Your relationship with your advisors is central to your success throughout your academic career. We urge each student to meet with potential advisors early in the first year and then to consult with your primary advisor regularly throughout your career at Duke and beyond. 

Your academic advisor is the faculty member with whom you interact most closely at Duke.  You can go to them for all types of academic and non-academic concerns. You will want to consult closely with your advisor on all aspects of your academic program – your coursework, fields, languages, research, and dissertation.

In addition to your primary advisor, you can consult with the members of your preliminary advisory committee. The committee consists of your primary advisor and at least three other faculty members, including at least one other Duke History faculty, from whom you may seek guidance on specific issues related to your fields and your research. With the approval of your primary faculty advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies, you may also have non-Duke faculty members serve on your advisory committee.

Moreover, you can reach out to any faculty members, whether you take a class or independent study with them or not. Working with graduate students is a key part of their job, as is basic familiarity with the rules of the program, including numbers and kinds of courses, the parameters for fields and language exams, and the mechanics of the portfolio system and the dissertation defense. 

You are also entitled to prompt feedback on your performance in seminars and your written work. At the end of each semester, professors must write an evaluation of the work of every graduate student in their classes or independent studies if the work is graded, and of every graduate student they worked with as a Teaching Assistant, Research Tutor, or Graduate Assistant. The evaluation is to be sent to the student and shared with the DGS. Students should also receive substantial and constructive oral and written feedback on their work throughout the semester.

And, finally, you are encouraged to seek out extra-departmental mentorship opportunities to assist in your professional development. These opportunities are communicated, usually via email, to doctoral students by Duke University and the Duke Graduate School as a complement to advising and training within History.

The role of the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) is to furnish graduate students and faculty with timely information about changes in program requirements and to clarify any ambiguities in departmental rules. The DGS is also available to help students design a course of study that fits their intellectual interests and needs and to provide advice about course offerings, on issues of professional ethics, and about professional development. For example, the DGS helps coordinate mock job-talks and interviews if a graduate student requests it.

The DGS plays a particularly significant role in advising incoming and first-year students. The department encourages students to formalize a relationship with a permanent advisor after the first year of study, but until then the DGS meets regularly with incoming and first-year students to counsel them on course selection and other programmatic issues. Once a student has identified their permanent primary advisor, the DGS defers to that faculty member in decisions related to course selection and the construction of an intellectual agenda for the student.

The DGS, along with the department's Graduate Committee, also serves as a crucial conduit of information from graduate students to the department, offering feedback about graduate student concerns, as well as proposals to the Executive Committee and the faculty as a whole.

Moreover, the DGS serves as a mediator and go-to-person for any conflicts or complications that arise in the advisor-advisee relationship. If the DGS serves as primary advisor, the chair of the department takes over as mediator and go-to person.

Historians who advise graduate students rely on a variety of approaches to advising and often adopt different approaches with different students or different approaches with the same student at various moments in their career. Any list of principles concerning the relationship between faculty advisors and graduate students must provide substantial leeway for this spectrum of advising styles, as well as for the tenets of academic freedom. At the same time, because training graduate students is among the most important functions that our faculty performs, the department wishes to articulate several basic principles about the respective responsibilities of faculty and graduate students. This is so that the individuals on each side of this very special pedagogical relationship clearly understand their roles and obligations.

NOTE: All obligations of a primary graduate advisor remain in force during sabbaticals or other leaves.

Basic Principles

  • Primary advisors of graduate students commit themselves to regular communication with their advisees, both in person and via electronic means, to discuss not only ongoing courses, research, and written work, but also the full range of issues relating to the course of study and broader professional development. Those issues will differ from student to student but would likely include: course selection; preliminary examination fields; issues relating to teaching; other faculty members with whom the student should work; grant opportunities and proposal writing; potential dissertation topics and the shaping of a dissertation prospectus; and job market strategies. Whether in residence or not, the advisor and student should be meeting and consulting on a regular basis. Both student and advisor should understand that their relationship is professional rather than personal.
  • Primary advisors should provide prompt feedback on research and writing for coursework, including papers for research seminars, even when the primary advisor is not teaching a particular research seminar. During the dissertation phase of graduate students' careers, advisors should provide timely reading and feedback on dissertation drafts, as well as advice about strategies for publication.
  • In fostering the professional development of their advisees, primary advisors should take reasonable steps to pass along information about funding opportunities and conferences, and where appropriate, to connect their students to other relevant scholars, both inside the department and beyond Duke.
  • Graduate advisors should offer their students advice about how to develop and sustain an intellectual agenda, and how to build a career as a professional historian. Advisors should also expect to write letters of recommendation on behalf of their students for grants, fellowships, and employment opportunities – even when those students have already graduated
  • At all times, graduate advisors owe their students candor about their performance and prospects, as well as respect in all communications, both verbal or written. All faculty members who work with graduate students need to take note of and abide by the university's policies on harassment and discrimination.
  • Where appropriate, advisors should act as a liaison between the department and/or DGS and their students. Whenever discussing a particular student's situation with other faculty or university staff, graduate advisors should demonstrate discretion and respect for the student's privacy.


Like faculty, graduate students will approach the advising relationship with a variety of needs and expectations, but all graduate students should recognize that in the end they are responsible for their own education and for their development as scholars and teachers. In most instances, good advising from faculty depends on the willingness of graduate students to initiate and keep open channels of communication, to identify key issues and questions, and to weigh proffered advice with an open mind.

