Clarify roles and responsibilities

No matter how formal or informal the agreements between students and mentors may be, as the student progresses through a program you might need to revisit the roles and responsibilities each of you has assumed. Some responsibilities that pertain to students and to faculty members are matters of departmental policy and are not negotiable. Nonetheless, you should fully explore your expectations of each other on several dimensions, especially when a mentor is also an advisor or thesis/dissertation chair.

Goals and work plans

Students should develop and share with mentors a work plan that includes short- and long-term goals within reasonable (achievable) timelines.  Make sure these plans are feasible and meet the academic program's requirements.  At least once a quarter, meet to discuss progress, as well as any obstacles encountered. Discuss any additional training and experiences students need to achieve their goals. If adjusting timelines becomes necessary, work together to agree upon new plans.


Discuss how often you'll meet and what other modes of communication, such as emails, can keep your conversations going.  Identify issues you feel require a face-to-face meeting and those that can be dealt with in other ways.  Each of you should identify the circumstances, if any, under which you feel it is appropriate to be contacted at home by phone, instant message, or other means.

Students, be sure you request the amount of meeting time you believe you need to progress on your goals.  While a mentoring relationship is one of mutuality, be prepared to lead meetings with an agenda to maximize your time together.

Some professors prefer students to take responsibility for arranging and leading meetings while others prefer to share the responsibility. Some prefer students to prepare agendas in advance so as to maximize time together. Mentors should communicate their preferences and extend a clear invitation to contact them when they need help.

Mentors, be explicit if you have a heavy travel schedule, are about to take a sabbatical, or will be assuming an administrative position.  If you are unable to meet often enough to satisfy students' needs, discuss alternative means of communication such as e-mail, and suggest other people or resources to consult.


Discuss how often the mentor will give feedback on the student's progress and how long he or she typically needs to return papers or drafts of articles.  Communicate about current workloads so you can plan deadlines appropriately, and offer sufficient lead time.

Mentors should tell students whether to expect lots of feedback or sparse feedback, and explain how they intend that feedback to help the student's intellectual and professional growth.


Agree in advance on the best way for the student to remind the professor about getting work back to them. For instance, students can ask: "When you are very busy, how should I remind you about a paper of mine that you have? Should I email you, call you, or come by your office? How much in advance should I remind you — one week ahead, or would you prefer two?"

Mentors, explain how long it generally takes you to review students' work, and let them know how they can best follow up if you are unable to reply within the specified time frame. For instance, you might like an e-mail or phone reminder a few days before the agreed-upon date. Each time students submit work to you, let them know when they can expect you to return it. Take these opportunities to remind students of your feedback style and your expectations.


Discuss expectations for drafts of work to be submitted for feedback. Some professors prefer not to receive very rough drafts and might suggest that they first be shared with a trusted peer or writing group and revised before being handed in.  Students should help mentors be more expedient by highlighting revised sections with each document version.

Publishing and presenting

Mentors, communicate your philosophy and expectations about co-authorship, as well as your willingness to help prepare work for submission to journals and conferences.

Students, explain the kinds of publishing or presentation opportunities you seek. Your mentor's position as a senior or junior faculty member might influence his or her perspective.  You may be able to work out a plan that alternates credit for first and second authorship (or first and second presenters) depending on the nature of the joint project and the roles you might play over time.

Intellectual property

If you are working closely on a research project, clarify who owns the data being collected and whether others will be able to have access. Consideration for the ownership and sharing of research is important in all disciplines. Discuss the ownership of any copyright and patent agreements that might result from a project. For further information, contact the UNL Office of Research.

Research and human subjects

All research involving human subjects performed or supervised by UNL faculty, staff, or students must be reviewed by the UNL Research Compliance Office. It is your obligation as a researcher to seek Human Subjects review and approval prior to the beginning of research activities. Research with human subjects cannot be retroactively reviewed and approved. Moreover, performing a human subjects study without prior review and approval is considered "serious non-compliance" according to federal regulations, and must be brought to a full Institutional Review Board for inquiry and action. More information is available from the Office of Research Responsibility.


Students and mentors who develop close relationships sometimes discuss confidential issues. Be explicit about the confidentiality you would like accorded to you regarding sensitive issues you might speak about, and offer strict confidentiality in return. An exception to confidentiality is the obligation of all UNL employees, including graduate assistants, to report instances of sexual harassment to organizational superiors.

Recommendation letters

Students, before you approach the job search phase of your graduate experience, think about the letters of recommendation you might need and identify people in the best position to speak to your abilities and achievements. Ask your mentors how much advance notice they like to receive for writing a recommendation letter, and how you can remind them. Be sure to provide key details about the fellowship, grant, program, or job the letter of recommendation supports, and identify any areas of expertise that you would like your letter writer to emphasize. Attach an updated copy of your curriculum vitae, highlighting key sections. Ask one or more mentors to visit the classes you teach or labs you run so they can reflect knowledgeably on your professional abilities.

Mentors, let students know how much time you need to write letters on their behalf and what supporting information would be useful to you. In your letters, try to address multiple facets of students' work. Some faculty visit classes or labs taught by their graduate students so they can address teaching abilities in their recommendation letters.