Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A guide to scheduling committee meetings

EcologyA guide to scheduling committee meetings


Something grad students quickly learn is that scheduling committee meetings can be quite a challenge. While no system will make it easy to schedule a meeting with multiple people with complicated schedules, there are some strategies that can make it easier. I find myself discussing this with students quite regularly, so figured it could be worth sharing here.

First, while scheduling polls are annoying, it’s worth noting that they’re so commonly used because they are vastly preferable to the old way of doing it. More senior readers of the blog will hopefully chime in with their tales of needing to wait outside the doors of their committee members with a calendar, watching the list of possible dates and times shrink with each person they corralled. 

General approach:

Step 1: Pick a general window (e.g., late October through early November)

Step 2: Send an email to committee members to find out about general availability then (e.g., a trip the first week of November)

Step 3: Choose a scheduling poll, create the poll, and share that with your committee

  • Which scheduling poll? Most people seem to use whenisgood, doodle, or when2meet. A thing that is handy about when2meet is you can see the other responses, which can make it so someone realizes they really should try to move a particular meeting that is at a time when everyone else can make it. If you have opinions about which poll works best (or worst?), please share those in the comments!
  • I think it really helps to have 30 minute increments in the poll, rather than just going with the 1 hour time blocks. Sometimes I can meet, say, 10:30-11:30, but if the poll only gives options of 10-11 and 11-noon, then I need to put both as unavailable. 
  • Ideally, you will not have many weeks of options – sometimes, I get a poll for two months worth of time and I usually end up not filling it out very quickly because it’s overwhelming.
  • Ask your committee members to fill it out by a certain date/time (e.g., if you send the poll on a Monday, ask folks to fill it out by Friday morning or something like that). See ‘Option 3’ for more about what to do if folks don’t fill it out by the deadline.

Once (some) poll results are in:

The steps after that depend a bit on how quickly your committee fills out the poll and how much of a disaster the results are.

Option 1 (a bit of a unicorn, but maybe you’ll get lucky): people respond quickly, there’s a time slot that works for everyone (miracle of miracles!). If you find yourself in this situation, immediately email your committee to let them know the time of the meeting. In my department, the student also often creates a calendar event and shares that with the committee, which works well.

The immediately is emphasized because schedules change really quickly, and, the longer you wait, the less likely it is that everyone’s schedules will continue to be open at the time you want. If you send the scheduling poll in mid April and don’t send the email blocking off the time until the end of May, you are likely to have to start the whole process over.

Option 2: People respond, but there’s no time that works for everyone. This is much more common than Option 1, sadly. If there’s a time (or more than one!) that works for everyone except one person, I think it’s worth sending an email that politely lets the committee member know how the poll turned out and asking (again, politely) if there’s a chance that time could work. When I need to send an email like this, I usually include something like “I realize there’s a good chance you won’t be able to meet then, but I wanted to check just in case it happens to work out” or something to that effect. Part of why I include that is I know some people get a little grumpy being asked – their thinking is that they just filled out the poll that says they aren’t free then (and they’re surely sick of scheduling polls)! But my experience is that about half the time, that person is actually able to move that (or perhaps made a mistake filling out the poll in the first place and was actually free then). 

So, a note to the people receiving that email: please remember that students are super stressed about trying to get these things scheduled. Be kind in your response, even if your schedule can’t be shifted.

Option 3: Some people respond, but not everyone. You’re in luck! This is a great excuse to nudge your remaining committee members (who may just be overwhelmed by the thought of filling out another scheduling poll, especially if there were lots of options). You can then follow up to say that, based on the initial responses, the only times that work are A, B, and C, and asking them if any of those options work for them. 

(Option 3 variant: you may discover that some committee members are Bad At Email. In that case, students sometimes revert to the pre-internet days and hover outside that committee member’s door until they can ask in person.) 

If you end up with either Option 2 or 3 and end up finding a time that works for everyone: immediately email your committee to let them know the time of the meeting. As I said above, I emphasize the immediately because schedules will change (& fill). If it’s been weeks (or more) since you sent the poll, schedules have probably changed and you might need to start over.

Ugh, I’ve done the above and I’m stuck

What should you do if, unfortunately, you end up with either Option 2 or 3 and are still stuck, unable to find a time that works for everyone? At this point, the path forward will depend to some extent on what you’re scheduling. If it’s a regular committee meeting, a common approach in my program is to meet with the folks who can all make it, then do a one-on-one meeting with the one person who couldn’t make it. If it’s something really major (like qualifying exams or your defense), then it’s more complicated and you might need to consider a different time window or something else. If you’re at this point, it’s probably best to consult with your advisor or another mentor to get advice on how to approach things.

Pro-level committee meeting scheduling

Sometimes, a student has a committee meeting and knows they need to schedule something else with their committee in the next few months. (One example of this can be having a meeting that checks in to make sure everything is set to defend, then needing to schedule the defense.) If you have your whole committee together and know when the next thing needs to happen, you can ask everyone to pull up their calendars and try to work it out in person. This is usually by far the most effective way to do it!*

Wildcard approach

Sometimes, people attempt what I think of as the ‘shot-in-the-dark’ approach, with the initial email proposing a time and seeing if it works for everyone. The odds are low, but when it works, it’s great!

If you think there are additional things to do (or things I suggest that folks should NOT do), or things that tend to help (or hurt), I would love to hear about them in the comments!

*There was a meeting that I needed to attend that involved some fairly high level people at the university, all of whom have people who handle their schedules. I ended up on the call with all the schedulers who would toss out a time and they’d all figure out when they could squeeze it in, since they knew what things could be shifted and what couldn’t. It was fascinating!

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