Working with graduate students and guiding them toward successful careers is fundamental to the mission of SAS. In that spirit, the Graduate Division has created this set of guidelines for faculty teaching and mentorship.

Individual graduate groups may choose to tailor or amend these practices to fit the needs of their particular programs. While every graduate group in SAS is organized differently and possesses distinct characteristics, these guidelines are designed as a reference tool to help faculty members, graduate students, and graduate groups

Pedagogy, research skills and mentorship are crucial to graduate training, and SAS is constantly working to advance our approaches to preparing the next generation of scholars and teachers.

1. Organize your course effectively.

Create a clear syllabus and a well-designed Canvas (or other) site. Remember that your Canvas site guides your students through assignments and course structure. Therefore, rather than conceiving the syllabus as a discrete document, construct your Canvas site with greater specificity about each task/reading/assignment. List all readings and necessary resources and include well-defined assignments. Faculty must set precise goals for the course and be clear about expectations.

Give students access to all course materials at the beginning of the semester, to the extent possible, and communicate any changes to course materials or assignments as early as possible. This will help students plan ahead.

Design assignments that allow students to accomplish regular and consistent work over the course of the semester, even if there is a large assignment at the end of the course. Try also to include some lower-stakes assignments along the way.

2. Communicate your expectations clearly and consistently.

Consistent, transparent and regular communication about expectations, assignments, and deadlines will help all of your students. Review the goals for your course and emphasize key requirements. Identify for students the objectives that you are setting for them.

  • Be sure to maintain regular, in-person, virtual, lab, or other meetings. Make it clear when you are available and when and how students should contact you.
  • Decide what you want students to accomplish in terms research and writing. Will there be multiple options? What degree of flexibility will you allow?
  • On what schedule do you expect progress to be made? When working with graduate students, consider asking for regular, short written or oral progress reports and provide feedback. Create a structure that enables you to set goals to be achieved, e.g., pre-meeting summary of key tasks; pre-meeting report on accomplishments, obstacles, questions for discussion. (These can be very brief.)

Be responsive to students’ concerns about the job market, work-life balance, time to degree and other issues that arise. Advisors should always address these with students, but as a graduate teacher, you can also lend important perspectives. Inform students of campus resources for wellness as well as where to find the latest information about Penn’s response to COVID-19.

3. Maintain flexibility

In graduate courses, like undergraduate ones, it remains crucial to respond nimbly when elements of a class may or may not be working well. Keep your core learning objectives, but be flexible and if possible, build in multiple options for how students can meet them. You may choose to let students know what standards/requirements/assignments you view as critical and must be carried out in a particular way, and those areas where options might be available.

Consider having members of a seminar, lab or cohort form sub-groups with 2-3 people to check in on each other regularly. They could read together, formulate questions, craft brief presentations, or do whatever applies most beneficially to your particular course. Checking in with each other should be about research, but can also offer mutual support, which you should encourage.

4. Establish modes of accessibility and set clear boundaries

Students need to know how and when they can contact you. You should provide detailed instructions about modes of communication, while setting clear boundaries so as to maintain your own time structures.

Consider these questions:

  • How do you plan to communicate with students—individually and/or in groups? ( In person? Email? Zoom? Slack? Phone? Facetime? Skype?)
  • How often can students expect to hear from you? Schedule regular check-in times for one-on-one meetings.
  • How often do you want to hear from your students for check-ins and progress updates?
  • Will you have open office hours or a sign-up mechanism? Just inform them of your process and stick to it.

5. Find ways to create a sense of community.

Consider strategies that foster a sense of a sense of collegiality and rapport among students and with you. For example, spend time introducing yourselves in more than a cursory way at the beginning of the semester; plan some early small projects that enable students to get to know one another, and continue those through the semester. There are many other strategies to achieve these goals.

1. Establish regular one-on-one meetings and establish clear arrangements for regular communication

Advisors must keep in regular contact with advisees. The best practice is to schedule ongoing meetings and/or to establish ground rules for students to set up meetings. These meetings can be brief but ongoing contact and checking in with graduate students at all stages is crucial. You will have to weigh the particular circumstances and working habits of each of your advisees, so discuss with each student what will work best for both of you.

One-on-one meeting should be the standard in many fields, though those working with laboratory or other research groups, may find that team meetings are more effective. In all fields, small group meetings can be combined with other means of connecting with individual graduate students.

Faculty can and should model engaged mentorship for their graduate students.

2. Listen to student concerns.

Students are anxious about completing their work, about finances, about family issues, about the job market, and about a wide range of other issues. You are an advisor—not a therapist—but you should express concern about their overall well-being. If you feel it is warranted, please send students to the appropriate office for help. See: Wellness at Penn.

3. For research concerns, establish both long-and short-term plans.

Advisors must encourage students to move forward in ways specific and tailored to their individual needs and situations. You need to help them devise a feasible plan with reasonable expectations along the course of their graduate careers.

