I was in the beginning of my sixth year in grad school, which I really hoped would be my last.
I felt my stomach sink as my thesis advisor and I reviewed my latest results.
Once again, my experimental setup had failed to purify the proteins we were interested in.
I had been working on this for a year, but all I had to show for it was a series of failed experiments.
I was sure it was all my fault that I wasn’t seeing results.
After all, I had nothing to complain about.
My thesis supervisor met with me regularly, and he was very patient with me.
I felt like something must have been wrong with me.
If I had a supportive supervisor, and all the resources I needed to do the experiments, then why couldn’t I produce the results that others had published?
My thesis supervisor suggested that I should try a new technique, and we agreed to meet again in a week.
When I walked out of his office, I felt miserable.
He was head of the department, and had a research group of more than 20 people.
I felt guilty that I was sucking up his time when there were so many other researchers he had to support, and ashamed that I had so little to show for my research.
I really started to doubt whether I should even try to finish grad school.
I felt like I was wasting everyone’s time, including mine.
But when I spoke to some of my fellow PhD candidates, almost everyone felt the same way.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one plagued by guilt and shame.
I realized that there were other students whose research had also led to a dead end at some point while writing their theses.
I realized something else:
If my supervisor asked me to meet with him, it was because he wanted to meet with me.
My project was important enough for him to spend an hour each week on these meetings.
I was the one who was discouraged, not him.
I also realized that he (and the other research scientists on the project), were paid to support me.
These meetings were part of his job, not a “waste” of his time.
I felt relieved—at least a little bit—although I still wished that I had more results to show at our next meeting.
While my project didn’t take off after this realization, something about our meetings changed.
I was able to listen to what he was saying, and not take setbacks to heart. All the frustrating problems were just part of doing research.
Four months later, my persistence started to pay off when one of my experiments finally had promising results.
Of course, perseverance and grit were the major factors in this success.
But I could only move forward once I’d left behind my shame and guilt during my interactions with my supervisor.
Letting go of these emotions helped me to have more productive meetings with him, and to really listen to his feedback instead of worrying.
Are you struggling to stay confident around your thesis advisor?
If you’re feeling guilty or embarrassed during your thesis meetings, it can be hard to stay focused and get the guidance you need from your advisor.
Here are my five top tips for beating the guilt and shame, getting back your confidence, and making the most of your advisor meetings.
5 Steps to Being Confident During Meetings with Your Thesis Advisor No Matter What
Step #1:Focus on what your advisor is saying, even if you’re feeling frustrated.
It’s completely normal to feel discouraged if your thesis research isn’t going according to plan (or sometimes even if it is going according to plan).
You might even hear critiques from your thesis advisor that you don’t agree with.
I felt frustrated, and even discouraged, at various points in grad school.
The trick is not to let those negative emotions define your advisor meetings.
Your advisor is providing feedback because he or she is supposed to help you learn.
Advisor meetings are meant to help you, particularly when you’re struggling.
Rather than dwelling on how meetings make you feel, focus instead on the advice and recommendations you’re receiving.
In order to process my advisor’s feedback, I had to realize that critique, and even criticism, is a necessary part of getting a PhD or master’s.
To make the most of the feedback you get from your advisor, you’ll have to resist the impulse to get defensive or take criticism personally.
When you focus on feedback, you can stop dreading meetings, even during rough patches in your research.
If something’s gone wrong, the meeting is a chance to get your advisor’s perspective on why.
Here’s a tip that really helped me: practice framing your statements in a way that emphasizes what you want to learn, not how you feel.
Instead of saying, “I feel so ashamed that my experiment failed again,” try, “I wonder what ideas you have about why my experiment failed.”
This way, you’re focused on the work, instead of building up a negative picture in your head. With this approach, meetings with your advisor can be more productive, and hopefully less anxiety-inducing.
Step #2: Be proud of what you have done, even if you just show up.
This is one tip I really wish I’d learned sooner during graduate school.
I wasted hours of meeting time feeling guilty and inadequate.
This mindset got me nowhere, and didn’t help me get the best feedback from my supervisor.
Once I learned to see the value in everything I’d done—even the failures—I could move forward with my research.
Before you walk into your next meeting, make a mental index of everything you’ve done since the last meeting.
There’s no accomplishment too small to add to this list.
Don’t fixate on whether or not what you did was “successful.”
Instead, think about what you learned, or about what parts of your work your advisor can help with.
By now you know that getting a PhD, or a master’s, is a long process.
There will be times when you have a lot to share at your advisor meetings.
Other times you will feel like you’ve barely accomplished anything since the previous meeting.
