Graduate Student Mentoring Report
The Task Force on Graduate Student Mentoring
Table of Contents
B. Charge to the Task Force
C. Composition of the Task Force
D. General Timeline and Process
II. Background Information and Overall Direction
A. Background Information on the State of Mentoring
B. Direction of the Task Force
III. Findings and Recommendations
A. Minimum Standards and Requirements
- Committee Structure: Required Check-Ins with Faculty beyond the Primary Advisor
- Required Meetings with Primary Advisor(s)
- Timeliness and Quality of Feedback Students Receive
- Annual Self-Assessment
- Graduate Student Feedback through Reenrollment
- Promoting, Supporting, and Recognizing Department Mentoring Efforts
At the outset of the 2019-2020 academic year, Sarah-Jane Leslie, dean of the Graduate School, and Sanjeev Kulkarni, dean of the faculty, convened a task force to examine the critical issue of graduate student mentoring by faculty of which they would serve as Executive Sponsors. The Executive Sponsors charged this task force to study the structures and practices around advising and mentoring across Princeton, to explore best practices beyond our campus, and to make specific recommendations on how we can continue to improve in this area.
The committee received the following charge from the Executive Sponsors:
The Graduate School at Princeton is distinctive in its emphasis on doctoral education, its high level of engagement between distinguished faculty and outstanding students, and its residential campus environment that fosters a community of scholars. Mentoring at Princeton includes formal advising on program requirements and academic work, but goes beyond that to include informal faculty-student interactions that help to shape graduate students’ scholarly, professional, and personal development. Strong mentoring is the foundation of our academic enterprise at the graduate level. To that end, it is important that we pay close attention to the structures around mentoring to ensure that they reinforce our educational mission and provide our graduate students the best experience possible.
The committee is tasked to engage in a self-study to assess graduate student mentoring at Princeton. The committee is asked to make specific recommendations that support excellent mentoring for graduate students and provide guidance to faculty. In order to complete this analysis and arrive at these recommendations, the committee will answer specific questions around graduate student mentoring, including:
1. What are the current structures around graduate mentoring at Princeton?
a. What are the policies/guidelines regarding graduate mentoring?
b. How do these vary by department?
c. What guidance do faculty receive?
2. What are best practices around mentoring?
a. What research has been done in this area?
b. What does the peer landscape reveal?
c. Are there trends we should be aware of and/or opportunities where we can lead?
3. How well does our current structure meet the needs of students?
a. How is this assessed and what does the assessment reveal?
b. Are there recurring themes, concerns, or recommendations from the graduate student body?
c. Are we meeting the needs of our different populations?
d. What are the opportunities, challenges, and needs regarding graduate mentoring?
The committee will then prepare a report for the Executive Sponsors that provides specific recommendations. The recommendations should be thoroughly analyzed for feasibility, consequences, advantages, process, and financial impact.
The task force was composed of various faculty members, staff members and graduate students who have both demonstrated a commitment to graduate student education and could effectively represent the diverse interests of their respective constituencies. The members included:
• Kris Ramsay, professor of politics and director of graduate studies for the department
• Cole Crittenden, deputy dean of the Graduate School
• Lisa Schreyer, associate dean for student life in the Graduate School
• Oliver Avens, associate dean of the faculty
• Kate Clairmont, graduate student in English
• Karla Ewalt, associate dean for research
• Gyoonho Kong, graduate student in German
• Casey Lew-Williams, associate professor of psychology
• Hendrik Lorenz, professor of philosophy
• Renita Miller, associate dean for access, diversity, and inclusion in the Graduate School
• Gabriel Moore, graduate student in molecular biology
• Michael Mueller, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
• Laura Murray, assistant director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning
• Christopher Phenicie, graduate student in electrical engineering
• Sarah Schwarz, associate director of the McGraw Center for Teaching Learning
• Anna Shields, professor of East Asian studies
• Shelby Sinclair, graduate student in history
• Kate Stanton, director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning
• Cassie Stoddard, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology
• Toni Turano, deputy dean of the faculty
The task force met monthly for the 2019-2020 academic year and moved to a virtual format when campus activities began operating remotely in March of 2020. The task force prepared its final recommendations in June of 2020 to be submitted to the Executive Sponsors.
