone else! Jeanne Van Briesen is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and a Leopold Leadership Fellow. She directs the Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems.


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