PhD Advising

Overview and definitions

Ph.D. students in the Department of Mathematics receive academic advice and guidance from faculty members, postdocs and fellow students. However, official advising is done primarily by the following individuals:

  • The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS)
  • The Assistant to the DGS (DGSA)
  • The Faculty Mentor
  • One or more Thesis Advisors
  • Preliminary Examination and Thesis Defense committee members.

The DGS and DSGA are the liaisons between the graduate students, the department and the graduate school.  The Faculty Mentor provides advice and support during the student’s first one or two years, before a Thesis Advisor has been identified. A Thesis Advisor serves as the primary advisor, mentor and supervisor of the student’s dissertation research, and typically is the chair of the student’s Preliminary Examination Committee and Thesis Defense Committees. Other members of the Preliminary Examination and Thesis Defense committees are faculty who are familiar with the student’s research and academic progress.

Obtaining an advisor

  • The DGS appoints a Faculty Mentor to each student the summer before the start of their first year. The Faculty Mentor provides general advice about the program and acts as a liaison between the student, the department and DGS in the time before the student obtains a Thesis Advisor.
  • During the first and second years, students should engage (via course work,  reading courses,  et cetera) with a range of faculty members to identify one or more potential Thesis Advisors. Students should be aware that no faculty member is required to take on any particular graduate student, and that faculty members differ in their research interests and mentoring styles.
  • Students who wish to work with more than one Thesis Advisor should ensure that each potential Thesis Advisor is agreeable to being a co-Thesis Advisor, and that an agreement has been reached regarding research efforts on various projects.


Student responsibilities

  1. Knowledge of the Mathematics Ph.D. Program Requirements.
  2. Knowledge of the Duke Graduate Student Handbook.
  3. Regular contact with the Faculty Mentor
  4. Selection of a Thesis Advisor, as described above.
  5. Regular contact with the Thesis Advisor according to a mutually agreed upon schedule (typically weekly or biweekly), including providing the Thesis Advisor with regular progress reports and notice of any emerging difficulties.
  6. Obtain written/electronic confirmation from the DGS of any agreement or arrangement that deviates from the ordinary departmental rules.
  7. Regular check-in with DGSA (usually once/twice a semester).

DGS responsibilities

  1. Assigns Faculty Mentors to incoming students.
  2. Communicates and clarifies degree requirements to the students.
  3. Acts as a liaison between the graduate students, the faculty and the Graduate School.

DGSA responsibilities

  1. Acts as a liaison between the graduate students, the Graduate School and Visa Services.
  2. Knowledge of program requirements, timeline and deadlines, and administrative procedures.
  3. Assists students with administrative requirements/documentation.

Faculty Mentor responsibilities

  1. Advise the student on course selection, the student's plan to complete the Qualifying Requirement, and summer plans.
  2. Acts as a liaison between the student, the DGS and the department.

Thesis Advisor responsibilities

  1. Knowledge of the Mathematics Ph.D. Program Requirements.
  2. Knowledge of basic graduate school policies regarding academic milestones.
  3. Provides regular and predictable communication and contact with the student, typically including weekly or biweekly meetings.
  4. Provides prompt feedback on draft research articles and presentations.
  5. Writes letters of recommendation for post-graduation positions.
  6. Acts as a liaison between the student, the DGS and the department.

Departmental Guidelines for Effective Advising

The advisor-advisee partnership is central to the Ph.D. experience.  Both the advisor and advisee should expect a partnership based on mutual respect and acceptance of the responsibilities outlined above.

Characteristics of effective advisors and advisees

Advising and mentoring is a core responsibility of faculty members.  Principles of good advising and mentoring include the following.

  • Advisor provides constructive and honest feedback on the student’s research, teaching and other aspects of being a Ph.D. student.
  • Advisor makes clear and explicit their expectations of students (eg. course work/background, seminar attendance, how and when work is written-up, et cetera.)
  • Advisor helps the student identify their goals for their Ph.D. experience (research, teaching and otherwise), and supports the student in accomplishing those goals.
  • Advisor helps the student think about next steps after the Ph.D. program and helps the student advance their career aspirations.
  • Meet all responsibilities outlined in the section above.

To be a good advisee/mentee, students should act as follows.

  • Take initiative. For example, come prepared for meetings with your advisor; ask you Advisor about opportunities that might enhance your studies and career.
  • Be willing to be mentored and open to feedback. Listen to the advice of your advisor.
  • Be honest. For example, if you are struggling with your research, let your advisor know so that they can help you get through it.  Or, if you want to take your research in another direction, let the advisor know that too.
  • Meet all responsibilities outlined in the section above.

Additionally, the department recommends that the advisor and advisee should determine early in the advising relationship how they will meet, including frequency, format, and general expectations for meetings and communication.

What to do when the advisor or advisee is not meeting responsibilities or the advising relationship is not functioning effectively

It does happen that advisor and advisee relationships do not function as expected.  This could be for many reasons.  In such cases, the department policy is as follows.

  1. Both advisors and students should know that it is acceptable for students to raise concerns with the advisor, and for the advisor to raise concerns with the student. Such discussions should be focused on who to address the concerns going forward, so that the advisor-advisee relationship is productive.  It is not acceptable for the advisor or the student to penalize, mistreat, or be less engaged in the partnership because such concerns were raised.
  2. If after such discussions the student or advisor believes the concerns have not been addressed, or if the relationship is not functioning well, either may approach the DGS with their concerns. The DGS will work with the student and advisor to identify solutions.  Alternatively, they may approach the Associate Chair or Department Chair.
  3. It is also acceptable for students to bypass discussions with the advisor and talk directly to the DGS. This may be necessary, for example, in cases of mistreatment, harassment, or gross negligence.  Math Department Conduct Policy.
  4. If problems cannot be resolved after meaningful efforts on all sides, it may be beneficial for the student to change the advisor.

Changing advisors

Sometimes it is beneficial to end an advisor-advisee partnership.  This can be for many reasons.  As examples,

  • The student may become interested in another research topic that is better advised by a different advisor.
  • The student may lose interest in the research that they were working on with that advisor.
  • Either the student or the advisor may not be meeting the department expectations.
  • The student and advisor may have a personal conflict that cannot be resolved.
  • The student may feel uncomfortable with the way they are treated by the advisor.

No student is required to remain in an advising partnership for any reason.  In cases where the student wants to consider changing advisors, they would talk to the DGS who will work with the student to determine a best course of action.  Alternatively, the student may talk with the Associative Chair or Department Chair.