Mentorship of Ph.D. students in the Department of Economics

(Revised and approved by department faculty in February 2023)

Mentorship in the Department is governed by a combination of formal rules, criteria for promotion and salary evaluations, and informal conventions. The last is extremely important because everybody in the department understands that production of high-quality graduates is a very important signal of the quality of an economics department and the productivity of an individual faculty member. The following summarizes the most important elements of these rules, criteria, and conventions.

  1. New PhD students are assigned a first-year faculty mentor before they arrive to begin their first year. These assignments are made by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), and all faculty members understand that this is an integral part of service to the Department. The DGS assigns to students a faculty member whose field interests overlap with those of the student (as indicated in application statements). Students in our program typically do not do research in their first year, which comprises a set of courses that focus on the fundamental methods of economics. The first-year faculty mentor will thus not necessarily become the student’s main dissertation advisor. Their main role is threefold: to provide a friendly familiar face for the student, many of whom will be arriving in a new-to-them region where they know nobody personally; to be a point of contact, to whom the student can turn when facing any difficult problems; and to keep track of the student's academic progress, alerting the student and the DGS when problems seem to be surfacing. Faculty first-year mentors are asked to contact students around the start of fall classes to arrange an initial meeting, and then to initiate follow up meetings regularly throughout the year. Sometimes the interactions between first-year students and their mentors turn into ongoing relationships that continue throughout the students' times at UMD, even when the students do not choose to do research in the area in which their faculty mentors are experts. Incoming PhD students are also assigned a peer mentor, an upper-level student who has passed the department’s comprehensive exams. The DGS recruits peer mentors by calling for volunteers, and students are generally happy to help. The DGS assigns mentors, matching as much as possible by gender, field interest and country of origin. Peer mentors are asked to contact students around the start of fall classes and then to meet periodically during the year. Peer mentors give incoming students a friendly face who knows the ropes and can tell them about what to expect and how to get the most out of the program. Peer mentors also generate important links among cohorts, which make it easier for the grad students to advocate collectively for their needs through the Economics Graduate Student Association, a group of second and third year students who meet periodically with the Chair and DGS.
  2. Students begin forming informal advising relationships organically with faculty in the second year as they start writing research proposals and papers for their field classes. All students must write a substantial research paper in the summer after their second year, and another substantial paper during the third year. These papers are usually written in the student's major field and are intended to represent a start on the dissertation. Such papers require the close involvement of a faculty member who will provide frequent feedback. Therefore, these paper requirements encourage students to begin to forge advising relationships before the beginning of the third year. These relationships lay the groundwork for dissertation advising—the faculty member(s) with whom students meet most frequently when producing their second- and third- year papers often become their lead advisor(s) during the dissertation stage.
  3. Different fields within the department have different methods for facilitating contact between students and faculty during this paper-writing process. Some fields have formal deadlines for students to submit paper proposals to all faculty in that field. Then the faculty review proposals, and the faculty member whose research interests most closely align with the proposal takes the lead in contacting the student and giving feedback. In other fields, the student is expected to take the first step in meeting with an advisor. In all fields, faculty understand that they are responsible for meeting with and giving feedback to students as they move from course work and paper-writing to dissertation research. Students are encouraged and expected to seek feedback from more than one faculty member during the third-year paper process, as different faculty have different skills and perspectives that can improve the student’s research. Starting in the third year, students are required to present their research at least once a year at a brownbag workshop, which is attended by a broad group of students and faculty. This requirement gives students practice in making professional presentations, and also facilitates getting feedback from a variety of faculty.
  4. Students formally declare a major field when they advance to candidacy, usually at the end of the second year or during the third year. They formally declare their main advisor midway through the third year, when they register for Econ 899 or Econ 898 in the Spring semester. Faculty do give students S/F grades for 898 and 899, but otherwise do not formally signify their advisor status at this point. Students also must earn a satisfactory grade on their third-year paper, awarded by one or more faculty members in the student's field of interest. The DGS checks that students have met these requirements in a timely fashion, and if students have not done so, the DGS contacts the faculty member named as advisor by the student to inquire about the student's progress.
