Providing light posts along the dark path of the PhD: evaluation meetings

Remember your own PhD? Ever felt lost and wished someone had told you where it’s going? While you probably can’t avoid that your PhDs will be frustrated at times, you can do a lot to help them stay on track. Regular evaluation meetings make recent progress explicit and map out what to focus on beyond the immediate daily chores. They can go a long way in guiding your team members towards a successful PhD.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]

It is my impression that many PhDs are not receiving sufficient support from their supervisors and/or mentors. Admittedly, a PhD is the highest academic achievement one can reach, and supervisors should expect the aspiring student to be driven and goal-oriented.

Yet, the PhD project can be a swamp into which the candidate slowly sinks, not noticing at first, and becoming aware only when it’s potentially too late to pull herself out. We’ve all seen students procrastinate, get lost in detail, losing focus, and missing the big picture.

At the same time, as PIs and supervisors, we must ask ourselves what our responsibility is toward our PhD students. I think that what a PhD should learn is different today than it may have been some years ago.

In most (if not all) countries, we’re filling many more PhD positions that we can use as postdocs, let alone professors, later on. The internet is now full of advice about how to get out of science, an option that looms not just for a few who simply aren’t cut out for it, but instead becoming more and more normal, given the barren job landscape in academia.

Therefore, it’s not enough today to teach a PhD student some experimentation and analysis methods to become academic experts. Rather, we must make clear to them how they can advance their skill set in a way that gives them flexibility within and outside of science once they leave our lab.

Evaluation meetings: sign posts along the PhD

In my lab, I’ve implemented evaluation meetings. I hold them with each person every 6 months, and every three months for new lab members. Here’s how they work:

  • Predefined structure: I’ve created two mindmaps, one for feedback to me (download), and one for the student’s/employee’s development (download) (I’ll say student from hereon, but it works the same with Postdocs). We go through all branches of those mindmaps in a meeting.
  • Come prepared: The meetings are scheduled well in advance, and the PhD is allowed to use work time to prepare the mindmaps.
  • Look back, look forward: The student continually develops the mindmap, adding new achievements with each evaluation meeting in green color. Things that are goals at the time scale of the entire PhD are entered in red. Things that are scheduled for the next 6 months (i.e. until the next evaluation) are colored yellow.
  • Enough time: I schedule 90-120 minutes. This may sound a lot, but it creates the space for a serious, unstressed conversation.

Setting goals and timelines

Starting out

In the beginning, there is an all red mindmap. I’ve filled it [with things that I consider important][mindmap_development] to acquire during a PhD in my lab. In the first meeting, students tend to have difficulty with planning for their 3 or 4 years to come, but we discuss what they would like to achieve, where they think they want to go after the PhD (research, industry, …), and what building blocks might be important on the way, such as analysis and experimentation skills, writing skills, teaching, and networking. Although many goals are important for every student, no two maps are the same, even after the first meeting.

Setting short-term goals for, say, the next 6 months, is usually much easier than setting long-term goals. They are, of course, often directly related to the project, but can be independent, too: language courses, conference visits, networking…

Continuing goal development

Because meetings are held regularly, goals can be added and adjusted.

As a supervisor, I’ve learned that I have to focus on different areas in each phase of my student’s PhD. For instance, when I held my first meetings, I felt that my students should all develop long term ideas about where they wanted to go at the end of their PhD, so that we could plan well ahead what kind of network we should attempt to build for them. I found that my students just didn’t think the same way, and that talking about these kind of things is much more appropriate at the end of year two than at the start of year one.

But at every meeting, you can give impulses, something that often gets lost in day-to-day interaction.

Tracking progress

One thing I particularly like is that PhDs add all new skills, achievements, and events that happened since the last meeting into the mindmap, and color green what was previously yellow and red. Over time, the branches grow with programming skills, studies, papers, conferences, people they have met, duties they have taken over in the lab, and so on. More than once I’ve heard a PhD say “wow” when they looked at their map.

It’s almost too obvious to say, but going over these new blobs in the mindmap is a good opportunity to give positive feedback (something that seems to happen too seldom).

Continuous feedback

To the student

Because the evaluation meeting focuses on the bigger picture, it is a place to give feedback about areas that need improvement. Because this is known in advance, the conversation can be held respectfully even when something unpleasant needs to be discussed.

To the supervisor

Don’t be fooled: even if you think you’re one of the cool guys, and get along with everyone so well, relationships change when you are the PI. You’re no longer on the same level as your group members. This results in a loss of communication. The longer you are the boss, the less people complain directly to you. So you have to try and make it happen. In my lab, the evaluation meeting has feedback to me as a fixed point on the agenda.

I’ve learned that just asking whether the student is “ok” usually does not result in honest feedback about what bothers them. It does for some, but not for all. I’ve been using two “techniques” (sounds horrible) to try and encourage feedback:

  • Scales: This is a technique often used in therapy and coaching. For each area I ask feedback about, I also ask for a rating between 1 (really bad) and 10 (really great). In theory, any number that is not 10 means that there is room for improvement on your side, and so you inquire where the number comes from; or what would have to happen to increase it by 2. In practice, I’ve been laughed at for asking how an 8 could become a 10, because “I can be just happy about an 8”. Such non-linearities notwithstanding, numbers are a great way to get a quick overview over the areas that need discussion.
  • 3 things: After I had not gotten much feedback for a while, I started using the questions like These (3) things I would really like to get rid off…, These (3) things should really be continued in the same way…, and These (3) things could improve our group….


I started by saying that many PhDs don’t receive enough quality supervision. I think that evaluation meetings are a really good tool to supervise. They enforce feedback between supervisor and student; they encourage by looking at past achievements; and they adjust the focus on some longer-term goals so that the student doesn’t get lost in details for years.

I’m curious to hear your opinion about this post. Do you hold evaluation meetings? What do you find important? Have you had good or bad experiences? Leave a comment below!


You can download my mindmap templates in different formats here. They were created (and thus look best) in [iThoughts][web-ithoughts].

Development Mindmap: pdf — MindManager (mmap) — iThoughts (itmz) — xMind (xmind)
Feedback Mindmap: pdf — MindManager (mmap) — iThoughts (itmz) — xMind (xmind)

Photo credit: Alan O’Rourke / Foter / CC BY


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Leave a comment...