Frequently Asked Questions About ‘Black Friday’

The progress of every doctoral student (MS/PhD, PhD and DES) towards timely and quality satisfaction of the doctoral program requirements is reviewed semi-annually by the full CS faculty, plus any research advisors who are not CS faculty, during an all-day meeting referred to as “Black Friday”.  However, this meeting has never yet occurred on an actual Friday! It is almost always held on the Thursday “study day” following the end of classes prior to final exams (see University Calendar). The current Doctoral Program Chair recalls it also being held on a Tuesday at least once, and a recent instance was held on a Wednesday.

You are required to update your academic database entry by a (near) end of semester deadline that is scheduled a few days prior to the meeting. Note this refers to the departmental database (“mice“), not the registrar’s database. Your database entry should include details of your accomplishments during the past semester and plans for the coming semester. You should also upload a recognizable digital photograph of yourself – this is how the faculty find out who you are! Please contact the Doctoral Program Administrator with any questions.

You must also meet with your advisor (with both your research advisor and departmental advisor, if different) a few days prior to the Black Friday meeting, to discuss your progress during that semester, expectations for the coming semester, and the likely “outcome” of the Black Friday meeting, that is, the Black Friday letter (see below).  If your advisor does not ask for this meeting, then you should, do not be shy!  You should also schedule another meeting with your advisor(s) shortly after Black Friday, to make sure the anticipated and actual “outcome” match up, and to request advice on how best to proceed.

A formal letter is sent to each doctoral student by email a week or two after each Black Friday meeting, “signed” by the Department Chair.  Most letters will have a format like this:

Dear Mr/Ms Doe,

You were discussed in our <month year> semi-annual review of all Ph.D.

We would like to thank you for your service as <whatever you did for 
community service>.

The faculty feels that you are making satisfactory progress.
Your comp. exam results were:
4321 Pass
4123 Fail

If you wish to talk to a faculty member other than your advisor
about suggestions made at Black Friday or your progress in general,
Prof. Curly has volunteered to be available for this purpose.

Prof. Larry

cc: Prof. Moe
cc: Prof. Curly

The sentence about community service will be there only if you actually did some (non-trivial) community service; cleaning up the lounge after yourself does not count as community service, that’s just common decency.

The part about comp(rehensive) exams will only be there if you took one or more breadth requirement exams prior to Black Friday, and will be omitted if you are taking courses that won’t be graded until after Black Friday, or breadth requirement exams co-timed with course final exams that occur after Black Friday. Or, of course, this will be omitted if you’re done with comps.

The sentence about talking to a faculty member other than your advisor clues you in (if you don’t already know) as to who is your “secondary advisor.” This is not the same as your departmental advisor, if different from your research advisor.  (More information about research vs. departmental advisor is given here.) The “secondary advisor” is instead just an extra faculty member to ask “what happened” at Black Friday, and it is totally optional for you to contact this person. Some students find this useful, others report they have never spoken with their secondary advisor about Black Friday.

Probably nothing other than a mice bug.  But definitely do send email to the phd-chair and/or the doctoral program administrator to inquire, since it is a top priority to provide timely feedback to our doctoral student

Now we come to the crux of the letter.  You should strive for exactly the sentence above, “The faculty feels that you are making satisfactory progress”.  This is the best letter you can possibly get (with the notable exception of your very last Black Friday letter, which will congratulate you on your successful defense and wish you well in your future career, but at that point you will not care in the slightest what your Black Friday letter says).

Satisfactory progress means that you are “on target”, or better, with respect to the various doctoral program milestones, summarized in the table here.  You may be somewhat behind with respect to one milestone, but if you are ahead on another milestone, or your research is particularly strong (e.g., you published a paper at a prestigious conference this semester), most likely your letter will still say “satisfactory progress”.  Which means exactly that, your progress – all things considered – was satisfactory. No stronger superlatives are ever used; this is a policy decided in the dim dark ages of the department (c. 1979), basically to prevent students from comparing and contrasting “outstanding” vs. “magnificent” vs. “terrific” vs. “wicked cool” vs. … progress and imagining one is better than the other.

Most significantly it means you are making satisfactory progress.

The additional “looking forward to” clause can mean one of three things.  In a few cases, it is because the faculty knows that your milestone (candidacy exam, thesis proposal, whatever) is already scheduled, and we are indeed looking forward to it (in this case the letter might say “in July” or some such rather than “by next Black Friday”). In the more common case, this is a gentle reminder that the particular milestone is “due” next semester; again consult the milestone chart. For instance, “we look forward to your candidacy exam by next Black Friday” might be placed into the letters of every 5th semester student.  The third possibility is that your advisor thinks you can do it “early”.  So if that particular milestone is not yet “due” for you, you will have to consult your advisor to find out what he/she has in mind. If in doubt, the best bet is always to consult your advisor – and possibly your “secondary advisor.” But of course you should meet with your advisor as soon as possible after every Black Friday meeting to discuss your progress, even when your letter says nothing other than “satisfactory progress”.

