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I am finishing up my PhD this year and my adviser has recently recruited two new PhDs to our research group. I am the adviser's first student. Up until this year, we have had consistent individual research meetings weekly. Now, the adviser wants to incorporate weekly group meetings in addition to individual meetings. I think this can benefit some PhDs. However, I don't feel that these weekly group meetings will be particularly valuable to me. This is because I have a clear research agenda that is my top priority right now. I am wrapping up two manuscripts to incorporate into my dissertation, while also applying to jobs and post-docs, to finish my PhD in less than a year.

I am not discounting the importance of reading new research articles or the importance of collaboration between group members. However, I think the mismatch in PhD progression -- me, a finishing PhD with several first-author manuscripts with multiple collaborators, and the 2 new students, starting to test out and find research ideas -- will take away from my priority, finishing the PhD and wrapping up my thesis while also being a potentially stressful, time sink. This is tied into the fact that my adviser often has poor time management skills, allowing meetings to run for over 3 hours.

How do I tell my adviser, in a respectful manner, that I cannot attend all of the group meetings? Or, that I think prioritizing my final two manuscripts and dissertation are a more valuable use of my time?

Thank you for the advice! Let me know if I can clarify anything.

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    Your attendance might not benefit you, but your input could be extremely helpful for the other students. – Ric Sep 8 '16 at 19:21
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    I cannot emphasize what @Ric said enough. Think of all the time and energy your advisor has devoted to you over the course of your PhD, even though he, too, certainly has other things that would be a more valuable use of his time. You can probably spare an hour a week to contribute something back. – ff524 Sep 8 '16 at 19:24
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    Why do you feel these meetings would have to be valuable to you? Perhaps your presence might be helpful to your adviser and the newer students. Might that be a reason to attend? It's not always about what you personally can get out of something. Sometimes it's about what you can contribute. – Nicole Hamilton Sep 8 '16 at 19:25
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    Also, if you intend to pursue an academic career, these meetings can be valuable training for you in advising junior research students. – ff524 Sep 8 '16 at 19:41
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    This is tied into the fact that my adviser often has poor time management skills, allowing meetings to run for over 3 hours. That's the real problem, I think. Instead of trying to weasel out of attending the meetings, can you offer some suggestions that might help them operate more efficiently? (Formal agenda, time limits, etc?) Then everyone wins. – Nate Eldredge Sep 8 '16 at 21:38
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You don't tell him that at all. You go and contribute as best you can.

Even if the meetings are of no value to you, your presence may be very helpful to your adviser and the newer students. That alone should be sufficient reason to attend. It's not always about what you personally can get out of something. Sometimes it's about what you can contribute. It's also sometimes about just doing things for people who've done things for you.

If you feel the meetings could be better run, consider what you might do to become a more helpful participant, facilitating discussions and consensus outcomes that don't take 3 hours to get nowhere. Ask questions that invite others into the discussion, offer your own ideas, propose plans or assignments. If you were there 3 hours and nothing happened, consider the possibility that may also have been 3 hours when you didn't do much either.

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    My initial reaction is to flag this answer as abusive, but I will settle for downvoting. "Shut up and get back to work" is not the right answer. – JeffE Sep 9 '16 at 14:59
  • Don't professors have to take graduate students for tenure and promotion purposes? It is my understanding that part of the pay difference between graduate students and professors is that professors are expected to have a certain responsibility toward the institution. This is not to say this is necessarily bad advice. – Jacob Forbes Wakem Sep 11 '16 at 4:13
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    The OP says he is graduating - presumably in some short amount of time likely be trying to convince people that he can take on being a faculty member and work as peer with other professional. The suggestion to take initiative to make the meetings more productive is a good one. I'd up vote this more if I could. – Carol Sep 11 '16 at 23:09
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    I think this may be good as advice. – Jacob Forbes Wakem Sep 25 '16 at 19:29
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How do I tell my adviser, in a respectful manner, that I cannot attend all of the group meetings?

