Mentoring for Graduate Students in Computer Science

Mentoring relationships with faculty are an important element of the graduate education experience, particularly for students conducting research or other independent work. A mentor works with you to form goals that are right for you and to plan how to achieve them. A mentor also evaluates your work and gives constructive feedback to help you focus and be more effective.

It is typical for a student's research advisor to act as the primary mentor, but others may serve as mentors as well. As a graduate student, you will work with faculty serving in multiple roles, such as an instructor for a course you are taking, a supervisor of your paid work, a member of your academic committee, an academic advisor, a director of your program, a research colleague or collaborator, or just someone you see around the department. Faculty may act as mentors in any of these roles, to varying degrees. For example, a course instructor may work with you on an independent project for the course.

The Duke University Graduate School’s (TGS) For Graduate Students supports you in building a network of mentors that is right for you, including mentors among your peers. Also from TGS, the Mentoring Toolkit provides materials to help students and faculty develop productive mentoring relationships.

Mentoring is a key responsibility of the graduate faculty. Students have differing needs, and faculty have varying styles and priorities. Mentoring works best when both parties have common expectations and a shared commitment to communicating effectively in a cooperative spirit and being responsive to the needs of the other. Please make the most out of your mentoring relationships! Our department pairs junior students with senior ones for peer mentoring, has an “Introduction to Graduate School” course for incoming students, as well as asks you to fill out an Individual Development Plan (IDP) every year and discuss it with your advisor. Please consult with your advisor, your committee, other faculty, and the DGS office on how best to use these opportunities.

Milestones: Steps in the Graduate Program

You may view your graduate program as a sequence of steps or milestones in addition to coursework. In a research milestone you conduct some independent academic work in collaboration with a faculty research advisor and possibly others. You write a report, schedule a defense of the work, at which you give a presentation about the work and answer questions from your audience. For each milestone an academic committee of faculty members evaluates the work and certifies successful completion of the milestone. Your advisor guides you, certifies when you are ready to defend the work, suggests other faculty for your committee, and chairs the committee at the defense.

The Computer Science PhD program has four research milestones:

  1. Project (RIP) proposal (year 1),
  2. Project defense (year 2),
  3. Preliminary exam (year 3), and
  4. Dissertation defense.

The MS programs have a single milestone: depending on which MS option you choose, it may be a research thesis or project. For course-only MS students there is no formal research project separate from coursework, so the milestone is a comprehensive exam on your course projects.

The Graduate Program Office

The graduate program office (DGS office) is here to assist you as you progress through your program. We handle various administrative details for you to manage your funding, receive credit for your work, and complete your degree. In particular, each milestone involves an administrative approval process behind the scenes. The office also manages an administrative process when you enter the program and when you apply to graduate, and also plays a role in courses, qualifying exams, internships, fellowships, and other matters. A designated faculty member serves as Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), and works with a staff assistant (DGSA) and Graduate Program Coordinators.

We ask you to help us help you. In particular, we expect you to know your degree requirements, plan ahead, follow our administrative instructions carefully, meet all relevant deadlines, and be responsive to our communications with you on your department email address. In particular, students who get into trouble with meeting a degree requirement often say that they were unaware of what was expected of them, or that their advisor failed to push them to complete it. It is your responsibility to know the requirements for your graduate program and to work with your advisor to meet them.

Please feel free to ask the DGS office for help when you need it. We can answer your questions and address situations that might arise. If you feel that something is not going well or that you are blocked from your goals, then please speak with us. We will help make a plan to address the issue and connect you with other resources in the University as needed.

Your communications with the DGS office are confidential, except that we are mandated to request help from a University office for certain equity issues and risks, such as situations involving harassment or a risk of violence.

In particular, please contact the DGS office to help you if you feel that you are treated unfairly or unprofessionally, that others are not meeting their responsibilities to you, that expectations set for you are unclear or unreasonable, or that you are encountering a hostile work environment or other unhealthy or unsafe conditions. If you prefer, you may instead contact other offices or resources at Duke for help. The Graduate School provides step-by-step instructions to help you report your dispute or conflict and find the right remediation, also detailing what services and confidentiality they provide. For example, you may connect at any time with certain Duke University resources for wellness or counseling, the Office of Institutional Equity, the Graduate School (TGS), or the Computer Science Department Chair.

