As I often discuss on this blog, becoming a researcher was a bit of a happy accident (hence Researcher Accidentally). What I haven’t really talked about is my likewise serendipitous transition into project management. In short, a few months into my research career I was given the opportunity to be a Project Manager for an international study despite having absolutely no training in project management at the time. Although my masters degree is in nursing leadership, I felt completely unprepared for managing meetings, timelines, personnel, and budgets. So, like many aspects of my career, project management is something that I’ve learned through trial and error.

Over the coming months I hope to share some tips and resources for others who may find themselves in a similar situation. For now, I thought I’d share my process for planning a research meeting since it’s an important part of managing a research project.

Step 1: Figure out the logistics

First you need to determine who needs to be at the meeting and figure out a day/time that will work for everyone. Doodle Poll is a great resource for this, although I have also used Survey Monkey in the past. When working with physicians, you really want to have the email addresses for their admin or medical office assistants. In my experience they are incredibly responsive, and often physicians will refer you to them anyways when you try to book a meeting.

At this point you also want to book a room and ensure it is appropriate for the meeting. For example, is it large enough? Will the layout work for the type of meeting you’re hosting? Will it meet your technology requirements?

Virtual meetings are a little different. For teleconferences, for example, ensure you have a teleconference line and host/participant passcodes. If you’re videoconferencing (e.g. Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom), ensure you have added the participants to your contact list (if applicable) well in advance of the meeting. You’ll also need to make sure the technology you select for a virtual meeting works for the participants. Some platforms may not work for them, or they may have preferences. For example, I used to work with a professor who found the flipping between videofeeds on Google Hangouts nauseating. So we would stick with Skype or teleconferences when we met with him.

Step 2: Select a meeting chair

Select someone who is going to be in charge of chairing the meeting. They will be responsible for setting the pace of the meeting and making sure everyone stays focused. Typically I assign this role to myself or a research coordinator. In my experience, scientists can get very engrossed in the nuances of language and methodology. They won’t just go down a rabbit hole; they’ll do an academic BASE jump into the issue. While this makes for interesting discussion, it also tends to make meetings go late.

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Keep the meeting focused. While academic BASE jumping makes for interesting discussions, it also tends to make meetings go late.

Basically the chair is like a referee. However, this doesn’t mean they are excluded from discussions. The chair still contributes to the meeting, but they also shouldn’t dominate the discussion.

So who gets actually listed as the meeting chair? I typically consider power dynamics when I make this decision. For example, I’ve project managed studies where there were two Co-PIs. Listing one as the chair and the other as a participant could create some weird power dynamics, so I would list myself as the chair. The same goes for other smaller research team meetings. However, there may be some situations where this may not be appropriate. For example, meetings with someone influential (e.g. a funder) should be chaired by the scientist/PI. That being said, I’d still recommend having someone else keep an eye on the clock.

Step 3: Write a feasible agenda

Prepare a meeting agenda ahead of time. Start with the logistics:

  • The project or group the meeting is associated with
  • Date/time of the meeting
  • Location or dial/sign-in information
  • Participants (including attendees and regrets)
  • Meeting chair

Then you want to list each of the meeting items in the order they will be discussed. For each item also include:

  • Who is responsible for each item in the meeting
  • Whether this is a discussion or if a decision needs to be made
  • Whether there are any corresponding documents

Make sure your proposed agenda is feasible for the amount of time allocated. If it helps you keep organized, plan approximately how much time you want to dedicate to each item.

Step 4: Principal Investigator approval

Make sure your agenda and any supporting documents are signed off on by the Principal Investigator(s). The last thing you want is a surprised PI when they open an email sent to the entire research team or external people.

A surprised PI is an unhappy PI.

Step 5: Circulate documents in advance

Send out a tentative agenda well in advance. I typically ask meeting participants if there are any other items they would like added to the agenda. I find this reduces the amount of tangents or “other business” items at the end of the meeting. I send out a final version of the agenda and any associated documents one or two days prior to the meeting. You don’t want to send out the final version much earlier than a couple of days prior because it might get lost in people’s inboxes.

Step 6: Prepare for the meeting

Day before:

  • Reminder email with location and/or dial-in information, and documents
  • Print-off any documents or notes you will need during the meeting

Day of the meeting:

  • Arrive early to set up and ensure the room is accessible
  • Ensure any and all technology is working
  • Load slides and any documents you will be presenting. Searching for a file during a meeting wastes precious time

For long or important meetings I usually make sure there is water available. Bring snacks and coffee/tea if you really want to the impress the group, or if you just want an excuse to get Timbits!