4. Ask for regular updates and progress reports.

These could be written or oral, and should not create more stress. Rather, set reasonable goals between scheduled meetings and check-in on the progress that students have made. This should be done in a way that helps and encourages students to stay on track.

5. Create working groups among students, whether among your advisees or more broadly.

As stated above, working groups for exam preparation, reading, writing, etc. are extremely useful at every stage of a graduate career, and faculty should encourage them. At the same time, these groups can and should also work as peer-to-peer networks of mutual support.

Consider seminars and events that address job market concerns and provide guidance about alternative career paths. Be supportive of career diversity and understand that students may want to consider nonacademic career paths. Create an environment that allows for those possibilities as both legitimate and attainable in the path to the Ph.D.

Faculty may also wish to consult the University’s Guidelines for Advising & Mentoring PhD Students.

1. General Principles for Faculty Working with Teaching Assistants.

  • Reach out to your TA/s at the earliest possible date. As soon as you know who your teaching assistant/s will be, make contact immediately. Even if you have not fully planned the syllabus and assignments for the course, begin discussions with your TA about your thoughts and expectations. Collaboration is a fundamental key to creating a successful course and fostering a strong faculty-TA working relationship.
  •  Check-in with your TA/s. Spend some time getting to know your TAs as students and researchers. Find out about their career goals and research interests, and make the effort to integrate those within their experiences in your course.
  • Understand your pedagogical and mentoring responsibilities. While faculty rely upon teaching assistants to provide instruction, grading, and delivery of course material, they must also remember that they are mentors to graduate students. Faculty are expected both to model best pedagogical practices and to train graduate students to become effective teachers.
  • Communicate regularly with TA/s. Set up regular meeting times, at least on a weekly basis, and be ready to discuss issues as they arise. In scheduling meetings, be considerate of family and other obligations, as you would ask your TAs to do for you. The more that faculty can work together with TAs to create mechanisms for consistent communication, the better the experience will be for faculty, teaching assistants, and students.
  •  Establish clear policies for grading, discussions, student meeting and office hours. Identify duties such as posting materials; make a detailed plan for who is responsible for e-mail and Canvas communications. Be certain to have a clear understanding of distribution of responsibilities for you and your TA. If you have multiple TAs, make sure that responsibilities are equitably distributed among them. Be cognizant of the time that graduate students are able to spend on teaching duties and their need to balance teaching with coursework and other responsibilities.

2. Faculty Guidelines for Clear Communication with Teaching Assistants.

The guidelines below have been incorporated in two sets of inventories—one for faculty responsibilities and one for TA responsibilities. Use of these interactive forms is strongly recommended to facilitate clear communication and meet basic standards for instruction and mentorship.

  • Discuss any considerations that will affect your availability and the availability of your TA/s.
  • Outline broad learning objectives and course goals.
  • Discuss modes of instruction: lectures, recitations, labs, group work. Indicate expectations in each of these arenas.
  • Discuss required / recommended books, articles, and other resources. Be clear about what responsibilities TAs have to update Canvas materials, assignments, or other duties.
  • Detail the nature and modes of assessment (e.g. expectations for exams, papers, final project, individual or group projects, participation). Provide clear information about TA responsibilities concerning creating / grading exams and assignments. Faculty should take primary responsibility for crafting assignments.
  • Be explicit about grading policies as well as policies on late work or extensions. Provide clear instruction to TAs about assessment and offer models for grading, preferably by sharing some of those duties.
  • Create equitable work distribution with your TA.
  • If you are working with more than one TA, make sure that their responsibilities are equitable and equal.
  • Provide specific expectations for how often TAs should be communicating with the students and the instructor through e-mail, discussion boards, and online or in-person meetings. Detail online platforms to be used. Set clear boundaries for availability of both instructor and TA.
  • Plan TA office hours and modes of meeting with students, (e.g., group and individual meetings, online and in person meetings).
  • Specify standards for lecture or section attendance and participation by TAs.
  • Review syllabus with TAs and discuss any topics not covered above.
  • Schedule regular meeting times with TAs throughout the semester; weekly meetings recommended to discuss course progress, TA concerns, student feedback, and problems or issues.

Downloadable worksheets for faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants:



Use of these interactive worksheets is strongly recommended to facilitate clear communication and meet basic standards for instruction and mentorship.

1. Milestones and Exams

  • Graduate groups should set transparent expectations. They should be clear about the timing and expectations of all exam and research requirements. Consider offering specific details about best ways to prepare rather than simply listing requirements.

    Please make sure that policies are consistent with University guidelines on these issues:
  • Advisors and committees must set clear expectations and make themselves available. Faculty members must work with graduate students to determine the content of exam materials. In some graduate groups, there are uniform exams, but other groups have more individualized reading lists or requirements. These must be clearly outlined.