The Faculty

The Graduate School (TGS) outlines responsibilities of faculty members and students in mentoring roles and in all of their various roles and interactions. That information also summarizes responsibilities of the graduate program and TGS, and a process for appeal of grievances to the Chair and Dean if the DGS is unable to resolve the situation.

To summarize using language from that document, faculty are expected to: respect your interests/goals; assist you in pursuing/achieving them; provide clear expectations on your responsibilities as a student and expectations for the work you undertake with them; evaluate your progress and performance in a timely, regular, and constructive fashion; avoid assigning any duty or activity that is outside your interest or responsibility; be fair, impartial, and professional in all dealings with you; avoid conflicts of interest; and ensure a collegial learning environment of mutual respect and collaboration. These, along with the expectations from you are detailed in “Summary of responsibilities for PhD program” section below.

Naturally, you share the faculty's responsibility for effective mentoring by taking the lead for your own success, communicating your needs clearly, being appropriately professional, honorable, and respectful in your dealings with others,and doing your part to promote a collegial and respectful learning environment for everyone.

It is important for both you and your advisor to set advising norms and expectations right at the outset, and use the RIP phase to refine these expectations and norms, as well as test if the relationship is working. This includes frequency of meetings, how “hands-off” the advisor will be, turn-around times for email and feedback about work, work hours and vacation days, and so on. In the same vein, you are allowed to change advisors at any time and for any reason; please contact the DGS office for procedures. We recommend you consider switching towards the end of the RIP phase if your mentoring and advising expectations are not being met. Conversely, if your advisor is not happy with your progress, they can choose to terminate the relationship via a formal process. Please see the PhD program requirements for details on “Good Standing”.

In an academic environment, students and faculty are free to choose how to meet their goals and responsibilities to one another. When you interact with faculty in any of their roles, you must be mindful that they balance their time spent with you against their other responsibilities, goals, and interests. They choose how much of their time to allocate for you. Their choices are based in part on the significance of their responsibilities to you in a specific role. For example, your advisor for a research project may delegate some of their mentoring responsibility to guide your work and monitor your progress to other members of the research group. Committee members may take a more or less active role depending on the nature of the project and milestone.

In turn, you are responsible to make efficient use of the faculty time that you request, and to speak with the DGS office if you feel that you are not receiving sufficient attention.

Review and Feedback

The Computer Science Department has a structured process to review progress and report feedback to PhD students at least once per year, in addition to progress feedback on milestones. An Annual Progress Review of all PhD students occurs at the end of every academic year. PhD students submit a progress summary and bibliography. They are also asked to prepare an Individual Development Plan (IDP) based on a departmental IDP questionnaire, and to discuss it with their advisor and (optionally) submit it with their progress report. MS students may request annual review of their progress or of an IDP.

The Computer Science Department manages all milestones through the GradCentral web service. Students use GradCentral to declare an advisor, invite faculty to a committee, submit a committee for approval, schedule a milestone defense, submit a report, and receive feedback. Faculty also use GradCentral to accept invitations and roles, review upcoming milestones, receive report documents, and enter milestone approvals, decisions, comments, and other progress feedback. You may access GradCentral at any time to review your status and progress, receive feedback, and see what to do next. Additionally, faculty may submit feedback comments for selected students through GradCentral at any time. Note that faculty can choose how much feedback to deliver formally via GradCentral and how much by other channels. If you are concerned that the feedback you receive is unfair or inadequate, please discuss this with the DGS office.

Summary of Responsibilities for PhD Program

We now summarize the student and faculty responsibilities for progress, mentoring, and advising in the Computer Science Department, focusing on the PhD program.