Directly, as if they were an adult human being instead of a soul-sucking demon.

But do consider the possibility that you are undervaluing the meetings. While they may be a distraction from your PhD thesis, your thesis is ultimately just an administrative hurdle near the beginning of a decades-long career as a researcher. One of the most important components of such a career—whether in academia or not—is mentorship. These group meetings could be a valuable opportunity for you to practice mentoring the more junior students, in an environment where your own mentorship efforts can be mentored.

If you're merely frustrated with the way your advisor is running the meetings, offer to run the meetings yourself.

Also, if your advisor is supporting you with a research assistantship, attending these group meetings may simply be a job requirement. If you do not attend the meetings, you may need to find a different means of financial support.

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    Dreadful advice. You really think he should tell his adviser he's not attending the meetings because he doesn't think they're "valuable" but that he would be willing to come if they were run by someone who knows how, namely, him? Sounds like a sure way to fire up that relationship! – Nicole Hamilton Sep 9 '16 at 15:22
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    I think he's making a bad decision, but it is his decision—because it's his PhD—and the right way to communicate that decision is directly and respectfully. – JeffE Sep 9 '16 at 15:42
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    I think there might be more tactful ways to suggest improvements in the running of the meetings, other than flatly offering to take over. – Nate Eldredge Sep 9 '16 at 15:59
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    This would be a good answer were it not for the second-last paragraph, which is really a no-no. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 9 '16 at 16:50
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    @adipro Because offering to run the meetings (2nd last paragraph) is not helping them, it's just plainly telling them that they are not good at running meeting or, even worse, at advising (because as others have pointed out, group meetings might have also other objectives other than those perceived by the OP). Moreover, there's no hint in the OP's question that the other group members feel this necessity too. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 10 '16 at 7:37
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An interesting question, but I think, for me, the core answer is: "You don't".

Not everything done in a lab or research group is directly beneficial to every member involved. There is still a reasonable expectation that you attend. There's also a number of benefits to you:

  • Mentoring opportunity: Knowing what is going on in the lab may mean you are helpful to new PhD students. This gives you experience mentoring, and also makes sure you know these people, who may someday in the future be your colleagues.
  • New ideas: I've had papers come out of lab meetings where I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get anything out of it.
  • Templating: As you've noted, you don't like how your adviser is running these meetings. That's fine - this gives you experience with what works, and what doesn't, and what you'd like to change.

This is, in some ways, "giving back" to the lab.

Now, to address how long they are taking, you may consider talking to your advisor about that, respectfully. That perhaps retention is dropping after the first hour, and it would perhaps be better to rotate, rather than have all projects discussed in every meeting. Or have a fixed agenda, so everyone can come prepared. But that's a far cry from simply no longer attending.

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A possibly better approach than what you suggested is to propose to your advisor about either shortening the meeting time or making the long meeting less frequent, say monthly instead of weekly. I personally think group meetings are important, but I prefer to keep it short if it is happening every week. I believe a weekly meeting that runs more than an hour is too long, and it can be disruptive to your workflow. It is not unlikely that the new students find it too long, too.

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Although it rather looks as though you don't have time to check the answers and comments you've collected here either, I do understand your impatience and will offer some suggestions for your underlying problem (although I will not answer the question you put in the title).

Try getting together with one or both of the new students over coffee. Have a conversation that enables the new student to focus his or her thinking so as to be able to make a succinct, efficient contribution to the next meeting.

Suggest an agenda to your advisor by email. Try to anticipate what you think your advisor would like to accomplish in the meeting, along with any additional ideas you think might help produce a useful meeting for all concerned.

If this goes well, then after a couple of weeks, you can make a proposed agenda in which your presence is listed for only certain agenda points.

In other words, ease your way out, partially.

What I'm suggesting is that you not announce your intention of absenting yourself for a significant part of each meeting, but rather, create the conditions for that to happen organically.

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