The task force began by collecting information regarding the University’s current practices concerning graduate mentoring at the departmental level and had conversations with faculty and graduate students across the academic departments. We reviewed available University data on this topic and surveyed departments for additional information needed to conduct our assessment. We then engaged in a review of peer institutions and best practices to determine what is working well at other similar institutions and what we could learn from them.
These efforts formed the basis of our recommendations, as we noticed three general categories of opportunities for immediate and fruitful action. The task force worked in sub-groups to further explore the three categories of support and arrived at nine overall recommendations.
Graduate student mentoring, which includes academic and research advising, but may also include other professional and even personal aspects of advisor-advisee interactions, is largely a successful enterprise at Princeton. Enrolled student survey data from the Graduate School’s most recent administration of the survey in the fall of 2018 include the following data points that speak to our overall strengths: three quarters of enrolled graduate students rate their academic experience as excellent or very good, with an additional 17% rating it as good; nearly 70% of graduate students indicate the frequency of substantive contact with their primary advisor is the right amount; and 71% of students either strongly agree or generally agree that their primary advisor gives them constructive feedback on their work.
Graduate programs and graduate advisors at Princeton invest a great amount of time and care in their graduate students. While many of our peers could say the same, there are specific features and structures of graduate education at Princeton that make us unique. Our relatively small size and residential focus (with most graduate students in residence) are likely strengths when it comes to advisor-advisee relationships, and Princeton has historically placed an emphasis on timely completion of the Ph.D., which necessitates close and frequent interactions between faculty and graduate students.
There are also additional features that set us apart. Two specific examples are our annual re-enrollment requirement and our groundbreaking policy prohibiting sexual and romantic relationships between faculty and graduate students. The former requires written self-assessments by graduate students as well as written assessments of them by their advisors. Such a process is not the norm; across the Ivy Plus group, no other institution requires annual assessments that graduate students and advisors must participate in and that graduate students must review before advancing year of study. The latter, approved by the full faculty in academic year 2019-20, helps to create an environment where no graduate student ever need wonder about the motive of a faculty member who provides mentorship.
Because we start with a firm foundation when it comes to graduate student mentoring, the task force focused as much on what should continue to go well and to be encouraged as it did on what should be improved. From the beginning we acknowledged that one task force in one year could not address all ways that mentoring might be improved. The ever-changing nature of our programs and the ever-evolving needs of our graduate students -- a new cohort of which enters every year -- require an iterative approach to the task, and an overarching recommendation from the task force is that a framework be instituted that allows other faculty, graduate students, and administrators to take up this topic in subsequent years.
Over the course of our year, we therefore decided to focus our discussions on practical areas where we collectively thought meaningful improvements could realistically, and without significant obstacles, be made in the coming year. In doing so, we identified three broad topics or categories of recommendations that can be instituted through existing mechanisms, units, or administrative processes and that would allow us as an institution to continue to lead in the area of graduate student mentoring:
- Graduate School-wide articulated minimum standards and requirements that codify expectations,
- Central support, in the form of materials and structures, for encouraging good advising and mentoring, and
- Assessment and recognition of activities that support our goals and progress in this area.
The task force identified three broad categories of recommendations that could be instituted through our existing mechanisms and administrative processes that we believe would enhance the effectiveness and experience of graduate student mentoring. These recommendations were grouped into categories representing: minimum standards and requirements, central support, and assessment and recognition.
The task force determined it is valuable to have minimum standards and requirements for frequency and quality of graduate advising and mentoring made explicit. While faculty advisors routinely meet and exceed advisees’ expectations, the task force members nonetheless believe that codifying minimum acceptable standards helps the rare student who may have difficulty securing meetings with or receiving feedback from the advisor. At the same time, minimum acceptable standards may be structured in a way that places an obligation on the student to meet requirements associated with certain of these standards, thereby making graduate students equally responsible and invested in the mentoring enterprise.
