Each research group has its own dynamics. In some, entering grad students get a very detailed “charge” list saying for example, there is a group meeting every week, so on and so forth.
What ever those dynamics are, as a graduate student you should learn quickly how busy is your thesis advisor and start planning regular meeting with him/her. Do not hesitate to initiate a request to meet. These, in my opinion after being involved in supervising or co-supervising over 45 graduate students, should happen:
- At least once a year to discuss the general direction of your research project and, starting at the end of year 2 (PhD), to plan the necessary steps toward your thesis completion
- Every time you think you are ready to publish a manuscript (but before spending too much time writing it!).
- Every time you have significant new results (if not presented at the group meeting or if your group does not have group meetings).
- At least once a month to avoid getting “stuck” for too long (again regular group meetings really help in this regards).
Of course, thesis advisors are also busy peoples, won’t be available for you 24/7 and one of their goal is to get you on the road to become an independant researcher yourself. However as a grad student, you should know that most thesis advisors loved the interaction with students and are available on a regular basis to discuss with them.
The minority of advisors that are consistantly ”unavailable” are usually well-known within their University / Department. It is your task as a prospective grad student to gather this information, to ask your future advisor the tough questions before signing for this significant portion of your life.
A part from the obvious discussion on salary, TA or other forms of support, here is a list of relevant questions you should be asking your future thesis advisor:
- Will we meet on a regular basis (group meeting, individual meeting)?
- Is there specific graduation conditions i.e. must have published at least 3 manuscripts in the top journal of the field ?
- Publication policies: will I be first authors?
- In your group, under what condition graduate students get to go to meetings/conferences?
- Will I get the chance to supervise an undergraduate student?
- What will be the infrastructure (field specific) available for my project through your group / Department / University?
- Is there any possibilities during my PhD to able to spent a few months in one your collaborator’s lab (if advisor has ongoing, established collaboration)?
Note that before getting to the point where you will be asking the above questions, you should also do your homework and research your thesis advisor activities, realizations and past grad students:
- Does he/she publish on a regular basis in the best journal in the field?
- Learn about past students: how long to graduate on average and what are these students doing now?
- Who are the current students and what are they working on (how will you fit in this group)?
- Does this group has a website and is it up to date?
- Is it cutting-edge (for the field)?
- It is going to be fun, exciting (life is short after all)?
- How it fits with all of my other projects and responsibilities) ?
- Do I have all the needed resources (time, $, …) ?
- Should I reach out to other researchers (it is a collaborative project) ?
- What would be the measure of success of this project (envisioning the best possible end result) ?
Notice that to answer the first question, you do need to know about all of your other projects and responsibilities. If fact you should take the excellent habit to keep an up-to-date list or inventory of ongoing projects and related tasks. If you think you have none, you should stop now. Your are missing too much information to make a good decision about the new project you’d like to start.
All of this can happen in a few minutes or over days / months depending on the scale of the project. However, it is essential to do before putting resources into it. Skipping the fundamentals could mean a never ending project or a half-started project (or both!), a general waist of effort and potentially frustration, in particular if you are not alone working on the project. The time invested in getting answers to these simples questions (and I am sure there are a few more…) is time well spent, that will pay off down the road! Furthermore, they act as a filter that allows you to say no with conviction…
Do not hesitate to ask your supervisor about the nuts and bolts of project planning. I will put them on the stop here: he (or she) should be able to help. If not…well, you may need to ask yourself more important questions.
In a discussion with a postdoc of mine, she was telling me that she observed that advisors are of three types: opener, middle cruncher and closer… I am not sure this is the whole story but there is something to it
Opener corresponds to those individuals that the exceptionally good in defining projects in details, breaking it in smaller parts, imparting a vision to it and setting an achievable target for success. They are also especially good in getting all that is needed to get the project going.
Middle “crunchers” are highly efficient to step in resolving issues, pointing out important elements during the realization and getting new ideas along the way. They can turn around a project that appears to be failing and make them winner. At the same time, a number of individuals in that category tends to jump from project to project without always finishing the previous one: once they understand what’s going on, they get bored and move to a new “problem”.
Closers are particularly good in identifying key moments in project where enough have been done and, for example, a pause should be taken to write a paper and your thesis. They will guide you to destination and make sure everything is perfect.
I found out that getting ideas for projects is usually an easy part for most peoples. However, it does take more to be successful as a researcher. You have to be able to funnel those ideas to actual projects that are executed and in the end published in a form that is accepted in your field. A good mix of the above categories is essential. We all know or have encountered peoples for which one or more of the above is lacking… they usually experience difficulties in being independent researchers.
Have a critical look at how you are conducting your research activities and try to find out which one of the three types need your attention right now. Repeat once in a while. See how improving your weakest “side” help you get better overall!
Which types are you? What type is your thesis advisor?