This post is about transparency with your advisor. It seems like most problems that PhD students face boil down to communication and transparency: students work on something the advisor doesn’t expect, the advisor has different expectations for number of papers required to graduate, student collaborates with someone when the advisor doesn’t expect them to, etc…

The PLUM group at UMD uses a scrum-style approach to managing research called “PL status.” There’s a nice paper my advisor and Mike Hicks wrote up about this approach that details it, but I can tell you what it is right now:

  • Have everyone meet for 15 minutes three times each week
  • Stand up and talk about what you did, what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do
  • Highlight problems you’re having and arrange to meet offline if necessary

I view the PLUM-scrum as one way to address the issue of transparency between advisors and advisees. It’s not a silver bullet: there have been times when I skipped status for a while, or would kind of reiterate the same vague and high level thing for a few days. But when applied correctly and honestly, I think it helps students and advisors feel on the same page. Obviously for long term disagreements on vision, something longer than a 15 minute meeting will be required. But I think even here the scrum approach pays off, since it helps break down the barriers that eventually fester and cause advisors and advisees to feel like they don’t communicate correctly.

One problem I see among my peer grad students (outside of PL) is that they gradually grow a little distant. This is natural: advisors get overwhelmed with responsibilities and it’s easy to simply assume your (probably very bright) PhD student is doing the right thing and making progress. After all, PhD school is about learning how to do research, and some of that has to be about independent thought and development. The scrum approach helps correct this by requiring students and advisors to maintain some consistent level of plugged-in-ness.

I continually see grad students who say something along the lines of “well, my advisor doesn’t really know what I’m doing right now.” This is fine, if it works, but what happens when the grad student has problems? What if they end up working on an area that doesn’t pan out? Or write a paper that ends up being scooped? My theory is that if there’s transparency between the student and advisor, at least they’ll be able to understand what went wrong, and how to improve it in the future.

I’m sure there are tons of ways to maintain transparency between advisors and advisees, but the PLUM-scrum seems to be a fairly lightweight (45 minutes a week for all students) way to do this that offers high potential rewards: catch problems early, mutual assurance that advisors and students are working together, and a more cohesive group dynamic to name a few.

Maybe you could try suggesting this to your advisor