CID Summer 2005 Convening: Supporting Intellectual Community

Topic 2: Promoting Effective Advising and Mentoring

Neuroscience Training Program

University of Wisconsin-Madison

This Snapshot describes how the doctoral program in the Neuroscience helps promote effective advising and mentoring by departmental faculty. The faculty-student relationship is a critical element of doctoral programs, and is a building block of intellectual community.


Incoming students, who do not have an official advisor, are monitored by the 1st year student advisory committee with biannual meetings. This committee offers input into course selection and laboratory rotation choices prior to the selection of an advisor. All incoming students take a professional development course that teaches survival skills for graduate school and beyond. The purpose of the course is not to take the place of mentoring in the laboratory, but to give students a taste of the skills they will need to develop during graduate school and issues they should be thinking about.

New students complete generally 3 rotations with potential thesis advisors. These introduce students to the particular lab environment, intellectually as well as socially, and the style of mentoring by the potential advisor. There are formal written evaluations of the rotations by the student and faculty member.

Following rotations, students choose their advisor and form an advisory committee at the end of the first year. Thesis committees consist of professors from three different areas of neuroscience (cellular, systems, etc.), to ensure a broad range of perspectives. Our training program monitors the composition of advisory committees carefully for scientific breadth and depth, but also for experience at advising. In fact, the composition of all advisory committees must be approved by the Student Advisory Committee. Students are required to meet twice a year with their Advisory Committee until the completion of their preliminary examination and then once a year thereafter. In addition, the Program chair meets with all advisors of 2nd year students collectively in the fall of the student's second year to go through departmental guidelines on advising and expectations. Collegiality amongst faculty enables them to work well together on graduate committees. The committee consists of the same members throughout the graduate experience. Disagreements not resolved within the Advisory Committee can be taken to the Student Advisory Committee for resolution and finally to the Program's Steering Committee.

Recently, we have implemented yearly progress report meetings with program chair for some students. Students meet with the chair in the spring semester of their first year as well as the summer following their second and fourth years. Senior grad students have the opportunity to take a new senior professional development course geared towards securing a post-doc, interviewing, job talks, and curriculum vitae development.

The system in place is traditional with modifications to address some of the weaknesses of the traditional model and usually works well to provide:

-- intense mentoring from primary research advisor (useful to student for guidance on topic for thesis research)

-- broad perspective from committee on research direction / duration (useful scientifically and committee can act as advocate for student).


Our program is by definition a training program. This means that each faculty member is part of a respective department (where they seek tenure, promotion, and grants as well as teach and publish). The sole goal of the training program is to ensure the well-being of the student. This is accomplished by layering the mentoring responsibility with oversight from first the advisor, then the committee, followed by the program.

Tools and Resources

Formal reminders to faculty that they are on a graduate committee, with the names of the other members, the status of the student (pre- or post-prelim, whether their coursework and teaching is completed, etc.) are incredibly helpful, and a good memory jog.

Research rotations are fully supported by program and allow the interests and compatibilities to be assessed before strong commitment given by student or advisor. This optimizes chance of successful partnership.

The Advisory Committee composition consists of 5 members spanning the main disciplines within Neuroscience. The Committee offers a formal setting in which to outline what is expected of the student.

The Student Advisory Committee is important in the first year for keeping students on track with course requirements, and offers some guidance with picking a lab and designating thesis committee members once the lab has been chosen.

Committee meetings are conducted at regular intervals, and reports are completed by advisor and student together. This process contributes to common understanding of progress and expectations. A written report of the meeting is submitted to program office and reviewed by the Chair or Steering Committee as necessary. It provides a record of progress that can be used to identify problems.

Certification forms are filled out and signed by all members of the Advisory Committee certifying completion of milestones towards completion of the degree as well as coursework.

Professional Development courses are in place to bridge any gap in a student's knowledge of survival skills for his/her life as a scientist. The courses provide this knowledge to allow either party (advisor or advisee) to be able to bring these things up for discussion. While the course for first-year students in well established, the course for senior students will be offered for the first time in fall 2005.

