Dr. @Renetta_Tull & @UMBC Faculty host #WhenFacultySayX. Oct. 20 through Oct. 31, 2017. Students have questions. Faculty have answers.

Understanding professors’ expectations shouldn’t be a mystery. However, sometimes, there are disconnects between what a faculty member wants a student to produce for a project, and how the student interprets the instructions. In many cases, the expectations of faculty are clearly articulated, either in written or oral format. However, in other cases, there are situations where a faculty member’s feedback or outcomes from discussions regarding progress may not be as clear because they involve aspects of non-verbal communication such as eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, the tone of voice, and eye contact.


Addressing the Needs of Graduate Students

We draw particular attention to the needs of graduate students for our “When Faculty Say X” success seminar series. Graduate students have several forms of faculty interaction that have their own sets of nuances. For graduate students, the faculty member is a teacher, a mentor, an advisor, and a future colleague. There are several phases through which one must pass to navigate the transitions. During coursework, there is the phase where one follows the syllabus, turns in the homework, and takes the exam. During the qualifying exam and proposal stages, it can be difficult for a student to determine what they are supposed to know on the journey toward building expertise in a discipline or particular area of research. In addition to becoming a contributor to the field, a professor may have a methodology that must be employed by all in her lab or a set of theories which need to be used set the foundation for all work that comes out of the research group. There may be bibliographies that one must reference, techniques that must be mastered, and simple “unwritten rules” that must be followed. Some of the rules may include attending every group meeting and each departmental colloquium. Other rules may extend to writing, i.e., explicit use of a citation style, paragraph structure, or drafting process.  In the past, we have had in-person seminars and panels where students have a chance to post questions online, and faculty answer them in-person during a dinner seminar.


Launching #WhenFacultySayX 2017

In order to accommodate schedules of faculty guests who will join our seminar this year, and in an attempt involve all of the students in our PROMISE AGEP network and beyond, we are launching an interactive, online version of the seminar that will allow all to participate.

Here’s how it will work.

Between Friday, October 20 and Tuesday, October 31, 2017, we invite graduate students to post questions to faculty below in the comment section (you do not need a WordPress account to participate, we encourage anonymous posts.) We will encourage questions from graduate students broadly, and answers from faculty colleagues from any school.

Faculty: Faculty colleagues from around the world are welcome to share things that they want students to clearly understand, using the hashtag #WhenFacultySayX. You are also welcome to join the conversation below and reply to the comments. 

Students: This program was developed for you. It was developed to remove the barriers and fear regarding asking any and all questions related to your success. You may post anonymously.  Do you have a question that you want a faculty member to answer?

Post your questions in the comment section of this post at the bottom of this page. You may post anonymously. Our panel of experts will answer each question in the comments as well.

Our featured faculty panel of experts will answer questions that are posted on this website, below. 

PROMISE Director, Dr. Renetta Tull (@Renetta_Tull), Dr. Sarah Chard, Dr. L. Michael Hayden, Dr. Christopher Murphy, and Dr. J. Alan Yeakley.


Featured faculty:

  1. Dr. Sarah Chard, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UMBC, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Health Administration and Policy.
  2. Dr. L. Michael Hayden, Chair, and Professor of Physics at UMBC, Department of Physics.
  3. Dr. Christopher Murphy, Chair, and Professor of Psychology at UMBC, Department of Psychology.
  4. Dr. J. Alan Yeakley, Chair, and Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at UMBC, Department of Geography and Environmental Systems.
  5. Dr. Renetta Tull – Online Moderator. Dr. RenettaTull will moderate the discussion and will add commentary based on her experience as a former faculty member at University of Wisconsin-Madison, adjunct at College Park (http://hesp.umd.edu/facultyprofile/Tull/Renetta), and member of the program faculty groups for MSRP at MIT, and QoLT at Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh.
    Tull is the University System of Maryland (12 Institutions) Director of Graduate and Professional Pipeline Development, and Special Assistant to the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, http://www.usmd.edu/institutions/; at UMBC she is the Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives, Professor of the Practice, College of Engineering & IT.



