guidelines for working with PhD students

In the interests of both making sure that I can be of most use to the PhD students I work with and taking control of a key aspect of my professional life – my work as a mentor or a member/director of students’ dissertations – I’ve decided to post some guidelines I’ve come up with for any students who are considering working with me. I’m currently putting together my application for tenure this fall – an exercise that has given me the chance to reflect on my career over the last six years and on how much I concern myself with the intellectual life of the students I work with. More, I’ve realized that any experiences I’ve had working as a mentor or committee member that are less than completely rewarding are not because of the students I’ve worked with – they are because I have failed to make it clear what I can and cannot offer and I have not spelled out my expectations. And while it’s frustrating to realize that I am my own source of frustration, I’m relieved I might now be able to take better responsibility for an aspect of my job that I value so much. So, here goes:

  1. I ask that you send me drafts of each of your chapter as you write them. This is so that I have a chance to be involved, if only minimally, in shaping your dissertation. While I won’t burden you with too much feedback and I will try not to impose my point of view on you, I also cannot, in all good conscience, give your dissertation a rubberstamp of approval. I also need to know that I have relevant expertise for the project you’re undertaking.
  2. I ask both that we meet once a semester – perhaps more, but once every 4-6 months is a minimum – and that you initiate the scheduling of our meeting. The meeting might only be 15 minutes long or it might be a half hour to an hour long. The point is to let me know what you’re working on, the progress you’re making, and whether I can help move your work along in any way. I will also use these meetings as an opportunity to introduce you to the profession and think about what conferences you might attend or present at, what journals you might consider submitting to, what professional organizations you might get involved with, and perhaps how you might develop your online presence.
  3. I ask for two to three weeks to read over your work and respond, either in writing or in person.
  4.  If you need a recommendation letter, I’m more than happy to oblige if I’ve had the chance to read your writing beforehand and if I’ve also been able to get a sense of you as a professional. If you need a recommendation letter for a job, ideally you’ll give me two months’ notice so I can make sure I draft as strong a letter as possible. To be honest, more than two months would be wonderful but I understand that might be unrealistic. But again, I can only write this glowing letter if I’ve had a chance to get to know you and your work. It would also be helpful if you’d let me know what you would like me to highlight in your letter.
  5. I never want you to feel obliged to follow any piece of advice I give you but I do ask that you seriously consider my suggestions. If I can’t be useful to you, it makes the most sense for you to seek out a different mentor or committee member.
  6. Finally, if I’m a committee member and your dissertation chair has different ideas about the writing/revising/submitting process, please let me know so I can adjust my own expectations.

Implicitly, these guidelines mean two things: first, you can expect from me consistent feedback, suggestions for direction with your intellectual project, recommendation letters, and advice on professionalization. And second, if at any time one of us cannot meet our obligations, the relationship can and should be dissolved. If I am not the right person for you to work with, I certainly don’t want you feeling obliged to continue working with me for fear I will be angry or hurt. Boundaries are blurry between the personal and the professional in academia, but I do strive to make sure that I am the best possible mentor for you by maintaining a professional, rather than personal, relationship.

Feedback welcome!