Skip main navigation

Providing structure

In this text we discuss the benefits of having a recognizable structure and communicating it to your PhD student.
A hand drawing an organisation chart
© Storyblocks

Professional interaction is different from talking to friends.

Just imagine the following extract from a phone conversation between friends:

Friend 1: So on the way back, we spent a night at a small B&B in Athens, with a great restaurant just opposite of it. It was a wonderful ending to a great trip.
Friend 2: Sounds really nice! So, if I understand correctly, your holiday in Greece was a success and you were very pleased with the house you rented. I still have 15 minutes, so I want to know about your children too.

If you talk to a friend you will not summarise the things you have just talked about. You will also not mention that you still have 15 minutes to talk about something else.

However, in professional communication providing structure like this can really help to be effective. So, besides using active listening skills, you (both) also need to provide structure.

Advantages of structuring a meeting

These are some advantages of structuring the meeting:

  • You will both keep an overview of the meeting
  • You will make sure you are on the same page
  • You will both reach your goals more effectively
  • You will both make sure you do what you are supposed to do

So, what does this mean: how do you provide structure to a meeting? Below, we suggest a possible structure you could adopt. This might work well for you, or you might adapt it to your preference or to the specific circumstances of your work environment. Feel free to add comments at the bottom of the page to share what structure works well for you.

First, you need to prepare

Before the meeting both you and the PhD student need to reflect on the topics that need to be addressed. For that you need to have a summary of the last meeting and possibly an update from the PhD student. Also you need to agree on an agenda for the meeting.

Our suggestion would be to let the student do all of this:

  • Send a summary of the (last) meeting
  • Send an agenda with points they would like to discuss with you
  • Send an update if needed (a draft publication, preliminary data or just a status update on what they have been working on)

Second, you need to structure the meeting itself

The student can briefly summarise the last meeting and you can both set the final agenda. It also needs to be clear how much time there is available for the meeting.

During the meeting, you can structure the discussion by summarising topics in order to check whether you both understood what was discussed and to move on to the next topic. Also you may need to concretise or specify certain agreements, to make sure you are both on the same page or know what to do.

Third, you need to make follow-up arrangements.

This involves setting a date for the next meeting, agreeing on what the student (and possibly you as supervisor) will do and what, if anything, the student will send before the next meeting.

So, to summarise, these are the three steps to provide structure:

  1. Prepare;
  2. Introduction at the start of the meeting: last meeting recap, agenda, duration;
  3. Follow-up arrangements.

To take the example of the previous video, you could summarise the solution the student found: So, you will block Monday and Thursday morning for writing and work with your office door closed and put a note on it that says Do not disturb.

And to make agreements more specific you could use this for example by saying at the end of the meeting: So, as discussed, you will make the minutes of our meeting and send them to me and schedule the next appointment. And before the next meeting you will send me an agenda.

With these examples in mind, examine your own meeting practices and reflect on how you add structure.

  • Who makes the minutes of the meetings you have with your PhD student?
  • Who sets the agenda?
  • How do you prepare for the meetings?
  • How do you structure your meetings? Do you summarise or concretise agreements?
  • How do you make follow-up arrangements?

What, if anything, do you think you could improve in this respect? How are you going to do that for the next meeting? Please share your experiences with other learners.

© University of Groningen
This article is from the free online

Successful PhD Supervision: A Shared Journey

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now