You don’t have to waste precious meeting time being evasive or apologetic, either.
Be up front about what you’ve done, and proud of yourself for refusing to give up.
Simply getting admitted to grad school and sticking with it are major accomplishments.
Step #3: Ask questions: How did your thesis supervisor solve this problem, or does he or she know someone who did?
If you’re embarrassed or shy around your advisor, you might be too nervous to ask all the questions that are on your mind.
Or maybe you’re too focused on explaining yourself in meetings to remember to ask questions.
Again, your advisor meetings are supposed to help you, so seize the chance to ask your advisor plenty of questions.
This is also a good strategy if you’re intimidated by your advisor, or struggling to figure out how to communicate.
My meetings with my supervisor became more useful the more questions I asked.
Eventually, I started to prepare my questions ahead of time, partly to keep my own focus on my research and not on my feelings.
With questions already prepared, my meetings with my supervisor became much more rewarding.
When something goes haywire with your research, consider it a chance to ask plenty of questions.
Also, do some brainstorming for your next steps.
This can help take the shame and guilt out of the equation. Instead of defending yourself, you’re starting a conversation about what to do next.
Try jotting down a list of questions before you go to your meetings.
Your advisor will appreciate your preparedness, and it will help you to organize your thoughts and keep you thinking positively.
Step #4: Agree on milestones you can meet.
To beat my thesis guilt, I had to finally realize that failures were part of the research process.
In addition, I had to reconsider my definition of success.
My experiments weren’t producing the results I wanted, but they were still a valuable part of my research.
My expectations of myself—and of my thesis—weren’t always realistic.
Luckily, I had a supportive thesis advisor, who helped me set goals that I could realistically reach.
Remember, the most successful theses aren’t always the most ambitious ones.
If you’re consistently falling short of your thesis research goals, it’s time to rethink your approach.
Your milestones should be tasks that fall under your control.
Goals like, “I will see the results I’m looking for by next week” won’t work because there are too many variables.
Instead, work with your thesis advisor to set goals that center your work and your actions.
For example,:“I will try the experiment again with some changes, and record what I observe.”
When you fail to reach a milestone, be open and honest with your thesis advisor about it.
Ask what he or she thinks you could’ve done differently for a more successful outcome.
Finally, you don’t have to leave every meeting with your advisor with a mile-long list of tasks.
Some periods of your thesis work will be more productive than others.
If you’ll only have time for smaller tasks within a certain period, tell your advisor, and use what time you have to commit to attainable goals.
Step #5: Set up an action plan and agree on a follow-up
This last tip might be the most important.
Following through the most important step.
My first few meetings with my thesis supervisor left me feeling lost, and unsure what to do next.
Fortunately, my supervisor didn’t give up on my research, even when I wanted to.
When I felt stuck, my thesis advisor and I were able to come up with an action plan for taking my thesis to the next stage.
With persistence, I followed through on our plan and finally started seeing results from my experiments.
If you’re worried about wasting your advisor’s time, try to structure your meetings around concrete steps you can take.
Don’t keep it to yourself if you feel stuck.
Instead, begin a meeting by asking, “Do you have advice about the next step to take with my thesis?”
To set yourself up for success, finish each meeting with an action plan: a list of steps you will take before the next time you meet with your advisor.
Remember the advice from the previous tip: Your action plan should include milestones that are realistic, that you can achieve.
This also gives you a framework for your next meeting.
With a detailed plan, you already have a topic of discussion to lead with, and you don’t have to feel anxious about knowing what to talk about.
The key to an effective action plan is to follow up.
Stick to the plan you’ve agreed on with your thesis advisor, and if you need to make a change, be clear and honest about it from the beginning.
Demonstrate to your thesis advisor that you can set goals for yourself, stick to them, and effectively think on your feet if the plan needs to change.
As long as you’re holding yourself to this standard, you have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.
If your confidence is in crisis when it comes to your thesis supervisor, you aren’t the only one.
A good advisor should challenge you to do your best work, and give you guidance on how your research can improve.
Shame or guilt shouldn’t cause you to dread your advisor meetings, or worse, avoid them altogether.
Instead, with these five tips you can take those negative emotions out of your meetings, and concentrate on getting the most out of them.
After all, your meetings with your thesis supervisor are about you.
What is your #1 challenge when it comes to having an effective meeting with your thesis advisor? Leave a comment below and I will reply to you directly. Looking forward to hearing from you:)
The “Finish Your Thesis Program” is Opening Soon!
Click here to get on the waiting list for the program and you will receive a free copy of my book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”