Monday, May 7, 2012

Effective weekly group meetings

I believe every research group should have one timetabled meeting each week. If not, people tend to get disconnected and drift. Students can get isolated and lose motivation. Attendance should be compulsory.

Effective meetings are enjoyable and productive. People learn new things, particularly what is relevant to their own research. Furthermore, informal interactions associated with these meetings can lead to breakthroughs, both minor and major.

What should be the format of the meeting? A balance between structure and informality seems to be key. Talks on the whiteboard are preferable to power point presentations. Here are a few ideas on meeting content:
  • A group members talks about what they are currently working on. This provides feedback and accountability in a friendly environment. People learn more about what other group members are working on. Hopefully this leads to other conversations.
  • A group member talks about an important paper by someone else. It can be an old "classic" paper or a recent one. Everyone gets educated. Students learn what might be important or not. Everything in Nature and Science is not important or reliable.
  • Everyone in the group brings a paper they have recently read to the meeting. They then have limited time (e.g. 7 minutes) to convince everyone else they should read the paper. This encourages people to keep up with the literature and be reflective about what they are reading.
  • A group member gives a practice of a seminar or conference talk they are due to give soon. The group provides constructive feedback. This can significantly enhance the quality of presentations group members give. [I remember when I was a postdoc, another postdoc told me he was more scared of giving the practice talk than the conference talk!]
  • The dice meeting. [I have not done this but heard of it in German research groups]. A paper from the literature will be discussed. Everyone in the group reads it and prepares a talk on it. But, at the meeting a dice (or two) is rolled. Whoever's number shows up gives the talk.
  • Questions should be encouraged. Sometimes a prize (e.g., a bottle of wine) can be awarded for the person who asks the most questions.
  • Serving food (e.g. a cake) is a good thing.
I welcome other suggestions that readers have found particularly effective and useful.


  1. Our dice meetings were quite informal, so the 'presentation' didnt have to be very good, we just became the person responsible for the tour through the paper if our number came up.

    The problem though, was that as much as a day a week was spent preparing. If the paper was super relevant to you, it was time well spent. But often it wasn't.

    Something like journal club could be interesting in a more disparate group, though Indon't know how disparate before it becomes a complete waste of time. eg. would I benefit from spending a day now and then learning about quantum chemistry? The answer is not obvious to me.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for comment. You have highlighted an important issue: when is learning about a different topic a good investment of time?

    In the short term, it rarely is. It is usually just a distraction from producing papers to pad ones CV in order to get the next job/grant. In the longer term (3-10 years) it may be a good investment. These meetings can potentially (but perhaps often don't) provide an efficient means to start to learn about a new topic which one may use/work on much further down the track.

    Perhaps, the most important thing about encountering and learning new topics is that it is an important (and hard) skill to acquire. Listening carefully, asking helpful and illuminating questions, interpreting the answers and integrating the knowledge are skills that take years to develop. Good group meetings can be a means to help acquire these skills through practice.

    There are two other important reasons to learn something new. One is that being able to talk to others in a meaningful way about their research is very important at job interviews. Another is that it can be fun and satisfying to learn and understand new things, even if one never uses them in ones own research.

    The challenge is finding the balance between being too narrowly focussed and being too broad. I just stumble along....

  3. The other use of this in in large groups where everyone is working on some different aspect of a larger problem. In the experimental group I collaborate with, the extended lab meetings (at least 3 hours, so they are scheduled on Saturday mornings) allow students to present their work in front of their colleagues. That way, a student gains both presentation skills as well as understands in what way his/her work might dovetail with the work of others. Thus, much science is also done in these meetings, since valuable pointers regarding techniques/previous failures/references etc can be passed on. I rarely see them - this is an experimental
    biology group - have paper-reading sessions or journal-club-like
    events, such as condensed matter physicists are wont to have. This is likely
    partly due to the nature of the field but has the consequence that discussions are often sharply focused.

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