Historical Perspective


The “When Faculty Say X” seminar began as a PROMISE seminar in 2003, initially titled, “Understanding Faculty Expectations” as part of the PROMISE SUCCESS 2003, a precursor to the PROMISE Summer Success Institute (SSI). During an orientation session for new graduate students at UMBC circa 2004, UMBC Psychology Professor Dr. Susan Sonnenschein posted a chart with two columns. The left column noted “What Faculty Say,” and the right column noted, “What They Mean.” PROMISE adopted this method and started the “Faculty X|Y – When Faculty Say X, They Really Mean Y” seminar to allow students to anonymously ask questions, and have a faculty panel answer the questions (grouped by topic area) in person. This seminar has drawn crowds of more than 100 graduate students. The “they really mean y” portion of the title was dropped over time.  This 2017 #WhenFacultySayX virtual seminar is the online evolution of those early panels and workshops.

Some of the programs and questions from past years can be found in these links:

When Faculty say “X” … Understanding Faculty Expectations, Unwritten Rules. Dinner Seminar, Fri. Oct. 10, 2014

“When Faculty Say ‘X’ …” Do you understand what faculty say and mean? Dinner seminar, Friday, Oct. 11, 2013

Other videos that answer questions from past years can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_uKXMv-Mty_sRI31EzJm0E0cJTX20mve

19 thoughts on “Dr. @Renetta_Tull & @UMBC Faculty host #WhenFacultySayX. Oct. 20 through Oct. 31, 2017. Students have questions. Faculty have answers.

  1. Hello! I am a Master’s student in the process of applying for PhD programs. (I am in the Human-Centered Computing program at UMBC, which falls under IS.) One thing I am struggling with is the mysterious black box that is the application process. I have numerous questions about the process:

    What do the admissions boards look for in an application?
    What makes or breaks an application?
    How important are GRE scores really? What if you do poorly in one section, but good in other sections and have great research experience?
    What is the tone a Statement of Purpose should take?
    How can I reach out to faculty in departments I am applying to and talk to them about wanting to work with them? (I know they are very busy and may get a lot of these emails!)
    And how can I stand out in the crowd?

    Thank you!


    1. Dear Morgan,

      I’ll add a few thoughts. First comment is that we typically get A LOT of applicants. So, it’s not just a question of being qualified for graduate school, because we can’t accept all who are qualified. There are further considerations.

      And, for me, the primary consideration is to try to weigh who I think will be most successful as a graduate student. As a graduate student mentor, I put a great amount of time into working with my advisees, so I will only accept someone who I think will prove worth that investment of time. That is, I have to see in their application a high potential for success as a grad student, and beyond.

      Characteristics of potential success include (1) past academic performance and overall intellectual potential (so yes GRE as well as GPA matter, and particularly GPA in the major and also how a student did in her/his most recent years of classes including graduate classes, and also how deep were the classes taken), (2) evidence of self-starting independence (so work experience and internships matter particularly if they’re related to the field of study and if they indicate a sense of self-determination and independent drive to succeed), and finally, (3) having a clear idea of your research area (so the more specific your statement of purpose is, and how well it matches up with the interests of existing faculty, the better).

      Try to put yourself in the shoes of the faculty reviewing your application, and evaluate your overall package from our standpoint, i.e. is this person sure to be successful in graduate school, and more broadly in a research environment?

      Finally, yes, it’s often hard to reach faculty (because again we get a lot of inquiries and it can be overwhelming), but I think the more you address the above considerations in your cover email (which needs to be succinct and to the point) as well as with an attached CV and/or transcript (very important – otherwise we have no idea of your abilities), the better your chances of getting a return email or phone call.

      I hope that helps. I’m not in your area specifically, but please feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss this more.

      Alan Yeakley


  2. morganklaus,

    Every department and discipline answers these questions differently, my comments are mostly general, but are based on my experience in admitting students into Physics graduate programs.

    1. Admissions committees are looking for a complete application. Statement of purpose, GRE scores, official transcripts, letters of recommendation.

    2. poor undergraduate academic performance is usually a deal breaker. nothing can really trump this except in rare cases where significant research has been conducted and all the letter writers have a good explanation for the poor academics.

    3. in Physics the GRE math score is fairly important and the Physics subject is important.

    4. tone should be professional, honest, and show who you are. try to accurately describe what you would like to do over the next 5 years. research each dept you apply to and make each personal statement unique to that institution. identify 2-3 faculty you would like to work with and say why.

