Upcoming Exam Talks

A Note from the Director

The success of the Allen School depends enormously on the success of our students, which in turn depends on active and thoughtful advising relationships between students and their advisors. This document is based on a tremendous amount of work by our graduate students. The goal is to make us all better participants in the advising relationship by increasing the clarity of the responsibilities and by increasing our mindfulness of this critically valuable and important process. The material in this document contains wonderful advice, and I recommend you read it carefully and refer to it now and then as needed. Best of luck in finding an advising relationship that can help you reach beyond your own expectations - we know you can, and we're ready to help!

Hank Levy
Director of the Allen School and Wissner-Slivka Chair

Table of Contents

The First Year

In your first year or so at the Allen School you should find a research topic to get started on. Part of finding a research topic is finding a research advisor to do the work with. When you come into the department, you'll have a temporary advisor who should help you through this process. Most people start doing research with their temporary advisor, who will eventually become their permanent advisor. But that's not true for everyone - sometimes, you need to find a new topic, a new advising relationship, or both.

Here's some advice for looking for a good topic/advising match:

Don't Panic

First, give yourself a break. There's no need to panic if you don't win the Turing award on on your first day at UW. Most people need some time to find a direction and get started.

There's a wide variance: people work at different paces, so don't worry if you meet other grad students who might be progressing faster than you. If you need help calibrating your progress, your grad student mentor can be great resource. They have a better perspective on what counts as "fast" or "slow" than your fellow first-year grad students.

Looking for a Topic

If you're not sure yet which broad research area in CSE you want to pursue, here are a few ways to find out what's available:

  • Go to colloquium: most weeks, a world expert will give a talk about some different area of computer science.
  • Take classes in areas you're curious about.
  • Show up to the poster sessions and talks for the department's industry affiliates days, which usually happen in October. Other students will be showing off their current projects, so it's a perfect time to ask them about what's going on in their groups.
  • Watch the talks at the CSE Symposium, a new tradition where students give more polished talks on their work.
  • Register for the department's seminars, colloquially known as "five nineties." Most of these involve students leading informal discussions about papers each week. Sign up to present a paper on a topic that's new to you.
  • If you can get someone to fund you, travel to a conference on an area you might be interested. This is a great way not just to learn about current work in an area but also to meet people from its research community.

Finding an Advisor

If you have a topic in mind, the next step is to find a faculty member to advise you. This means finding a potential advisor who seems like a good technical and personal fit---and means convincing them that you're a good match. Here are some tips for finding and talking to a good potential advisor.

  • Your temporary advisor probably has ideas about who might be a good match.
  • Younger faculty with fewer students can be more approachable than senior professors who might already be at advising capacity.
  • Consider starting by taking a class with someone you might want to work with. This can allow both of you to get a sense for each other.
  • Talk to the professor's current grad students to introduce yourself and find out what it's like to work with them.
  • Before you talk to a potential advisor, read some of their recent papers so you have something to talk about. Come up with an interesting question or two to ask about their work.

When you're looking for advisors, keep in mind that joint advising is a popular option---sometimes more advisors are better than one.

If you're having trouble finding someone to work with, talk to Elise.

Getting Going

If you have a (tentative) advisor, it's time to get started on your research. Your advisor should help you find a specific topic and point you in the right direction. Here are some things to keep in mind as you get started:

  • Read closely and often. Learning to read papers from your area with a critical eye can be crucial to doing great work yourself.
  • Start by working with a senior grad student. Your advisor can help you find a research project that's underway that you can help with. Pairing up with someone more experienced is a great way to learn the ropes before you launch your own research agenda. Even doing some "manual labor" for another student's project can be a great way to gain momentum.
  • Choose work you're excited about. Doing great research when you don't care about it is next to impossible. Be sure to communicate openly with your advisor about what you like (and don't) about research---advisors can't know you're unhappy if you toil in silence.
  • If the topic is new to you, ask your advisor for background resources---textbooks, course notes, etc.---that can help you catch up.

What You Can Expect from Your Advisor

Every advisor is unique. Each advisor has his or her own ideas about everything from qualifiers, to publishing, to making pizza. You cannot expect your advisor to be exactly like any other, just as you are not like any other student. What you can expect, however, is for your advisor to adhere to the following general guidelines.


Communication is the most important facet of your working relationship with your advisor. You can expect your advisor to clearly communicate his or her thoughts and expectations to you. When your advisor is not communicative about key topics, you should feel right at home approaching him or her for clarification.

