The Graduate Group in Religious Studies values close mentoring relationships between faculty and students. Our approach aligns closely with the “Principles for Graduate Teaching and Mentorship” adopted by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It acknowledges salient differences in professional experience while simultaneously treating all members of our program as colleagues in a collective academic endeavor. For us, good mentoring involves open communication, trust, and mutual respect.

Students in our program typically apply to work closely with one faculty member who serves as the academic advisor. This mentoring relationship begins immediately upon matriculation, but it is formalized at the end of the first year. The advisor is the first point of contact for questions related to research, progress to degree, and professional development. While individual faculty members’ communication preferences vary in terms of medium and frequency, every advisor agrees to respond in a timely fashion to queries about academic and professional matters.

The advisor will provide clear feedback on draft syllabi, on the dissertation proposal, and the composition of the dissertation committee. For students who are writing their dissertations, advisors provide timelines for completing chapters, written feedback on chapter drafts, and advice on how to structure the dissertation for a timely defense. Advisors may also assist their advisees by brokering introductions to senior scholars, helping students prepare conference presentations, or helping students polish article drafts for submission to academic journals.

Advisors are trusted mentors, but that trust is maintained through clear boundaries. Students should engage with advisors and other faculty members with professionalism at all times, with awareness of distinctions between personal and professional responsibilities. Students should also recognize that mentoring relationships naturally change over the course of a PhD program.  

Students fulfill their part of the mentoring relationship by clearly communicating their professional objectives, providing written updates to their advisors on their progress at least once a term, and implementing feedback with alacrity. Students have a right to timely and constructive feedback; they also have a responsibility to speak up when things are not working for them.

Students should understand that advisors have multiple professional responsibilities and may need to balance requests for feedback with other demands on their time. Requests for letters of recommendation should be made well before deadlines. Students must also respect advisors’ stated preferences about manner, mode, and frequency of communication (email or video conference, weekly or monthly check-ins, etc.). In the rare circumstances when a student is having trouble communicating with their advisor, they should consult the Graduate Chair.

The Graduate Chair is responsible for academic protocol in the Graduate Group. This faculty member guides students through the various benchmarks towards the degree such as language exams, qualifying exams, candidacy exams, and the dissertation defense. The Graduate Chair also serves as de facto advisor during a student’s first year.

Each student has at least two mentoring sessions with the Graduate Chair every academic year. The first, typically held in August, is a one-on-one meeting in which the student and the Grad Chair identify academic goals for the coming year. The second, typically held in April along with the student’s primary advisor, offers a retrospective on the past year and sets up a plan for the next academic year. Prior to this end-of-year meeting, both the student and the advisor generate brief written reports to ensure that everyone is in agreement about the student’s progress to degree. After the meeting, the Grad Chair generates a brief formal letter confirming the student’s good standing in the program while indicating any potential points for improvement.

In the very rare situations when communication between an advisor and advisee has broken down, the Graduate Chair will work with all parties involved to get everyone back on track or to broker an alternate advising relationship. Because the Grad Chair represents the interests of the Graduate Group, they bear ultimate responsibility for setting academic standards and determining disciplinary actions such as probation or dismissal from the program. The Graduate Chair is also the primary point of contact for students who are considering temporary leaves of absence for reasons such as parental leave, military service, medical issues, or eldercare. While certain requests will necessarily involve the advisor or other relevant faculty members, the Graduate Chair will always respect students’ right to privacy as much as such matters allow.

As students near the end of the program, the Graduate Chair may facilitate mock job talks or provide comments on job application materials. The Graduate Chair will also help students work backward from their intended dissertation defense date to establish a feasible timeline for completing and tabling the dissertation.

In addition to the primary advisor, students often work closely with other faculty in the Department of Religious Studies and the broader Graduate Group. Members of the Grad Group—a collective of faculty across campus with research expertise in religion—typically constitute students’ dissertation committees. Committee members take on the role of secondary advisors, providing students with diverse perspectives on how to structure their academic arguments.

Students typically serve as Teaching Assistants for four terms, and the instructor of record (usually a member of the Graduate Group) provides advice on approaches to teaching. Instructors may provide model lesson plans, give students opportunities to lecture, or have students lead discussion sections. They may also observe graduate student teaching and provide formal written feedback. The Graduate Chair ensures that students have the opportunity to work closely with at least three different faculty members during their four semesters of teaching.

Mentoring and professional development also happen at our weekly Religious Studies Colloquium, which features a combination of lectures by external speakers; works-in-progress talks by faculty and grad students; and professional development workshops related to teaching, research methods, and advice on pursuing academic and non-academic careers. With the exception of students who are living outside Philadelphia, in principle all Religious Studies faculty and graduate students attend these events. The Colloquium provides an opportunity for building camaraderie as well as developing professional skills; students regularly join faculty in hosting guest speakers for dinners at Philly’s many excellent dining establishments.   

Students in the Graduate Group also mentor each other. Every year, the second-year class incorporates incoming first-years into the ongoing “theory reading group.” This reading group works through the list of books on the mandatory reading list on which students are examined at the end of their second year. Because this qualifying examination also requires students to generate original syllabi, members of the reading group also workshop syllabi with one another. Senior students often hold works-in-progress workshops; some may also facilitate workshops on teaching and learning through the auspices of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Innovation. Students regularly gather in their individual offices or in the Religious Studies/Classics Lounge for conversations on topics of collective interest. 

Further information on our mentoring guidelines can be found in the most recent version of the Religious Studies Graduate Group Handbook made available to students every August.