The task force began its thinking in this area by noting that while our survey data indicate we have strong and dedicated advisors at Princeton, even the best faculty advisors cannot be all things to their advisees. It takes a village to help a graduate student succeed, and it takes a committee to help a graduate student defend the dissertation. The task force felt that the committee structure that is required at the end of the dissertation process would likely also help students earlier on, allowing them to receive input on their work from a variety of experts as the work developed.
Graduate students feel the same way, according to the 2018 enrolled graduate student survey. More than half of respondents to the survey indicated that their program provides graduate students with faculty members beyond their primary advisor(s) who support their academic work and oversee their progress in a formal capacity. Of those, 90% indicated that they found the support, feedback, and input from the faculty beyond their primary advisor(s) to be either very effective or somewhat effective.
Graduate students whose program does not provide them with faculty members beyond their primary advisor(s) who support their academic work and oversee their progress in a formal capacity wish that their program did provide such a structure. 77% of such graduate students indicated that they were very interested or somewhat interested in such a structure, and 78% of such graduate students indicated that they would find such a formal mechanism very desirable or somewhat desirable.
In a survey administered to DGSs by the task force, more than half (23 of 41) of our Ph.D. programs already report having such a structure, which corroborates what graduate students reported in the enrolled student survey from 2018. Among these departments, which represent all four divisions at the University, students may be required to meet with one, two, or three additional faculty at a frequency of one, two, or three times per year, depending on the program. Against this background, the task force recommends that all programs institute a requirement for post-generals Ph.D. students (in the dissertation phase) to meet with faculty beyond their primary advisor(s) at least once each year. Members of the task force noted that differences in academic disciplines would determine the right number of additional faculty beyond the primary advisor(s) and the right frequency each year, but that at least one additional faculty member should be included in such meetings, and that the meetings should occur at least annually. Further, the task force noted that among the 23 departments that already require meetings with additional faculty, this requirement is often one for the student to initiate and complete. The task force recommends that the Graduate School consider instituting a central requirement of students for such meetings through the Policy Subcommittee, with the number of additional faculty and frequency of meetings determined by the program. If the requirement were approved, the task force also recommends adding a question to the annual re-enrollment application that asks Ph.D. students with dissertation advisors whether they have met the requirement of meeting with faculty beyond their primary advisor in the past year, and if not why not. DGSs and, as necessary, academic affairs staff from the Graduate School could then follow up on reports of students who were unable to meet this requirement to assist them in meeting this requirement.
Explicit, centrally-monitored minimum standards and frequency requirements for advisor-advisee interactions are not common for graduate programs. Among our Ivy Plus peers, only Columbia has instituted and centrally tracks a requirement that all Ph.D. students at the dissertation phase meet at least once per semester with their adviser(s) for dissertation progress discussions. We believe that making such requirements explicit has value.
We know from the enrolled student survey that the majority of graduate students feel satisfied with the frequency of their meetings with their advisor(s), and we assume that all graduate students meet with their advisor(s) while enrolled. In laboratory- and group-based disciplines, the nature of the research means that such meetings may occur as frequently as daily. 26 of our 41 Ph.D. programs report already having an explicit requirement that students at the dissertation phase meet with their advisor(s) on a regular basis, which may range from once per year to multiple times per semester, depending on the program. However, not all of the 26 programs report codifying the explicit requirement in a graduate handbook or website.
The task force recommends that the Graduate School consider instituting a central, explicit requirement, either stand-alone or as part of its existing Policy on Satisfactory Academic Progress, that clearly states an expectation of regular meetings between an advisee and primary advisor(s), with frequency determined by the program but to occur no less frequently that at least once per semester. If desired by a program, this requirement could be satisfied in one of the two semesters in a year by the meeting a student would also have with at least one faculty member in addition to the faculty advisor, as described above.
If the requirement were approved, the task force also similarly recommends adding a question to the annual re-enrollment application that asks Ph.D. students with dissertation advisors whether they have met the requirement of meeting with the primary advisor(s) at least once per semester, and if not why not. DGSs and, as necessary, academic affairs staff from the Graduate School could then follow up on reports of students who were unable to meet this requirement to assist them in meeting this requirement.