    5. email them directly. tell them who you are and what you are interested in. ask if you can call them.


  3. Hello I am a second year graduate student in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology joint program. I am getting ready to start picking committee members for my candidacy exam. So my question is what do you believe are good criteria for evaluating whether or not a particular professor would fit for your committee?


    1. Best thing is to discuss this with your PhD mentor. He/she can help you choose the best committee. My view is that you need to have people on your committee that can help you in areas of your work that might be slightly outside your mentor’s expertise. For example, if your mentor is an experimentalist and you will need to do some computational work to complement your experiments, you should seek out someone with those skills. Also choose people who will be accessible and willing to talk to you about your work or anything at any time. The dissertation is a long process and you need all the allies you can get.


  4. What useful guidelines are you all able to offer when it comes to successfully and happily navigating a PhD experience?


    1. Number one thing is to realize that it takes and while and you will have many setbacks along the way. Don’t get discouraged, keep plugging away.

      Learn how to do several things at the same time. Classwork, lab work, reading, writing. You must be an efficient manager of your time.

      Come to work every day (before 0830), just like the real world.

      Plan each day and week, ahead of time.

      Work hard, play hard = happy


    2. Also, for many students it is also helpful to explore the career options in your discipline, and to take advantage of opportunities and resources that can help you prepare for an interesting and appealing career. One example is teaching opportunities — some students find out during grad school that they love teaching; others find it is not for them, but until you have taught it’s difficult to know. Although the Ph.D. is a research degree, and most faculty want our graduates to be active researchers, many students have multiple career options in industry, government, science administration, professional practice, etc.– depending on your field of study. Grad school can be a time to learn more about these options, to meet people in various careers, and perhaps to get relevant experiences to help with your career planning. Also, on the other side of the coin, many faculty are concerned that students who may be good candidates for a traditional academic career get turned off by what they see, hear, or experience in graduate school. My advice is to make sure that your perceptions are accurate, and check them out. For example, if you are concerned about how many hours professors in your field typically work each week, ask several of them and see what they say. Also recognize that there is a variety of universities and research centers that have different expectations of faculty, especially regarding teaching and research.


  5. Hello! I am a second year Ph.D. student in the Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental engineering department. Currently, my career goal is to enter academia at a research-intensive university training both graduate and undergraduate researchers; however, I am still open to positions in industry. My question is how do students prepare for positions in both industry and academia?

    As a general question, in retrospect, what do you wish you did or pursued during your Ph.D. studies? What worked and what would you have done differently?

    Thank you for your time and advice!


    1. Q.1 Industry/academia prep – both require completing a good dissertation and publishing that work before you graduate. Academia will require a postdoc in most fields. For this, go some place where you can extend your skills (learn something new) as well as publish as much as you can (first author). Try to be the intellectual leader in your collaborations. If you want to go to academia, you need to be laser focused on that goal from the get go.

      Going into industry and then to academia is tough, but not impossible, but you will have to maintain a steady publication record and grant writing record while in industry.

      Going to industry from academia is easier from those perspectives, but you will need to stay more technologically connected while in academia if you want to switch at a later date.

      Q.2 I finished my PhD in slightly less than 4 years. I sometimes wonder if I’d should have taken a bit longer so that I would have had time to take more courses outside of my specialty area. Later in your career you really need to be research agile and to do that you need to have a broad foundation. I was also married and had two kids during that time so I was motivated to “get on with my life” and get a job so my wife could go to Vet school. It was a grand and wonderful time in our lives and I actually wouldn’t trade it for anything.


    2. Please see my comment to the previous question regarding career planning. I think the key is getting to know people in different types of careers and, if possible, getting some relevant experience for different career activities, like teaching for example.

      On the other question, I had a great experience in graduate school and very few regrets. In retrospect, I might have focused a little less on cranking out grants and research papers, and a little more on developing broader scholarly interests within my field. Also, in a similar vein, most of us go with our strengths and do what we are good at, but no one is great at every aspect of this career, so I might have taken a little more time to evaluate my areas of weakness and have a better plan to develop and improve in those areas.


  6. Greetings! My name is Brianda Beverley, and I am a Master’s student in Biological Sciences. I am currently in two writing intensive courses. There are no quizzes, and grades are heavily based on participation and two big writing assignments. With that being said, I find it hard to gauge how I am doing in both courses, and I am not sure what is expected of me since these courses are mixed with graduate and undergraduate students. What would some advice that would he me make sure that I am doing well in the course?