  5. The DGS meets with incoming PhD students and rising third year students as a group to discuss program requirements and expectations, and surveys dissertation writers (third year and up) twice during the school year to track their progress, including asking questions about the faculty member(s) with whom the student is working. The DGS maintains a spreadsheet with information about formal and informal advisors as well as fields and paper/thesis topics. The DGS also helps students plan their course schedule and follows up with students and/or advisors if a student seems to be having difficulty making progress. Students are encouraged to contact the DGS whenever they have questions about the program. In this way, the DGS acts as an academic advisor for all students in the PhD program.
  6. Students formally declare a committee chair and two other dissertation committee members when they defend their dissertation proposal, typically by the end of the fourth year. Most faculty members passing a student at the proposal defense regard such an action as making an informal commitment to advise the student until a degree is obtained, although the depth of commitment will naturally vary between the three faculty members of the committee. Students who fail a proposal defense can continue working with the same advisors but sometimes choose to switch advisors at this point.
  7. Students who are having difficulty progressing with their current advisors are encouraged to consult with the DGS, who will assess the situation. In some cases, the DGS can mediate between the students and the current advisors to help identify a path forward. If needed, the DGS can help the student switch to a new advisor, by suggesting and/or contacting other faculty whose field interests are better aligned with those of the student.
  8. Student funding in our department is generally tied to meeting program benchmarks rather than to their relationship to a particular advisor. Students are recruited by the department as a whole, and are free to choose whatever research field they like as long as they take the required courses for that field, regardless of the field interests stated on their applications. Most entering students are guaranteed five years of GA and/or fellowship funding, provided they pass comps by the end of year two, write satisfactory summer and third-year papers by the end of year three, and defend a dissertation proposal and write an external grant application by the end of year four. If a student switches advisors or fields, that will not affect their funding, as long as they meet these benchmarks. In some cases, students who fail to write a satisfactory third year paper or dissertation proposal will lose funding and will also switch advisors, but in this case both events are caused by the underlying lack of progress; switching advisors by itself does not jeopardize a student’s funding. The DGS is responsible for communicating all changes in funding status to students. The DGS administers these benchmarks in a flexible way. We sometimes grant ad hoc extensions on a case-by-case basis if a student’s progress is delayed by factors beyond their control such as health concerns; students in such a situation are encouraged to contact the DGS as soon as such concerns arise. We encourage and support students facing major family, health or other personal challenges in applying for leaves of absence following the Graduate School’s guidelines, and automatically grant extensions to program benchmarks in this case.
  9. The DGS matches GAs to TA assignments, accounting for students’ field interests, expertise and the demands of the department. RAs are selected by faculty members who have funding. Broad expectations of GAs are spelled out in the graduate handbook, and all first-time TAs are required to meet with the chair and undergraduate studies director in the fall to discuss these expectations. All GAs and their supervisors are required to meet to discuss mutual expectations at the start of the semester, and are encouraged to write up a formal statement of mutual expectations and file it with the graduate studies coordinator.
  10. Faculty often coauthor papers with their RAs and/or advisees, but there is no expectation or requirement that faculty do so. Faculty mentors are expected to assign students co-authorship credit when the student has made substantial high-level contributions to the joint work. In general, the lead essay (job market paper) in students’ dissertations is either solo-authored or jointly authored with peers. The norm in our department is that faculty advisors are not entitled to claim co-authorship credit on their students’ dissertation research simply by virtue of engaging in typical advising work.
  11. We do not have specific guidelines about how often faculty should meet with their students, as different approaches can be successful. Some faculty meet every week with their advisees in a group setting, while others meet less frequently, say after the student has submitted a new draft for review, giving detailed comments on student drafts at those meetings. We expect faculty to be available for meetings with students when requested, to respond to emails promptly, to read paper drafts in a reasonable period, and to warn students ahead of time (to the extent possible) when their responses will be slower than usual because of pressing deadlines or other factors. Students’ three main advisors (generally their dissertation proposal defense committee) are expected to write recommendation letters for the job market by the deadline set by the Placement Director. We also stress that it is students’ responsibility to maintain progress, to update all of their advisors about their progress periodically, and to ask for help when needed.
  12. Students and faculty are expected to treat each other with appropriate professional respect in all settings, including the classroom and in advising relationships, in line with the AEA code of professional conduct as well as University policies and procedures.
  13. The most important method encouraging faculty members to diligently carry out their responsibilities under these policies is the personal, departmental, and professional commitment of faculty members. Faculty members quite simply understand that to be a good academic economist and to work in a good academic department one must foster the careers of the department's students. This understanding is conveyed in the department’s APT and merit pay policies.