Absent a clear statement on what constitutes timely and instructive feedback, it may be difficult for graduate students to know from week to week and month to month whether they have sufficient feedback to continue on in the same direction and speed with their research. In certain instances, it may also be difficult, absent such a statement or framework, to hold students accountable when they are not meeting an adviser’s expectations. While the re-enrollment process provides a general framework and ensures an annual check-in with written feedback on overall performance, graduate students need much more regular feedback in order to progress. For this reason, the task force recommends that such a statement be developed in each program where it does not already exist. While some general statements would be useful across all graduate programs and could be included in central support materials, the task force determined through its discussions that the significant differences in programs’ research activities, timelines, and norms require a more program-specific approach. We recommend, therefore, that the Office of the Dean of the Faculty and the Graduate School ask the chair and DGS of each graduate program to lead efforts to either review and update or develop a statement on reasonable expectations for feedback that a graduate student should receive from an adviser. Based on a survey we conducted, 11 of our 41 Ph.D. programs already have such a statement, and the range of departments with existing statements is diverse. We would not be starting from scratch in this endeavor, and division-specific examples would be provided to DGSs.
The task force also recommends providing graduate students a structured, recurring opportunity to indicate to their advisors whether they are receiving the feedback they need. The annual re-enrollment process was identified as the best way to provide this opportunity. Because advisors review what is written by their advisees before they make re-enrollment recommendations, the task force discussed the need to phrase these questions in ways that would allow students to express their needs without unnecessarily causing a defensive reaction in an advisor. With this need in mind, the task force recommends the addition of the following three “soft” questions to the re-enrollment application that students complete and that advisors and departments review:
- Please comment on the sufficiency of feedback you receive from your advisor(s). If more feedback from your advisor(s) would be welcome, please indicate this in your comments. [text box response]
- If you indicated you would welcome additional feedback, in what areas would you like more feedback? Examples might include research trajectory, write-up of research, oral presentations, teaching, etc. [text box response]
- What ways do you prefer to receive feedback? [text box response]
In order to support mentoring on a broad level, the task force recommends that a slate of central support resources is offered through various departments and offices. These resources, which we have referred to as “central support,” would offer opportunities for mentors and mentees to develop and grow skills and access helpful tools. We recommend that this central support be offered at various levels of engagement and breadth, ranging from passive self-service resources to in-depth training. We have grouped these central support recommendations into three categories: self-service support materials, designated personnel, and training opportunities.
In the first category, we recommend a number of self-service resources for faculty and graduate students. We believe these could become important resources that are highlighted regularly to Directors of Graduate Studies, at new faculty orientation, at new graduate student Orientation, and through various other engagement opportunities. We envision the creation and compilation of these resources as a joint project led by the Graduate School, along with the Office of the Dean of the Faculty and the McGraw Center. These self-service resources would include:
- Website. This comprehensive website would serve as a repository of resources, links, documents and events that support mentoring. Many resources are already available and are spread around various offices and departments. Compiling these resources in one central location would greatly simplify access to these resources and could reduce duplication of effort.
- Graduate contract samples. Our research found that faculty at Princeton and our peer institutions have found having a “contract” or agreement between advisor and advisee to be very beneficial for the advising/mentoring relationship. We recommend that we compile some of the best samples as templates to be used as starting points for conversations.
- Best practices document. We recommend that a brief set of best practices for advising/mentoring graduate students be developed as a quick reference guide to share with all faculty. This can also be a helpful resource for navigating conversations around improving advisor/advisee relationships. Such a document already exists for mentees and is shared with all new graduate students during Orientation. A similar document should be developed for advisors.
- List of events. Our research found that a number of helpful events around this topic are already occurring on our campus and through resources our campus has access to. Compiling these events would be a helpful way to increase access to these existing resources and could reduce the need for creation of new events and programs.
