Advising and Mentorship

Advising and Mentorship

While acknowledging the different needs of students and different styles of advisors, it is helpful when students and faculty in a department have a common set of expectations related to advising/mentoring. It is especially important that students in their early years are encouraged by all faculty – and not only their assigned advisors/mentors or the Graduate Group Chair (Director of Graduate Studies, or DGS) – to feel comfortable to see out conversations and advice at various stages. Having more conversations early on helps students have a better sense of their own research interests and also to receive guidance that is well-suited to their goals.  Even for ABD’s (advanced graduate students who have finished all requirements but the dissertation), there is value in engaging with faculty members outside of those who are on their dissertation committees.


The DGS usually provides general guidance related to requirements and progress through the program – from overseeing course planning and assigning Teaching Assistants to facilitating the transition to dissertation status and nominating students for fellowships, prizes and grant applications. While the Graduate Coordinator is usually able to quickly take care of many nuts-and-bolts questions (e.g. issues dealing with onboarding, payroll, course transfer requests, etc.), a graduate student should not hesitate to reach out to the DGS to discuss any concerns that arise in conjunction with coursework, teaching, dissertation work, job market preparation, or general advice at any point along the journey from matriculation to a completed Ph.D.


At least as important is the role of each Ph.D. student’s individual advisor/mentor. Each incoming student is assigned a subfield-specific mentor. This may be someone a student expressly wishes to work with, or someone with whom a student has been paired up on a preliminary basis given some overlap in interests. It is important for students to feel comfortable in changing advisors without hesitation; and it is important for faculty advisors to signal this. The assigned mentor may or may not be the person who later becomes the Dissertation Chair/Supervisor. And, in some cases, if a student’s research evolves in an unexpected direction, it may even be appropriate for a Dissertation Chair to encourage the student to explore whether another committee member or faculty member might be a better fit as Chair/Supervisor.


The key to effective advising or mentorship is regular communication based on what the student most needs. Some may need to meet every month or even every couple of weeks to feel confident that they are on track. Others may not need to meet more than once-per-semester, which should be regarded as the bare minimum. It’s important to figure out what is most comfortable and helpful for each student in setting a shared norm that both advisor and advisee can maintain throughout. Of course, this does not preclude ad hoc meetings to address specific concerns or tasks that may arise along the way. Moreover, students may benefit from seeking out discussions with other members of the faculty, including those outside their primary subfield, and the DGS should encourage them to do so. This is valuable not only for the sake of hearing different perspectives but also for becoming more comfortable in discussing one’s interests and research with a wider array of scholars (as will be the case during a job interview).


Advising and mentorship are more effective when students are intentional about reviewing their recent work and setting up some goals for the following year. To this end, at the end of each academic year, all students are asked to prepare a self-assessment, which they should share with their assigned advisor and with the DGS (copying the Graduate Coordinator). This is not monitored by the School of Arts and Sciences or the University. The purpose is for the student and advisor to jointly take stock of where things stand, to identify and address unexpected challenges, and to make concrete plans for the coming year. It is helpful to have the self-assessments reviewed before the end-of-year discussion that faculty engage in to discuss the progress of the graduate student body as a whole and to consider whether certain individuals may benefit from a little extra support or more tailored guidance. (If a student has concerns about their emotional or mental well-being, the Graduate Coordinator can provide information on campus-based resources and options available to the student).


Finally, for more advanced students (those who have completed the required coursework and passed qualifying exams), there is an online system that requires “Dissertation Progress Reports” (DPR) to be filed mid-way through the Fall semester. These are submitted by the student, with the advisor and the DGS subsequently signing off on this. As with the self-assessments, the DPR is a more useful tool when students provide some details about their progress and their plans for the remainder of the year, and when advisors offer some comments and assessments on the report.  All of these elements – from periodic consultations with the DGS and regular communications with individual advisors (and other faculty) to the completion of the self-assessments and the dissertation progress reports – work together to ensure that students receive the advising and mentorship they need to complete their Ph.D. requirements and succeed on the job market.