Expectations: Your advisor should clearly communicate his or her expectations. Your advisor's expectations regarding the following things are especially important:

  • Quals: Timeframe, publishability, scope
  • Generals: Timeframe, style, scope, communication during the exam, relationship to thesis
  • Progress: Milestones, publications

Meetings: How you and your advisor communicate with each other is also important. Face to face interactions allow for collaboration, progress reporting, and mentoring. You can expect your advisor to:

  • Meet with you regularly
  • Actively consider your ideas during meetings
  • Respond to your communications within a reasonable amount of time
  • Schedule/cancel meetings at least a day in advance, when possible
  • Tell you if he or she is leaving town

Meeting frequency can vary from advisor to advisor and from student to student. Many advisors and students like to set up weekly appointments, but biweekly or even less can be better if you're working mostly independently. You and your advisor should choose the rate together.

Feedback: Receiving feedback from your advisor will help you to adjust your performance to meet his or her expectations. Expect:

  • Honest feedback
  • Constructive criticism
  • Positive feedback
  • An occasional "kick," for encouragement

Research Advising

One of your top priorities in graduate school will be research. Agreeing on a clear research agenda is crucial to both you and your advisor. Expect your advisor to:

  • Know your research goals
  • Provide research direction according to your level, ambition, and independence
  • Assess your individual needs
  • Communicate about conferences and publishing
  • Give direction/help with technical problems

Logistics: Program milestones and funding can be sources of confusion for younger students. Expect your advisor to:

  • Understand the program milestones that you must pass
  • Make your funding status very clear
  • Help you find other sources of funding such as TAships or fellowships should an RAship not be available


A major role of faculty members is to mentor students. From the faculty side, mentoring involves:

  • Helping you choose career direction, research direction, and professional activities
  • Knowing your educational, cultural, and employment background
  • Knowing your educational and professional goals

Guiding: Part of mentoring is creating well rounded students. Expect your advisor to guide you to:

  • Plan and perform research
  • Help you find teaching opportunities if interested
  • Communicate your research and ideas effectively
  • For more senior students, get you started on writing grants and research proposals
  • Work on service committees
  • Mentor younger students

Networking: Expect your advisor to:

  • Advocate for you, both inside and outside the department.
  • At conferences, to take the time to introduce you to his or her contacts
  • Use his or her professional network during job searches
  • Nominate you for fellowships and awards you deserve

In an ideal world, every student's advisor would be his or her mentor. However, this may not always be possible or beneficial. In the case that your research advisor is not mentoring you well, talk about it with your advisor or seek advice from another faculty member, the Grad Program Coordinator, or Elise.

What You Can Expect from Your Advisor: Top Five

  • Clear communication
  • Constructive criticism
  • Positive feedback
  • Career mentoring
  • Regular meetings

What Your Advisor Can Expect from You

By understanding your advisor's expectations and by meeting or exceeding those expectations, you are helping to assure your success in graduate school. So, what can your advisor expect from you?


Each advisor has different expectations about the performance of his or her students. Keep in mind the following expectations your advisor has for you so things run smoothly:

  • Work hard and show initiative (this can't be stressed enough)
  • Do what you've promised
  • Produce high quality work
  • Make progress regularly
  • Meet agreed-upon goals

Grunt Work: Let's face it. This place does not run itself. As a graduate student, faculty expect you to:

  • Maintain labs, software, and hardware for your group
  • Document your research, designs, code, and meetings
  • Be a TA, especially for niche subjects

Meetings: Just as you can expect your advisor to meet with you face-to-face, you'll find that faculty also have expectations regarding meetings.

  • Prepare appropriately, otherwise reschedule
  • Show up on time
  • Attend all group meetings and relevant 590s
  • Meet on advisor's request, with reasonable notice
  • Save state between meetings

Professional Development

You are in graduate school to become world-class researchers as well as well rounded potential faculty members. You're expected to:

  • Own your own career
  • Actively consider future research directions
  • Be willing to mentor younger students (grads and undergrads)
  • Write paper reviews
  • Attend conferences/workshops
  • Stay up to date on relevant research

Personal issues: We are all human. We all know that school is not the only thing in our life. However, faculty have expectations regarding your priorities and vacation time:

  • Make CSE your number one priority, especially regarding consulting, outside jobs, etc.
  • Take vacation, but schedule it appropriately
  • Stay interested in your work
  • Understand that faculty members are juggling a lot: teaching, research, advising, committees, and their families, too!

What Your Advisor Can Expect from You: Top Five

  • High quality work
  • Own your own career
  • Accept constructive criticism
  • Honest progress reports
  • Work hard and show initiative

Dealing with Potential Problems

We always hope that things go well. Sometimes, they don't. Here's what to do.

