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The process of achieving a Ph.D. in graduate school is unlike any other form of “school” that you’ve previously experienced.  For a start, you might have noticed that you are being paid to go to school.  This is a big clue about the different expectations for graduate students in this area of academia compared to college or other graduate programs that students pay to attend.  The fact that this is a paid position, indicates that it is a job, not simply “going to school”.  The job consists of a form of apprenticeship in which specific tasks are being performed (e.g., teaching as a teaching assistant, or performing a research assistant position) and new skills are being acquired (independent and collaborative research, production of papers and grants, coursework, lab meetings, conferences).  The culmination of graduate school is usually a dissertation consisting of independently performed research and a suite of additional skills and achievements that enhance the student’s potential future success on the job market. 

Thus, the expectations for graduate students in this lab are fundamentally different than in other “schools”.  Graduate students have a specific number of vacation days, sick days, and personal days.  See this document for Duke graduate school’s financial policies for graduate students: https://gradschool.duke.edu/financial-support/financial-policies-forms-and-resources

Graduate students are expected to be present in the lab during the work week, working typically 40 hours/week. The work performed in the lab is subject to regular evaluations and oversight.  Students who do not meet these job expectations are likely to be asked to leave the program. 

One of the challenges for graduate students is understanding the variable nature of their appointments.  Some graduate students perform teaching assistantships, others do RA’s, others have their own fellowships.  Each of these positions has different details in terms of expectations, vacation benefits, etc.  It is the responsibility of the graduate student to follow the terms of these paid positions.

The role of the PI in this scenario is complex.  Here is an example mentoring plan.  I encourage students to work with me independently to develop their own mentoring plan.

My two primary goals as a mentor to students in my lab are to:

  • Identify the research area that most interests the student and inspires their best work, then guide the student to do the best quality work in this area, whether in my lab, another lab or in multiple laboratories. Foster intellectual ownership by the student and, ideally, passion about the research program.
  • Maintain an ongoing conversation about career goals and how their current activities, productivity, successes and research area match these longer term goals.

My commitments to graduate students are:

  • Meet one-on-one at a frequency that is most productive for research and intellectual development.  This may vary over time.  Right now, the meetings occur approximately once per week for 30 minutes.
  • Involve the student in all aspects of the laboratory activities to the level desired and is conducive to research productivity and career development.  This includes attendance at lab meetings, interacting with other students, helping and receiving help from lab members, and attendance at social events.  As staffing support evolves, there may be additional needs for lab maintenance and care (e.g., machine maintenance, lab cleanup and animal care in emergencies).
  • Support the research intellectually and through my staffing at the highest level possible and fund the research at a level that is mutually agreed upon given independent and lab funding. 
  • Provide intensive feedback on grants, papers and conference presentations.  This is a core part of training for all students in my laboratory.
  • Promote networking with appropriate individuals at Duke and beyond.  This may include biologists, engineers and beyond (including corporate, educational or other career networking opportunities).
  • Advocate for the student’s success and demystify grad school/academia to the best of my abilities.
  • Celebrate the student’s achievements along with the other successes in the lab.
  • Encourage the student to follow creative and novel insights while also providing strategic advice for getting the research done efficiently, at a high quality, and in a way that is publishable/appreciated by the broader scientific community.


Given the intensive nature of this graduate student mentoring, it is expected that I will be an author on graduate student research projects.  This is always open to discussion, but that is the general rule of thumb.  This expectation arises from the fact that the biggest stumbling block for most graduate students who want to go forward in science is publishing.  Furthermore, publishing the work is often the most difficult and time-consuming part of the scientific process.  My involvement in the writing, review process and final publication of graduate student work nearly always reaches the level of authorship.

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