    Faculty members administering exams should meet regularly with graduate students to check in on their progress. Advisors, in particular, ought to establish scheduled times to discuss materials, answer questions, and review expectations. Talk with students about whether they might want to establish timetables, create intermediate deadlines, or prepare questions about or summaries of materials. Most of all, be available to listen to students’ concerns and to help them succeed.
  • Fellow graduate students should be encouraged to help one another. Faculty should strongly urge students to cooperate and collaborate as they study for exams. They might create reading and study groups, discuss theory and practice, establish regular accountability groups, and offer mutual support.

2. Dissertation preparation and defense.

Writing a dissertation is the most challenging and rewarding part of graduation education. Dissertation research generally determines the course of an early scholarly career. Faculty owe it to graduate students to help them navigate completion of the dissertation as effectively as possible.

  • Advisors should schedule regular meetings with students completing dissertations. Collaborate with graduate students to create a schedule for chapter drafts with clear timelines and deadlines along the way. Be responsive in offering written comments but also in scheduling consistent appointments to check-in and monitor progress. It is useful to create a schedule by working backwards from the proposed defense date and crafting a chapter by chapter deadline accordingly.

    Be explicit about your expectations for chapter drafts and about how much time you need to respond. At the same time, try to accommodate the unexpected ups and downs likely to occur in the course of research.

  • Encourage collaboration with other students. Dissertation writing groups and writing accountability check-in groups are enormously helpful. Bring students together in the same or different fields, within or across graduate groups. They can help one another tremendously.

  • Dissertation Defenses:
    The committee chair should take primary responsibility for organizing the defense. This includes making sure that the candidate and committee members have a clear understanding of the format.
  • Public Components:
    Graduate groups should follow regular practices for allowing individuals beyond the committee members and the Penn community to attend defenses. Announcement for in-person defenses should be made, preferably by the graduate coordinator or chair. For online defenses, this could be facilitated through public distribution of the zoom link once the defense has been formally scheduled. Some graduate groups prefer that the graduate coordinator gather RSVPs and distribute the link only to those who reply. The key is to establish and follow a set practice for conducting remote defenses.

    Following the public part of the defense, the meeting should be restricted to the committee only After the committee has concluded its deliberations, there must be ample time for committee members to discuss the outcome of the defense with the candidate.

    After the committee has met privately with the candidate, please invite all participants back to the conversation. A dissertation defense represents a key milestone in a graduate student’s career. Try to create some sort of ritual or celebration to mark the occasion.

One of the genuine pleasures of academic life is the sense of intellectual community. For faculty and graduate students, these communities take shape in classrooms, in colloquia and seminars, in faculty and graduate lounges, in the hallways, at social events, and in recent times, on Zoom.

COVID-19 taught us that graduate groups, faculty, and students must be intentional in putting in place activities, strategies, and structures that consciously create interaction and exchange of ideas. We should translate those lessons as we move forward.

1. Seminars and colloquia

Departments and Graduate Groups are strongly encouraged to continue and perhaps diversify their schedule of events. These might include:

  • Presentations of research by Penn and non-Penn faculty and students.
  • Seminars that connect students and faculty in multiple institutions.
  • Workshops on pedagogy (especially useful to teach new skills and emphasize best practices).
  • Roundtables that connect scholarship to contemporary issues, particularly subjects are vital to our community and that our students (and faculty) want and need to address.

2. Workshops targeted specifically for graduate students

Graduate students need a range of regular support from faculty. Particularly useful might be discussions that focus on:

  • Research strategies
  • Aspects of professionalization tailored to individual fields
  • Coping with an uncertain job market
  • Career diversity and opportunities outside the academy.

3. Graduate-sponsored/ Graduate-only events

Students should be strongly encouraged to create their own reading, writing and research groups, and to run their own seminars and colloquia. These could be peer-to-peer activities. They could also involve faculty participating by invitation. Such activities can provide a source of community and cohort among graduate students that is so crucial to scholarly development. They also offer ways for students to have structure and to mitigate social isolation. Possible ideas include:

  • Reading groups, journal clubs, exam preparation subgroups
  • Research methods and theory discussions
  • Writing groups—from research papers to dissertation preparation
  • Accountability groups or Canvas discussion boards

4. Social interactions

For most graduate students, informal contact with faculty and fellow students is one of the most valuable parts of academic life. Schedule departmental and/or graduate student-only happy hours or meals on a regular basis when possible. Consider doing this for both large and small groups, breaking out occasionally by areas or interest, or perhaps intentionally bringing graduate students and faculty into contact with those in different subfields.

Think creatively and learn from your graduate students what works best for them.

Additional Resources for Faculty:

Thank you for your dedication to serving our talented graduate student community. For further questions, please consult