- Professional development opportunities customized to departments. There have been a number of professional development opportunities developed in the last few years, for both faculty and graduate students. Some of these are broadly relevant and some are targeted at certain departments. Compiling and sorting these opportunities based on departmental relevance would be an excellent resource for individual departments to turn to.
The next category includes recommendations for designated personnel to serve as resources, guides or advisors around mentoring for faculty and graduate students. Here the recommendation has two parts, a designated faculty member for mentoring support in each department and a designated graduate student who provides peer support for mentoring in each department.
The task force recommends that each department select a faculty member who will act as a resource for other faculty in that department regarding graduate mentoring. The support that the designated faculty member would provide would be growth-oriented and not remedial or punitive. We envision that they would be appointed for a term and receive appropriate training from the relevant offices, similar to the role of the DGS. The task force recognizes that many programs are small in size and there aren’t additional faculty to take on new formal roles and in light of this recommends that it be up to the department to decide whether this is a separate role or incorporated into the DGS role depending on size and workload.
In addition to a designated faculty member, the task force recommends that each department select a graduate student to provide peer support for mentoring issues. This graduate student role could be incorporated into a department’s Graduate Student Departmental Committee, depending on how that committee functions within a department. Like the faculty role, we envision that the graduate students who serve in the peer support role would be appointed for a set term, in this case one year, and that they receive appropriate training, either from the department, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, or both. This student would be available to help fellow graduate students navigate mentoring issues or concerns and could help offer concrete guidance from a peer perspective. Having a peer to turn to could also help alleviate some of the anxiety graduate students may have around raising issues or concerns with faculty or administrators. A graduate student in their fourth year of study seems ideal for this role, as they will be far enough along to understand the culture and climate of their department and will have experience with mentoring, but will not be in the very final phases of their program and therefore very busy with dissertation wrap-up or job-searching. We recommend exploring more whether the McGraw Center could coordinate them as a group of mentoring fellows, and whether modest compensation would be appropriate, depending on how the role evolves.
For the final category, the task force recommends an option of a longer more in-depth training for faculty who want or need a greater level of support in this area. We could envision this training to be something that could serve as a resource for both faculty to opt-in to and for faculty to be referred to as needed. The training could be offered as a follow-up to new faculty in their second or third year (following up on New Faculty Orientation from the first year, run by McGraw) or even immediately post tenure, but also could serve as a training requirement that the Office of the Dean of the Faculty could require in certain faculty disciplinary cases. While committing to a longer training may be difficult to fit into already busy schedules, the new academic calendar offers Wintersession as a space when this potentially could be offered.
We also think a more in-depth training could be beneficial for graduate students, both in their roles as students and as professional development to prepare for their future careers. As with the other recommendations, there are already existing trainings being offered independently by various offices throughout campus, such as the Graduate School, the McGraw Center, and the Dean for Research. These various trainings could be compiled into a curriculum that could be pursued throughout the graduate career.
The task force considered a number of issues related to the assessment of mentors in the graduate student faculty relationship. In many ways this was the most difficult area of work for the task force members because the mentoring experience can be so different across divisions and departments. This difficulty is compounded by the psychological and power-based barriers to mentees giving the kind of honest and constructive feedback that is crucial for faculty assessment.
Given these challenges, the task force is making three recommendations: adding an annual self-assessment of mentoring to the faculty salary review process, providing an anonymous student mentoring question on re-enrollment that could be viewed by the DOF or its representatives, and having the Graduate School publicly recognize departmental community building activities directly related to mentoring and provide a small fund for graduate student-initiated activities. The first two recommendations would involve the Office of the Office of the Dean of Faculty, the third would involve the student life and academic affairs teams at the Graduate School.
1. Annual Self-Assessment
There is evidence that even in environments where mentoring assessment is difficult, self-reflection can improve outcomes (Anderson et al. 2012). The task force recommends that all faculty be asked to include a self-assessment of their graduate student mentoring and advising in their annual review materials collected by department chairs each year. The evaluation will be provided to the chair for annual salary review of faculty and passed on to the C3 for their consideration in the salary review process.