Responsibilities of the PhD Student

  • Reading the PhD program requirements, as well as the page for current graduate students, and being mindful about milestones and deadlines. Meeting Departmental and TGS requirements for degree completion, and taking primary responsibility for the successful completion of your degree.
  • Meeting regularly with your advisor, including attending lab meetings, and providing them with updates on the progress and results of your activities and experiments/research endeavors.
  • Forming a dissertation committee that supports the thesis or dissertation research as well as career and professional development needs.
  • Identifying your needs in mentors, including faculty and peers, and seeking out those individuals whose mentoring styles are a good fit for your needs.
  • Initiating requests for feedback and seeking advice from your advisor, committee, and other mentors, and keeping the faculty advisor and dissertation committee apprised on a regular basis of the progress toward completion of the thesis or dissertation.
  • Exploring career options and pursuing professional development opportunities in support of them.
  • Discussing policies on work hours, vacation, sick leave, authorship, and attendance at professional meetings with your advisor.
  • Practicing uncompromising honesty and integrity according to university and federal guidelines, and seeking regulatory approval for research where applicable.
  • Being a good citizen, maintaining a safe and clean space, working collegially and respectfully with everyone, and looking to participate appropriately in the intellectual life and collective governance of your program, school, and wider university.

Responsibilities of Ph.D. Advisor

  • Familiarizing yourself with the PhD program requirements and funding model, and being mindful about milestones and deadlines set by the Department and TGS, including:
    • ensuring the student is aware of these requirements; and
    • monitoring research progress of the student to ensure they meet these milestones.
  • Mentoring the student, including providing appropriate training, building professional background, and supporting professional aspirations, including:
    • encouraging the student to participate and disseminate results of research or creative activities in the appropriate scholarly or public forums;
    • connecting the student to individuals in their networks as appropriate and facilitate an initial conservation about the student’s career goals;
    • advising the students on appropriate job and career options, as well as on the preparation of application materials for appropriate fellowship, scholarship, and other relevant opportunities, keeping in mind that student interests can vary between academic research, teaching, and industry positions; and
    • writing letters of reference for these opportunities.
  • Providing training and oversight in creative activities, research rigor, theoretical and technical aspects of the thesis or dissertation research, and in professional integrity and research ethics, including:
    • advising the student on the selection of a thesis or dissertation topic with realistic prospects for successful completion within an appropriate time frame and on the formation of a thesis committee;
    • helping the student develop professional skills in writing reports, papers, and grant proposals, making professional presentations, establishing professional networks, interviewing, and evaluating manuscripts and papers;
    • allowing time outside of research to engage with said activities; and
    • encouraging the student to stay current in the literature and ideas in the field.
  • Participating in regular meetings with the student about academic and research progress, including results and challenges. Communicating clearly the frequency of these meetings with the student, as well as the expected timeframe for responding to email and giving feedback on work products.
  • Providing regular feedback on the progress of the student toward degree completion, including:
    • providing honest and constructive feedback on research or creative activities, course work, and teaching;
    • providing constructive criticism if the progress does not meet expectations; and
    • conducting an annual meeting to discuss progress in the past year, including discussion of the Individual Development Plan crafted by the student, and entering feedback about the student into GradCentral for evaluation by the DGS office.
  • Assisting the student in navigating disagreements among his/her committee.
  • Treating the student with respect at all times, including by:
    • being supportive during encouraging and discouraging periods of research; and
    • listening to any concerns and connecting the student with appropriate resources.
  • Becoming familiar with university and professional codes of responsible conduct for PhD students; and discussing and helping clarify authorship or intellectual property issues and appropriately recognizing the student’s contributions to any collaborative work.
  • Soliciting feedback from the student about mentorship, and working towards becoming a better mentor by learning about school and university resources for mentoring PhD students, and sustaining an inclusive intellectual community and welcoming climate.

Responsibilities of the Dissertation Committee

The dissertation committee is formed sometime in the student’s third year, after the student has completed the RIP. The student can reasonably expect the dissertation committee to perform the following roles:

  • Reviewing and providing feedback on proposals and the thesis or dissertation in a timely, constructive, and critical manner.
  • Meeting at least once a year with the student if so requested by the student, either one-on-one or as the entire committee, to learn about research progress, including attending research progress talks given by the student.
  • Providing guidance to help students achieve their career goals.
  • Administering the prelim and thesis exams in a fair, timely, and professional manner.

Part of this document is inspired by related mentoring documents at MSU and JHU.