Parker Glynn-Adey

Of Committees and Meetings

Posted in Uncategorized by pgadey on 2014/04/07

I’m happy to announce that I survived my PhD supervisory committee meeting. After 362 days, my committee met once again (we last met Apr 10th 2013), and things went well.

Below I’ve included some details on the process and some post-meeting thoughts. All of it is based purely on my own experience, but might be helpful to others.

Here at the University of Toronto, mathematics PhD students evaluated by their PhD supervisory committee once per year. The committee assembles, has a meeting, and provides some guidance to help their student along. Different supervisory committees ask for different things from their students. Certain groups don’t even meet with the student. In the geometry and topology group, students give a brief presentation, followed by discussion, and the committe then meets in private to discuss the student.

Last year my committee meeting seemed pretty frantic. This year I took in to account what I had learned from the last meeting, and had a bit of foresight, and prepared for my meeting differently. The actual meeting however, showed me that I’ve still got some lessons to learn.

The following is a summary of what I did to prepare for the meeting, and what I’ll do next year to ensure that my preparations are better still. Hopefully I’ll get my next (and last) committee meeting to work better still. These notes are mostly intended for my own future reference, but they might be helpful for others.

This advice is all specific to my particular case and committee, but might generalize.

Pre-write something.

Last year, I was sufficiently harried during my committee meeting that I forgot what definitions I was writing mid-sentence and wound up writing some absurd stuff on the board. This wasn’t because I didn’t know the definitions, or I hadn’t practiced, but I simply wasn’t aware of much pressure I’d feel. This year I made a Beamer presentation, and merely had to press a button repeatedly for the correct definitions to appear.

An aspect of the committee meeting process that I hadn’t anticipated last year was how holistic their evaluation of my progress was going to be. One needs to know various aspects of each thing. For example, there was a lot of reference to a definition I’d made early on in my talk, and consequently I had to keep jumping back to that definition. Having slides prepared made it easy to jump forward and backwards through my talk. Another solution would be to prepare a hand-out.

Make specific and accurate conjectures.

This is another aspect of the holistic evaluation problem. I’m very much inclined to vague conjecturing. “This space will probably be nice.” That kind of conjecture doesn’t become a thesis, and these committees are ultimately about producing a thesis. I’m still working on improving my conjecturing precision. During a committee meeting, it’s not worthwhile to share vague conjectures, since they’re hard to discuss and ultimately not necessary.

Have a research programme. Tell your committee about it.

This is a professional development point that I haven’t fully assimilated yet. Right now my research programme is: ‘Learn a bunch of stuff. Throw it at my problem. See if any of it sticks. Make a bunch of hazy conjectures about particular examples. Try and work them out.’ This isn’t a plan, by any standard. My committee wanted to hear something much more specific and concrete.

Provide motivation for what you’re saying.

This is just another aspect of a research programme. If you mention a particular result, or idea, say why it matters and what it is good for. Results don’t live in isolation, they’re supposed to pile up in to a theory.

Say exactly what work your ideas are inspired by.

During my talk I mentioned a particular ‘toy example’ which was a part of attempting to understand a construction due to Gromov. I mentioned this example, and its inspiration, before discussing Gromov’s exact construction and citing it. This was a sub-optimal plan. My toy example is a lot less robust than Gromov’s construction, and it threw the committee off. We got in to a discussion of something very far from where I was comfortable, when we could have readily stayed on topic if I’d cited ideas in the proper order. With slides, I could have easily provided a citation of the exact context and content, without having to hazily remember things.

Get some encouragement.

Another piece of advice I’d like to pass along, not related to the actual committee meeting, but more to general academic practice: get a support team. It doesn’t need to be anything sappy, or serious, or even called a team. The members don’t even need to know they’re on a team, or each other. Just get a group of people who are concerned about your academic progress and sanity but who are not on your committee. I’m immensely lucky to have had that support from some friends. Even other regulars at my local coffee-shop helped me get ready, by asking me how the presentation was going, and assuring me (groundlessly) that I’d do well on it. That groundless happy-go-lucky assistance made a world of difference. Thanks to my team!

tl;dr: This isn’t a casual chat; go in to it with a research programme and some well written, detailed notes. Get some encouragement.

One theme that came out of my meeting, was that I need to make some serious calculations. My problem isn’t going to evaporate by applying some technical wizardry, or scurry away on its own. The main message was: ‘Make actual concrete calculations for the examples you’ve proposed.’

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