  7. I’d say that the only sure fire way to find this out is to schedule some time with the instructor in their office and ask them this same question. I am fairly sure you will get an informative answer.


  8. Hello!

    I am a Graduate student, studying Applied Mathematics and I am very passionate about my future career. However, I seem to be developing other passions, as well. These other passions do not intertwine with Mathematics, either. I do not want to give up on either, but one seems to take the lead , while the other falls behind and vice versa.

    Have you ever experienced having differing passions? How have you made them work together? Play hand in hand? How can I also practice unity between the two?


    1. Dear BreAsia,

      I can readily relate! I think it’s very natural for alert and engaged human beings to be pulled in multiple directions, and sometimes it can feel like we’re being pulled apart. My suggestion is to keep tuned into the multiple interests you have and to be constantly looking for ways to merge them. The other thing I would say it’s important to see these as transitions that you hope to stabilize into productive pathways with finished “products” (or outcomes or findings, which are tangible and recognizable as marks of success) in the not too distant future.

      I would add that being in applied mathematics gives you an advantage, as you are working with such a universal “language.” There’s so much that can be done with applications of mathematics. To share my own path as an example, my true passion in college was to do something valuable in environmental science and/or environmental management. It was a junior level ecology course where I discovered that mathematical modeling could be used to better understand the functionality (and resilience to stress) of ecological systems, and so I merged my interest in environmental science with a skill I developed in mathematics, becoming a math major, and applying those skills in a variety of ecological problems in graduate school and beyond in my research career.

      That’s just my example, and I’m not suggesting it can apply to all types of emerging passions you might have. But it is an example that says that it can be done.

      The other thing I would say about this is that many problems out there, and some of the most intractable problems which some of begun calling “wicked problems,” require several disciplines to address. For example to improve the environmental conditions in an urban area, one needs much more than just an understanding of environmental chemistry or biology; also needed are disciplines such as political science, psychology, economics, and urban planning, among others. By including more than one disciplinary approach in your general “toolkit” you will gain the ability to interface with others outside your primary discipline in a meaningful way.

      I hope those thoughts help, and please contact me if you’d like to discuss this topic further.

      Alan Yeakley


  9. During my matriculation at the University I have come to understand how important office hours are. Sometimes, a class can be particularly difficult for students and the students usually are regularly attending office hours. What active steps are professors normally expecting these students to take?


  10. Good morning. I apologize for the late questions, but this blew completely by me. Thank you for taking the opportunity to answer these questions. I have three (3). I am, by the way, a PhD candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture.

    a) I will be going “on the market” in about a year, as I plan to complete my dissertation in the spring of 2019. My PhD is of course interdisciplinary, but my background is Sociology (I have a Master’s in sociology, and the theoretical underpinnings, while gender studies, are all based off of sociologists and anthropologists). I am at a quandary in terms of how to “sell myself”. Would I be seen as valuable in Sociology programs, even if my PhD is not in Sociology (however, for 8 years I’ve been teaching Sociology classes at various institutions as an adjunct)? Is it best for me to simply apply to gender studies positions (even though my main focus in gender studies is masculinity/men’s studies, not the broader field)? Should I try in both disciplines at the same time?

    b) I am a “non-traditional” PhD student, as I will be 43 when I complete my degree. Will that work against me in the academic market? I recognize the average age of candidates and the ideal is still early 30s, and I’ve seen work on how younger candidates face significant bias. Would this also be true of me?

    c) I understand publications are important while on the market, and I’m trying to complete my dissertation proposal, work a full time job, and convert old research papers into journal submissions for peer review. How many publications is good to shoot for (and I am attempting only journals that have an impact factor, so that isn’t an issue)? Is it okay if they are spread out in terms of locales (for example I am submitting to the journal of Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Men’s Studies, and Journal of Critical Military Studies, as these are all areas in which my dissertation work resides)?

    Thank you.


  11. Why are so many graduate level computer science courses taught in the middle of the work day? This makes it impossible for professionals to choose UMBC as their graduate school and almost guarantees Towson as the preferred alternative. When is UMBC going to change this inconvenience?


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