There is no formal contract detailing what is expected of the student, and what the student expects from the advisor. This is mostly implicit and/or established on the discretion of the student and his/her advisor.

Advising Milestones
Forms for specific mentoring/advising events and milestones

Professional Development Courses
Syllabi of courses that provide students with informal mentoring.

Goals for Advising

The graduate mentor is perhaps the most influential source in shaping a student's professional identity, and a solid mentor-advisee relationship is thus critical to the future vitality of the field. Advising provides the student with an organized and secure environment wherein they can perform to their full potential and do not wander aimelessly through their graduat career.

Effective advising is best described as being the "champion" of your student and taking responsibility for them throughout their graduate career and beyond. This includes good listening, clear communication, creating an individualized plan for graduate training, being involved in future project planning, making sure the student receives their degree in a reasonable amount of time and expressing interest in their future career goals.

Roles and Responsibilites of Advisors

MAJOR PROFESSOR: guides development of research project daily; supports scientific challenge; provides information about various career options; helps student to network with people in the area the student wants to pursue; is a compassionate parental figure who is open to and encourages independence, but also intervenes (gently and firmly) when the student is straying off course; is a role model for future advising; ensures that the student has fulfilled the course requirements and other major milestones of graduate schooling

COMMITTEE: broad context of research direction and prioritization; guides development of research project; is a compassionate parental figure who is open to and encourages independence but also intervenes (gently and firmly) when the student is straying off course; role models for future advising; plays a good cop, bad cop; supports scientific challenge; ensures that the student has fulfilled the course requirements and other major milestones of graduate schooling

PROGRAM-LEVEL ADVISING: Shapes the student's critical thinking abilities and transitioning the student to intellectual independence; provides information about various career options and helps the student to network with people in the area the student wants to pursue; role models for future advising; ensures that the student has fulfilled the course requirements and other major milestones of graduate schooling

Program Context

The Program's advising system began more than 25 years ago and has been revised and refined through the years to meet the changes in the students' needs and backgrounds. There is a system of layers that ensures the well-being of the student as its most important goal. The thesis advisors provide close one-on-one mentoring, which is monitored by the thesis committee. The interactions of the thesis committee, student, and advisor are also monitored by the Program's Steering Committee. The current system fits in well with the other elements of the Program because it has been developed as a comprehensive part of the Program.

How Do We Know?

We know from the preliminary results of our survey that the majority of students are satisfied with their mentoring. As a Program, we also know that we have created a system of layers so that students who do not received effective advising from their primary advisor will have other resources and people to contact.

We are able to measure that advising in the Program is effective through measurements like degree completion rate, time to degree, ability of students to switch laboratories, and career progression. All of these measurements indicate that the Program's advising system is effective.

Advisors are not evaluated per se except during rotations (see links to rotation evaluation forms). All advisors meet with the chair of the Program in the fall following the acceptance of a student in their laboratory. The Advisory Committee plays an important role in evaluating the advisor by raising concerns during the required meetings. There has been much discussion in the Program's CID Committee and Steering Committee about advisor evaluations. Discussion has focused on the need and utility of these evaluations as well as who would fill them out and who would have access to them. It is not clear that a formal evaluation process would be helpful to either the students or the faculty members at this time. Much of the information the objective information (i.e., advisor's availability, style, etc.) that could be gleened from such an evaulation is readily apparent to those completing laboratory rotations.

Rotation Evaluation for Students
This is the rotation evaluation form that is used by students to evaluate the faculty sponsors of their rotation.

Rotation Evaluation for Faculty
This is the rotation evaluation form that is used by faculty to evaluate student rotaters.

Unanswered Questions

Issues and ideas that will be discussed in the future by the Program's CID committee include possible implementation of an "Expectations" exercise for rotations in addition to if and how to give students and faculty guidelines on running and improving the effectiveness of the Advisory Committee Meetings.

We welcome all comments and questions.

For More Information Contact:

Rebekah Jakel (

Vaishali Bakshi (

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