  1. Don't wait. Deal with it now. Problems in advising relationships, just as in any other relationship, cannot be resolved without good communication. Almost all issues can be solved with an open and honest conversation with your advisor. The earlier you talk to your advisor, the easier it is to resolve most problems.
  2. Poll your officemates, mentors, and groupmates. Chances are, your older officemates have been there. Leverage that experience when you can.
  3. Talk to your grad student mentor. On entering the Ph.D. program, you were assigned a student mentor. This mentor has likely experienced most of the same issues and can give useful advice.
  4. Talk to the Grad Program Coordinator, Arvind Krishnamurthy. Arvind is more than happy to lend his expertise.
  5. Talk to Elise deGoede Dorough. Elise, as we all know, is one of the most valuable resources we have as graduate students. If you are unable to resolve a particular conflict, let Elise weigh in on your problem.
  6. Talk to Hank Levy, the Allen School Director. Having been a faculty member for many years, Hank has experience with all facets of the advising experience. He also happens to be a nice guy.

These solutions apply to almost any issue you can have during your grad student experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. I want to work with Prof. X. How do I ask them?

    A simple introduction email can go a long way! Reach out and ask to set up a meeting with Professor X. Before going to the meeting, make sure you have something interesting to say. Read several of the professor's recent papers so you know what he or she is working on.

  2. I am not happy with my current research project. What should I do?

    Have you talked to your advisor about this yet? Having open and honest communication with your advisor is critical to finding a topic that makes you happy. Talk to your advisor about shifting your focus or about a different project that's a better fit.

    That being said, grad school is tough, and research is hard. Make sure you aren't quitting a project because it is difficult. Working through difficulties in research is a skill all Ph.D. students learn.

  3. I'm not sure which research area I am interested in. How do I find a research area?

    Take seminars in areas that you may be interested in. Seminars often provide a broad overview of different subfields through papers. Look at the websites for different research groups in the department and speak to current grad students in the groups that seem most appealing to you. And talk with your temporary advisor.

  4. I am worried my advisor is not happy with my research progress.

    At the risk of sounding repetitive, have you talked to your advisor about this yet? You should have regular conversations about your progress and your advisor should express his or her expectations to you clearly. If you aren't sure, then talk to them!

  5. It seems like everyone else is making more progress than I am.

    This is a common feeling among newer grad students, and it is often unfounded. Again, grad school is tough. Things will not always go as planned, and, often, projects will take a lot of work to make only moderate progress. This is normal.

    Resist the temptation to compare yourself to other grad students. Instead, think about whether you are investing your time and effort to be as effective as possible. How are you doing today versus several months ago, or last year? Are you satisfied with the way you are doing your research and the successes you are acheiving?

    It can be hard to disambiguate whether you're just not working hard enough, the problem you're working on is especially hard, or your advisor's expectations are too high. It's especially hard to tell when you're in the middle of negative feelings about your performance. Talk to your advisor and confer with other mentors and friends in the department.

  6. My advisor is never available. How can I get them to make time for me?

    Having regular communications with your advisor is critical to your success as a grad student. Talk to your advisor about finding a set time in which to meet on some regular basis. If they still can not make time for you, it may be time to consider finding another advisor. (This is a very unlikely scenario.)

  7. My advisor is very demanding, and I think they expect more of me than I can provide. Or: I feel like I spend so much time doing coursework or TAing that I don't have anytime for research. What should I do?

    This comes down to time management. Grad school is very demanding, and you need to juggle many responsibilities at once. Try to schedule your time so that you dedicate specific time to each of your responsibilities. Talk to more senior students about time management techniques. Also recognize that some research areas have less funding, requiring students to do more TAing.

  8. My advisor said they don't want to work with me.

    Extremely rarely, advisor-advisee relationships simply don't work out. This is OK! Talk to other professors you may be interested in working with and try to find someone who you could develop an effective working relationship with. Consult with Elise or Anna for advice on finding someone new.

  9. I no longer want to work with my current advisor, or we don't get along.

    This is OK too. Be honest and discuss this with your advisor. There's nothing wrong with finding a new advisor.

Involved in the Making

Special thanks to graduate students Adrian Sampson, Arunkumar Byravan, and Alexander Fiannaca for their hard work on updating this important document. Professor Anna Karlin (GPC) and Elise Dorough (Graduate Program Advisor) facilitated.

The original version, created in 2005, can be found here

Acknowledgements to the original team: Seth Bridges (chair), Shani Jayant, Mausam, Kasla Wilamawska, Scott Saponas, Brian Van Essen, Sarah Schwarm, Julie Letcher, Mira Dontchava, Aaran Shan, and the CSE Faculty.