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English Department Statement on Graduate Mentoring: Ratified 18 February 2020

This document is intended as an articulation of best practices for facilitating the graduate mentoring relationship. In it, we recognize two main principles:

  1. Humanities careers are deeply dependent on the advice, mentoring, and opinions of others. Because of this, students and other early career researchers are in a vulnerable situation. Even the most nurturing mentor relationship necessarily involves a substantial imbalance of power.
  2. Both mentor and student enter their relationship with rights and responsibilities, and it is in the best interest of all parties that they remain cognizant of both at all times. This document is intended to assist mentors and students in maintaining an ethical and positive relationship by making clear and explicit the norms that should govern such relationships.

Further, we endorse and affirm our commitment to the principles laid out in the Graduate Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and the Graduate School’s statement on Work Loads and Graduate Staff Appointments.

We recognize that, particularly in our age of precarity, it is not enough for graduate mentors to “do no harm”—i.e., to hold good intentions and refrain from obviously harmful actions. Ethical mentoring must include ongoing self-education as to the state of the field and its evolving norms. Mentors need to concern themselves with more than the thesis project and the defense stage. Mentors must talk with their students about next steps for the thesis project post-defense, and about students’ plans and aspirations post-graduation. Mentors must be tactful, but above all firm and proactive, when a student isn’t living up to their end of the mentoring relationship.

On-going communication between parties is essential, and is the responsibility of both student and mentor to maintain.


Committee, Thesis, & Defense issues

Independent study (590) and similar courses

Letters of recommendation

Labor issues

Personal relationships

If there is a problem



Committee, Thesis, and Defense Issues

The most common area of questions and uncertainty in the mentoring relationship involves the thesis committee, and its responsibilities during the thesis writing & defense process. To help clarify, we affirm that:

  • As per Graduate School and departmental policy, major professors must meet with any student who will register for research hours no later than the first two weeks of the semester. At this meeting, the student and professor will agree upon a plan for the rest of the term that includes a specific articulation of what work is to be done by the student, and how often the student and professor will meet. The results of this meeting must be recorded in writing.
  • Students and faculty should know when to expect communication and who is responsible for its initiation during the thesis process. Students and faculty should know when to expect distribution of drafts, and when feedback is expected. The role of committee members and the division of labor within the committee, as well as protocols for communication, should be clearly established for all parties no later than the prospectus defense for doctoral theses. For MA and MFA theses, these elements must be established within the first two weeks of the student’s final semester.
  • The doctoral prospectus should include a detailed timetable for completion of the thesis.
  • In general, no more than four weeks should elapse between draft and feedback. In cases where more time is necessary, the faculty member should still communicate with the student to give what feedback is possible and to make sure the student is acting on other aspects of drafting and revision.
  • Major professors should expect to meet with the student regularly throughout the thesis process. Ahead of the defense, such meetings should discuss preparation, format, and some of the questions that may come up. The mentor should help the student develop a full vocabulary on what their intervention or creative innovation is; this cannot happen in the final week before defense.
  • Students are never expected to cater defenses. In fact, as many faculty and students prefer to avoid the distraction of eating and drinking during the intellectually demanding space of the defense, we strongly suggest all parties hold off on festive consumption until after the defense.
  • The major professor must be physically present for the defense. Committee members must likewise make every effort to be physically present for the defense. We recognize that travel schedules may present a challenge, particularly during sabbaticals and summers; in such cases clear, early communication is required of both mentors and their students to agree upon a solution and schedule that will work for all parties. Should emergency circumstances arise to make physical presence impossible, the faculty member will consult with the DGS and Department Head to explore solutions.


Independent study (590) and similar courses

Any course of study that will be recorded on the transcript requires an agreement in writing about outcomes or “deliverables”—what, exactly, is to be accomplished in the course—and an understanding between professor and student regarding their mutual responsibilities.

Students are always welcome to propose such courses. They should understand that such courses are taken on by professors as unremunerated service. Professors who agree to the responsibility of these courses should make their expectations for meetings, readings, deliverables, etc. clear from the outset.


Letters of Recommendation

In agreeing to join a thesis committee, a faculty member takes on the role of potential recommender / referee for the student. Letters of recommendation are demanding and require significant labor. They are also, however, an integral part of the work of graduate faculty, and not one that may be ethically avoided except in very unusual circumstances.

  • Letters of recommendation must be confidential, both so that they may be honest, and so that they will be regarded as forthright by search, fellowship, or award committees, which will almost never weigh seriously a recommendation that is not marked confidential.
  • Students who need letters of recommendation must give adequate notice—ideally, at least four weeks, and more time if at all possible.
  • Faculty must be open about their willingness and ability to write the strongest recommendation possible, and should communicate clearly what their needs might be in terms of supporting materials.


Labor Issues

  • Hiring student for non-academic work should be done with extreme care. Students may welcome the extra income, particularly if their relationship to the faculty employer is fairly distant and such labor is unlikely to have an impact on their mentoring relationships. Yet asking students to do non-academic labor, even if fairly and promptly remunerated, is ethically tricky. The student may not feel they are able to decline services, or to negotiate employment terms. Any perceived shortcomings in non-academic labor may create tension in the academic relationship and/or community.
  • Asking students to guest lecture or substitute teach in the absence of the professor is fraught for similar reasons. The student may benefit from, and may well enjoy, the opportunity to lead a class session, but the power imbalance between professor and student remains, and the student’s true state of mind may be difficult to know. In such cases, the professor should always apprise the DGS office and Dept. Head prior to the class meeting, and should record both the reason for absence and the student’s name and relationship to the teacher. This caution does not apply to cases in which a graduate student is teaching for reasons of professionalization or observation in the presence of a supervising professor.


Personal Relationships

In general, ethical and productive mentoring relationships include strong interpersonal boundaries, and respect for both the student and faculty member’s space and time.

Purdue University prohibits Amorous Relationships between a student and any University employee who has educational responsibility over the student, and supervisors and subordinates where there is a supervisory or evaluative relationship between the parties.

Given the inherent power imbalance between faculty and students, as well as the potential damage to the departmental community caused by such relationships when they become known, and particularly when they end, faculty and graduate students should avoid all amorous contact.

  • Should such contact nonetheless occur even once, the department head should be informed immediately.
  • The mentoring relationship, if one existed, must end permanently.
  • In such cases, the professor shall not be on the student’s committee, be the student’s classroom or mentoring instructor, nor work in any supervisory capacity over the student.


If There Is a Problem

As suggested by the Graduate School’s statement on “Guiding Principles for Mentoring,” we remind students that if they experience mentoring relationships that are not aligned with the best-practice principles outlined here, they may report these behaviors to their program director, the Director of Graduate Studies, the head of the department—or they may anonymously report contradictory behaviors to the University Hotline at 1-866-818-2620 or via the web at


List of Contacts (updated 6/2022):

Director of Graduate Studies: John Duvall

Director of Writing: Bradley Dilger

Office of Graduate Assistance (OGA): 

Graduate Hotline—1-866-818-2620 or