Faculty self-evaluations for many but not all departments currently include assessments of research, teaching, and service. Undergraduate and graduate advising are included in the evaluation of teaching, but graduate mentoring is not. For departments that do not currently include teaching and advising in their self-assessments, we recommend that those elements be added into the annual review process. Faculty could be encouraged to include a discussion of their contributions to the mentoring of graduate students, which would communicate to faculty the importance placed on these responsibilities and the role they play in the determination of annual salary increases. Faculty self-evaluations are submitted to the department chair, who forwards them, along with their own evaluation of each faculty member’s contributions, to the C3 as part of the annual salary review process If chairs raise significant concerns about individual faculty’s graduate advising and mentoring, these concerns should be shared with the Dean of the Graduate School and the Dean of the Faculty.
2. Graduate Student Feedback through Reenrollment
The task force also recommends providing means for graduate students to give feedback about their mentoring experience that is shielded from the view of their advisors and stove piped to the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School. A simple evaluation tool could be built into the web-based interface used for the annual re-enrollment process, whereby students who have assigned dissertation advisers are given a brief questionnaire that is not seen by the advisor or DGS. The task force recommends that this questionnaire be offered to students only after the re-enrollment decision has been determined (at the point students are accepting their re-enrollment) in order to assure them that their responses will in no way have an effect on the re-enrollment decision. The data would then be shared by the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School with departments aggregated, to protect students’ identities. This would allow the chair to consider activities and programming that will be useful and tailor to specific department’s needs. If issues about personal conduct toward students or failure to fulfill minimum responsibilities are raised, the Dean of the Faculty should be alerted.
The task force considered alternative plans for student feedback, including having an annual survey in May, but issues with participation given the historical response rate on ad hoc surveys would limit the use of that option. We also recognize that students may worry that their re-enrollment comments may not be anonymous, which would also limit the nature of student responses. In the circumstance of choosing between multiple imperfect options, the survey within the reenrollment framework seems best. Furthermore, the value of the re-enrollment-based survey will improve overtime once students become accustomed to how the process works, while maintaining 100% coverage for all enrolled, continuing graduate students.
3. Promoting, Supporting, and Recognizing Department Mentoring Efforts
The task force’s third recommendation is that the Graduate School promote, support, and recognize department-level efforts to improve mentoring. By promotion we mean action on the part of the Graduate School and the Office of the Dean of Faculty notifying chairs that mentoring activities are high priority for administration and that they encourage departments to use some of their resources for relationship building activities with graduate students outside the classroom.
Support would come in the form of provided assistance from the Graduate School’s student life and academic affairs teams in planning activities or making recommendations about best practices used in other departments across campus.
Support would also include a small fund for graduate student lead initiatives aimed at building social capital between students and faculty.
Recognition would come from the Graduate School, where individual events would be praised and promoted on the Graduate School’s web site. Additionally, the Graduate School could create an annual award for a department that has performed exceptionally well overall in the previous year when it comes to community building and mentoring in their graduate program. This award would build on and be similar to the annual awards already given to one faculty member in each division who is recognized for outstanding graduate student mentoring.
In summary, the task force believes that the implementation of these recommendations would be very beneficial to the academic experience for graduate students and could help solidify Princeton’s standing as a leader in graduate education. As noted earlier, we acknowledged at the outset that the work of this task force was greater than what could be accomplished in one year and that our group could not address all ways that mentoring might be improved. Our task force recommends that a framework be instituted that allows other faculty, graduate students, and administrators to take up this topic in subsequent years and to continue to work on this important topic. As our work developed we noted important topics that would benefit from further discussion in this framework, including but not limited to: equity amongst faculty in taking on mentorship responsibilities; mentoring for students of color and from underrepresented groups; conducting assessments on the effectiveness of mentoring; providing effective remote mentoring; and exploring the roles of post-docs and others in mentoring relationships.
Anderson, Lauren, Karin Silet, and Michael Fleming. “Evaluating and Giving Feedback to Mentors: New Evidence-Based Approaches.” Clinical and Translational Science 5, no. 1 (2012): 71–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-8062.2011.00361.x.