In particular, graduate students:

  • should become familiar with the basic rules of the program as laid out on our website and by asking either their advisors or the DGS to clarify any bureaucratic ambiguities. You are responsible for knowing the correct rules even if you have been misinformed on a particular issue by a faculty member.
  • have the responsibility to exercise substantial care and thought when selecting an advisor. This selection is a crucial decision, and students should give it the time and attention it deserves. You, for example, should ask for clarity about a potential advisor's expectations and style of advising.
  • have the obligation to keep in regular touch with their primary advisor, detailing their progress, any pressing or looming decisions, and any emerging difficulties or problems in their course of study. Uninformed advisors cannot give sensible or timely advice. On occasion, the desire for privacy leads some graduate students not to inform an advisor about personal circumstances that are impeding academic progress. When those circumstances are clearly going to have a substantial impact on your ability to meet programmatic requirements and expectations, you owe a confidential explanation to the advisor.
  • owe their advisors respect and candor in all communications, verbal and written, and should respect their advisors' privacy.
  • have the obligation to give their advisors reasonable notice of upcoming deadlines for letters of recommendation.
  • should take care that any particular arrangement or agreement with the DGS that diverges from ordinary departmental rules and regulations are put in writing. Occasionally, individual circumstances lead the DGS to make an exception from standard policy. If such exceptions have a clear paper trail, you can avoid any complications arising when a new faculty member, not privy to the earlier agreement, becomes DGS.
  • do not owe their advisors any work outside the formal, paid roles of graduate/research assistant or teaching assistant.
  • should turn to the DGS for advice and mediation if they encounter difficulties with their advisor. If the DGS is your advisor, you should seek out the chair of the department.

Some time during your first two years in the Ph.D. program, you will select an advisory committee. That committee will include your primary advisor and at least three other faculty, including at least one other regular Duke History faculty. With the approval of the DGS and your primary advisor, faculty members from outside of Duke may serve on advisory committees. The other faculty members on the advisory committee may include field directors and external readers.

Your field directors perform vital functions in regards to your graduate education. In some ways it is similar to the role of your primary advisor; in other ways, their roles are more circumscribed. The field directors will examine you in the fields that they direct and provide guidance for coursework and written work in those fields.

External readers may be added to the committee at your discretion and the discretion of your primary advisor. External readers will not direct fields, but will be able to read the entire portfolio submitted for the preliminary defense and participate in the portfolio discussion as full voting members of the committee.

After your portfolio defense, as you move into your dissertation writing stage, field directors and external readers may also advise you as appropriate, depending on their fields of expertise. With the approval of the DGS, following your portfolio defense you may appoint a different set of faculty members to consult on your dissertation. Overall, your committee must always have at least two regular History faculty, including your primary advisor, and a majority of its members must be Duke University faculty members.

After your portfolio defense, your committee will review the progress of work once a year and will offer clear guidance and advice.

NOTE: All obligations of your advisory committee remain in force during sabbaticals or other leaves of all Duke faculty members.

Selecting Advisors

We encourage prospective, incoming, and first-year students to communicate with potential advisors. Important issues you will want to ask them about should include:

  • The range of the advisor's intellectual interests.
  • The advisor's views on how closely they expect an advisee's interest to track their own.
  • The advisor's expectations about which courses the student should take and which language(s) they should a have a competency in.
  • The advisor's practices in offering feedback about written work, teaching, or other intellectual matters.
  • The advisor's particular style of advising. For example, does the advisor require regular meetings? Do they prefer to provide a sounding board when asked? Does the advisor prefer a formal or more casual advisor/advisee relationship?
  • The advisor's general expectations regarding dissertation topics and research methodologies. Some advisors may prefer to oversee topics that relate directly to their own research expertise while others are willing to advise more broadly.

By the end of the first year or the beginning of the second year, a student should have settled on a primary advisor whose research interests coincide with their expected major field of study. Most of the time, this selection will be fairly straightforward; the primary advisor will most likely be a faculty member who initially drew the graduate student to Duke or someone with whom the student has taken a course and discussed their research interests. In any instance, primary advisors must formally agree to supervise the student's work.

Note: Students may also choose to have two History advisors if they believe that their intellectual interests are best served by a close working and mentoring relationship with two History faculty members, as long as those faculty members agree to co-advise the student. Students may also choose to have a Duke faculty member from another department as co-chair, as long as the DGS signs off on it. Co-advising is also an option if the primary advisor leaves Duke and their advisee is interested in keeping that professor as an advisor. In that case, the student will recruit the co-advisor from the regular History faculty. 

Changing Advisors

There are occasions that may dictate the desire or need to change advisors: a student's interests may shift during graduate school; a student and their advisor may fail to develop an effective working relationship; or an advisor may go on extended leave, move to another university, or retire.

Students have the option of changing their primary advisors, but within the limits set by the Graduate School (e.g. changing the membership of dissertation committees within three months of a scheduled exam is prohibited). Because such a change can have both short-term and long-term consequences, students should first discuss a possible change with the DGS before initiating a change. The DGS must approve any change of a student's primary advisor. If the DGS is the primary advisor, students should turn to the chair, who must then approve any change of advisor.

Students should also be aware that no faculty member has the obligation to take on a particular graduate student. Therefore, any student who wishes to change advisors should ensure that another faculty member is willing to assume the role of primary advisor before ending the relationship with their initial advisor. On the other end, before taking on a student who wishes to change advisors, faculty members have an obligation to acquaint themselves with the student's background and progress in the program, judging carefully whether the proposed fit is a sensible one.