Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to Schedule A Committee Meeting

I have all three confirmed members on my committee - woohoo! Now I'm scheduling my first PhD committee meeting. I had always heard older grad students complaining about how hard it was to schedule a committee meeting, and I always kind of laughed it off. I mean, how hard can it be? It's three people, for a short time, once every six months. Get over it.


Turns out it's difficult.

Now I only have three people on my committee, so I'm already starting off at an advantage. I've known people with up to five, and that just becomes a nightmare (or, "exponentially more difficult", if you're talking to a techie crowd...).

You start with available blocks of time from 9-5 Monday through Friday. The first order of business is to look up the professors' teaching schedules for the semester. Can't meet during class times, obviously. Then you put in your own class schedule. Then take out lunch hour. Now what are you left with? That's your first iteration of possible meeting times. Of course professors are all busy, but I can't predict what other commitments they have.

Now decision #1 - how much time do you leave for a committee meeting? Is it normally an hour? Two hours? I knew one student who spent three hours in a committee meeting - ack! I wasn't sure, so I polled some older students. I decided that I would try to schedule a one-hour block, and then expect it might go over to an hour and a half or so.

Next, decision #2 - do you email all three professors at once, or separately? I guess if you had different things to say to each one, you'd do it separately. Since I only had three professors, I did single emails, so that they wouldn't each have to be privy to an entire thread of back-and-forths between all of them.

Decision #3 - do you suggest meeting times? If so, how many options do you give? Or do you just ask, "when are you free?" Or, try the Doodle route? I absolutely love doodle as a scheduling tool, and a lot of people use it here for social scheduling or club meetings, and other informal stuff. But I know one student who asked his professors to fill out a doodle, and one of his (older) committee members got all bent out of shape about it. Felt that it was rude or unacceptable for him to display his entire schedule to the student and other professors. I suspect that is an outlier experience, but still... I suggested a block of time on four different days, and asked if the professors had any time free in the blocks I indicated. We shall see how that goes.

Decision #4 - how much lead time? It's rude to ask about next week. I want it to be soon, not in three months. I went with a three week lead time, for no good reason except that it seemed reasonable.

So I am quite sure that I WAY overthought a simple email for scheduling. I just didn't want to say anything wrong. I know my own advisor, but I'm kind of in awe of the other professors, and I want to make a good impression. The good news is, I don't think I can do anything to terribly mess anything up, so no matter what I choose, it's probably fine.

How did you schedule your meetings?


  1. Nope, you didn't overthink it, promise. This is just how it is, sigh.

  2. Speaking as one of the professors whose schedules is pretty full, I'd say you have about a 10% chance of success with only 4 blocks of time.
    Here, a one hour slot is too short—we do an hour public presentation (that often runs a bit over) followed by half an hour or more of private grilling. So 2 hour blocks are standard.

    We require a lead time of 4 weeks for students giving the thesis proposal to the committee, and that is when the scheduling is usually done.

    Doodle polls are fairly routine now, but often take 2 iterations, since there really is no slot open for everyone, and someone has to re-schedule some other commitment.

    There is also the problem of scheduling a room, since the public presentation generally has 25–50 people in the audience (in our department, other departments are lucky if the entire committee shows up), but the grad staff adviser generally does the work there, rather than the student.

  3. I am getting to this stage in my PhD career, so I am curious to know the answers to a lot of the questions you pose. I know things are different at different institutions (and even between different departments), but general guidance on such specifics is often lacking from any formalized forum. Good luck!

  4. My boss looooooooves Doodle. I've been using it to schedule my committee meetings for 5 years now. Works really well for us -- I generally give about 20 date/time options and we can always find one that works for everyone.

  5. I had the 5 person committee problem and 4 were heads of their respective departments, which made scheduling pretty hectic. It meant that only a single 2 hour block in a 3 month time window was compatible for all (which is better than no block I guess). I did the Doodle route on my most recent one since one of the members requested it. I loved it. Funny enough, the youngest member (my PI) was annoyed that I used it, but he had no real reason. I think he just doesn't like to divulge too much about himself, including his availability.

  6. Thank you all for your comments! I am pleased to say that of the four entire days that I proposed, there was one time slot during one day that overlapped for all three professors. I was told that an hour and a half was more usual than an hour, so I scheduled from 1-2:30 on Feb 18th. Woohoo!