Have you met with your supervisor recently?

With the regular school season starting back up it’s a good time to sit down with your supervisor and make some goals. What do you want to accomplish in the next year? What can you do on your own? What support do you need from your supervisor? Can you make a basic timeline for the year, so you have something to judge your progress (or unfortunate lack of) against?

In my department (and possibly at my entire university) Grad students are asked to fill out a progress report at the end of the year. However, the end of the year for the progress reports is in December/January. I’m not sure who decided on that, since it doesn’t make any sense when everyone knows that school years go from September to August. Every September I become one year farther into my studies, not in January. And so I’d much rather spend this time of year trying to figure out my plan for the year ahead (and re-evaluating my previous year).

As I enter my third (!) year as a PhD student, I have a few goals for myself:

  1. Run my user study.
  2. Submit at least one paper.
  3. Do my candidacy exam.

Sure, submitting more papers would be better than one, but I want my goals to be attainable. In fact, I’d almost recommend making a series of goals (how many series is up to you). Your first version is the minimum of what you’d like to accomplish. The second version being what would be really nice to attain. And maybe a third version of your “pie in the sky” type goals.

You’ll need to be ready to re-evaluate your goals, and realize that even your minimum of what should be attainable may change. For example, I was hoping to originally do my candidacy during my second year. However, as my project ended up completely derailed, it wasn’t the best time to proceed with this. Could I have forced it? Probably, but likely that would have ended in me failing my candidacy. So not worth it. Better to go in with a well thought out proposal. Assuming (fingers crossed) my user study works out over the next few months, I’ll have the basis for my proposal with results to show it’s a reasonable path to go down.

In fact, if you look over my small list of goals there, they actually kind of build upon each other. If I manage to run my user study, I’ll have results. Assuming the results are good, I can write and submit a paper. And, based on the results, I can probably proceed to working towards my candidacy exam. I’m not sure this is necessarily a good thing. That’s not to say that I can’t do 2 and 3 without 1, but it’ll be much easier after I run the user study.

As well as I having goals, I should plan to talk to my supervisor about how I’m going to meet them. For me, I think what I’d like to do is make a general time line. Maybe not even for the year, but at least for this coming semester. Something like:

  • September – Get user study ready
  • October – Run user study
  • November – Analyze results and write paper

If I have some semi-concrete dates written down I’ll have some targets to work towards. And, I’ll have something to judge my progress against. Did I meet my deadlines? Why or why not? And how can I make more accurate ones in the future?

I meet with my supervisor generally every two weeks. This is one of my off weeks (which is good, as I’m lacking a lot of productivity for the past few days). But next week, I’ll plan to go into my meeting with these goals in hand and ready to have this discussion.

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