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Preparing, leading and recording thesis committee meetings

A guide for PhD students


Why should I meet with my thesis committee?

Thesis Committee Meetings are meetings that you ask and invite for when you would like to get advice from your thesis committee (TC). They are not meant to be mere status reports of your project (this can often be accomblished with an e-mail).

Reasons to call for a thesis committee meeting can be, for example:

  • You are at the beginning (first two months) of your PhD project and need to discuss your 3-year time-line (this is something every PhD student should do!)
  • You would like to conduct a research placement / an advanced training or participate in a conference and would like to ask your TC for recommendations
  • The initial project plan / schedule needs to be / had to be adjusted due to unforeseen circumstances, your TC could share their experience on how to handle such a situation
  • You would like to discuss your publication strategy
  • You have (communication) issues with your supervisor or main advisor and would like to meet with the full TC to try and resolve the issues, thereby counting on the support of the other TC members
  • You are approaching the end of your PhD phase and would like to get some advice how to develop your further career

There can be many more reasons to call for your TC to meet. As you can see by the examples, the benefit of thesis committee meetings can be much more than just talking about your science!


Each successful meeting (not only a thesis committee meeting!) includes three steps: (1) preparation, (2) leading the meeting, (3) writing minutes

Preparing a meeting

The better you prepare a meeting, the better the chances that you will be satisfied with the outcome!

Technical preparations:
  • ask all TC members about their availbility (you should do so well in advance because scientists tend to have full calendars)
  • book a seminar room or an online meeting room (you can contact [Bitte aktivieren Sie Javascript] if you don't know how and where)
  • invite your thesis committee members
  • make a written list of what you want to talk about
  • prepare a PowerPoint presentation and handouts (if you think it would be helpful)
Preparing the meeting agenda:

Determine clear objectives: ask yourself, what you want to know from your thesis committee. Write down specific questions that you would like to have answered in the course of the meeting. A helpful start is to ask yourself "Which outcome of the meeting do I envision to ensure that I will feel satisfied at the end of the meeting?"

Write down specific questions you want to ask your TC: choose only those questions that you would like to have answered by the group (other questions can maybe be directed to single members of your TC). Be realistic about the number of questions you want to ask ( thesis committee meetings typically have a duration of 90 minutes).

Prepare an agenda for the meeting: use the guideline GLOMAR provides (link) and choose the topics that are relevant for you at the current stage of your project. Decide how much time you want to spend talking on each of the topics, remember to write your agenda down (you should include some buffer time for each topic to allow for spontaneous interesting discussions, but not too much, otherwise you might end up having to skip other topics), you can also decide for 'bonus topics' that you address in the meeting if there is some time left at the end (but make sure that you are okay it the topic is dropped, otherwise it should not be a bonus topic but a part of your agenda!)

Send the agenda to the members of your TC: the advantage of sending the agenda in advance is that you will automatically put more effort into your preparations and that the TC members have the chance to already think about some of the topics. It may also be worthwile to send them the questions you would like to address at them during the meeting. This is a tool you can use when you moderate the meeting later on (see below).

Decide how you want to organise your TC meeting: make up your mind whether you want to present all your topics first and then have a discussion at the very end or whether you would like your TC to discuss after every topic you introduce. You should come to a decision before you start preparing your presentation since this will guide the structure of your slides.

Preparing your presentation:

Whether it is a PowerPoint presentation (PPP) or a paper draft you would like to discuss with your TC, the better you prepare it, the better the outcome of the meeting will be. In most cases, PhD students prepare a PPP. Numbering your slides can be helpful for a discussion at the end. If you decided that you would like the TC to start a discussion after every topic you introduced, you should already write down the questions you have at the end of each chapter / topic.
NEVER end a PPP with a "Thank you for your attention" slide! Why not? because the last slide is what people look at when the discussion starts. It is much more useful to end with a summary of your most important findings, a take-home message or with questions you have for your audience. Yes, 95% of the scientists end their presentation with a thank-you slide. But don't just copy something that the majority does, if it is not helpful for your cause!

When you are finnished with your written list of topics and questions and your slides are all prepared, you are ready for a trial run of your presentation: people with A LOT of routine may not need trial runs anymore. But as a PhD student, you definitely do. It will improve your meeting a lot! Ask a fellow Phd student to spend 20 to 30 minutes listening to your presentation. In return, you can offer to do the same for them. When we practice, we always find things that can be improved, it's better to find them prior to the 'real' meeting.

Okay, this was a lot of input just to start with! Do you feel overwhelmed by reading what you should do to prepare a meeting? It just seems a lot in the beginning. When you start preparing all your meetings in this routine (not just TC meetings), it will become more and more natural and easy after a while! You will probably notice that many people don't prepare the meetings they host in such a careful manner. But are those meetings enjoyable? Or do they often end up in long discussions about things that were just side topics on the agenda? It's all in your hands! By the way, the time you invest into preparing a meeting is time that you save in the end! Time that would, for example, otherwise be used for discussions about topics that are not your priority.

Now that you have carefully prepared your meeting, let's see how you can successfully take leadership, maybe even without people noticing that you are leading them ;-)

Leading a meeting

Before you start the meeting, you should decide which role you would like to play in the meeting. The main idea of the TC meetings is that they are YOUR meetings. This means that you lead the members of your TC through the meeting. It is important that you start your meeting with this self-image of being the leader, otherwise you may lose leadership over your own meeting in no time at all. This might end up in the committee talking about different things than you wanted them to talk about. Does this sound pushy to you? Don't worry, (most) supervisors are totally okay with you taking the lead. They will be impressed and thankful to see how well prepared you are!

Start the meeting by introducing the agenda for the meeting. Make sure to point out which topics are especially important for you and which questions you would like to have answered at the end. Since you were clever and wrote the questions down in your PPP, the TC members will have a visual impression of what is expected from them.

Keep an eye on the time while you go through the topics. If you want to go on to the next topic, let the participants know! Since you wrote down the time that you assigned for each topic, you can navigate through the meeting. Make sure to insist on getting answers for your questions!

Here are some things you could say if you need some ideas how to lead through the meeting in a polite way:

  • "Thanks a lot for all your valuable ideas! I wrote them down and I'm sure they will help me move on with my research. Since time is passing, I would like to draw your attention to another topic:..."
  • "May I kindly ask everyone to pay attention to my next slide where I wrote down some questions that I have for you" (every scientist is flattered when they are asked for their expertise!)
  • "Thanks so much. May I now kindly move on to another topic that seems very important for my project..." (this underlines that you have some urgent matters to discuss)
  • "I planned for 90 minutes for this meeting. I don't want to take up more of your valuable time and I still have X topics left I would like to talk about. Could we maybe move on to the next topic?" (if you remind people that time is passing and that you don't want to extend the meeting time, they will most likely respect your agenda and acknowledge that you take care of their needs as well)

As a visual tool, you can leave the slide(s) with your questions up on the screen until they have been answered. This will constantly remind the meeting participants, that there is an open task.

Since you were clever and ended your presentation with a summary or questions slide, you should not forget to thank the meeting participants verbally at the end.

Recording a meeting / writing minutes

"Okay, I've just been in a meeting, I remember what everyone said. Why should I write minutes? Just to please my graduate school and be eligible for funding?" - Maybe there are some other good reasons ;-)

Do you remember what you had for lunch Tuesday two weeks ago? No? Our brain forgets a lot of things. Luckily! Otherwise it would be so full of information that we would probably start to forget really important things like our mother's birthday or where we parked our bike this morning. Everything we write down, relieves pressure from our brain! Writing minutes of meetings has another great advantage: we can go back to the written document and refresh our memory anytime we need it.

Certainly, people's brains are different. Some have an amazing memory. For them it may be enough to write down keywords and by looking at those, they will immediately remember exactly what every meeting participant said. But let's be honest, the great majority of people forgets things. So it may be valuable to write minutes in some detail to make sure you record everything that seemed important to you.
In the case of thesis committee meetings, you should record the development of the discussion (who said what?) since this information might become important at a later stage of your project.

Another advantage of writing detailed minutes is that in the process of writing, you may develop new ideas or maybe you find that there are some aspects of the discussion that you did not fully understand. In this case you could go back to your TC and let them know that "When I wrote the minutes for the meeting, I noticed that I didn't fully understand what you told me regarding topic X..."

Finally, written minutes are an important tool of communication with your supervisor and the other TC members. Even if everyhting that has been discussed during a meeting seemed clear at the moment, it may still turn out that you had different things in mind when you talked. Misunderstandings and lack of communication about the own ideas and expectations are the most common source of conflicts!  Writing everything down makes sure that you are all on the same page and agree on the same plans and strategies.
One thing that PhD students often underestimate is that supervisors cannot always remember every detail of their students' projects. Meeting minutes can therefore also be an important means of keeping a track record for your supervisor.

Writing minutes can take up nearly as much time as the meeting itself. But when you try it once, you will probably notice how helpful it is.

Good luck with your next meeting :-)

Are there any aspects we forgot to mention? Or would you like to share some of your own experiences?
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