This is the mildest possible level of concern.  The “expects” clause may mean that you are a semester behind on achieving that milestone, or perhaps you are not yet behind, technically, but there is some doubt regarding your motivation towards fulfilling the milestone on time. You should give high priority to completing that milestone by the specified date. However, such dates are rarely cast in stone, except for breadth requirement exams and courses, which are only given at certain times; in all other cases, a week or two later probably isn’t going to matter much, but it might not be wise to let it go a month.

Some of the more senior students may recall when “expects” was used interchangeably with “looking forward to” and meant the same as the latter.  The faculty has tried to differentiate these two phrases in recent years, but it is not impossible that the “expects” phrase might still be used occasionally in the deprecated sense. As always, if in doubt, consult your advisor (and/or your “secondary advisor”).

In most but not all cases, a “requires” phrase is accompanied by another sentence, such as “If you do not, you may be placed on probation.” (If the letter says you have already been placed on probation, see below.) There may also be further details regarding the milestone(s), such as a suggestion that you should take the corresponding course rather than attempt that problematic comp exam for the fifth time.

This kind of letter is intended to express a very serious level of concern.  Usually the milestone was “due” two or more semesters ago, and/or more than one milestone is past due, and/or the faculty feels an immense urge to remind you to attend to your doctoral degree, as opposed to outside consulting, avid gaming, overenthusiastic community service, or whatever else you spend too much time on rather than working on your research and other doctoral program milestones. You should give highest priority to completing the specified milestone(s) by the specified date(s), and in any case meet with your advisor as soon as possible to organize your plan of action.

All students are expected to spend at least half-time on research from the beginning of the doctoral program.  In the first semester or so, this might consist primarily of background reading, learning a system, helping out with demos, etc. But usually by the end of the second or third semester, your advisor will expect you to start producing results.  And then to continue producing results, of increasing significance, throughout the rest of the program.  But this doesn’t always happen.  It is quite possible, indeed common, for a student who is completely “up to date” with respect to the official milestones to receive a letter expecting or requiring something like “substantial research progress”.

Ideally, you would, but this is not an ideal world.  Your May letter could have been overly optimistic, e.g., implicitly assuming you would get a lot done in the lab over the summer – but it turned out you disappeared for a summer internship (and neglected to tell your advisor in advance, a really bad move).  It is possible that your progress took a very substantial turn for the worse between May and December, or that new information came to light in the interim, which could be as simple as a submitted paper being rejected. Rejection of a paper, if that’s all there is to it, is unlikely by itself to cause a phenomenal change in your advisor’s perception of your progress; most conferences that are worth submitting to have very low acceptance rates.  But if the reviewers point out that the same idea was published in such and such seminal work 20 years ago, that could be a big problem (for your advisor as well as you, your advisor should have caught this!).  In rare cases, your advisor may have significantly raised his/her expectations; this is of course more likely with relatively “new” faculty than with experienced advisors, since it may take a few semesters for an advisor to “calibrate” what is considered “satisfactory progress” for our doctoral students – particularly in regards to research progress, which  is inherently somewhat subjective, rather than completion of the formal milestones.

Also, think about the position of the faculty. Imagine we have a student who accomplishes absolutely nothing for four semesters in a row. The full sequence would go “expects” at the end of the first such semester, “requires” after the second, “probation” after the third, and then finally “termination” at the end of the fourth semester.  This is far too long to wait, for either the student or the faculty, and in any case the faculty are not that patient.  The author recalls the extreme case of a student terminated after only one semester, with no warnings: the new student showed up in September, filled out the “direct deposit” paperwork for his stipend in the front office, and was never seen again.

In most but not all such cases, there will be another sentence, such as “If you do not, you may be terminated from the program.” This kind of letter is intended to express an extremely severe level of concern.  Usually this means your advisor is close to “giving up hope” that you will ever accomplish the milestone, and eventually be awarded the doctorate.  You absolutely must devote your full-time and beyond efforts  to completing that milestone(s) by the specified date(s). If you are able to complete some, but not all, of the milestones, or make substantial visible progress towards the milestone(s), your probation is likely to be continued for multiple semesters, without termination.

However, if you are unable, for whatever reasons, to devote your attention fully to the specified milestone(s), it might be appropriate to consider a “leave of absence” for one semester or one year, see below. In this circumstance, it would probably be wise to remain on leave of absence until you are prepared to fully immerse yourself in the doctoral program, with particular focus on the indicated milestone(s).

Do not despair, however.  Many students have succeeded in pulling themselves out of probation, and successfully defended. The author of this document was told by her advisor that she would be leaving the doctoral program “one way or the other” in one year, period, and she defended with two weeks to spare. (Really!)

Students take leaves for all kinds of reasons, including to make money, tend to an infant or ill relative, travel, catch up on life, try out a different kind of graduate program (e.g., law or business school), etc. There is no stigma attached, but please do discuss your plans with your advisor first, he/she should not find out from someone else that you’ve applied for a leave!

It is possible to take a leave for up to one calendar year, with no academic penalty, as long as the leave is formally requested in advance.  After one year, the university requires students to reapply for admission. There is an exception  for students who completed all requirements other than the dissertation prior to the leave, who would not need to reapply in order to defend their dissertation; contact the Doctoral Program Chair if this applies to you – preferably before you go on leave rather than after you return.

It is extremely rare, but some students are indeed terminated from the program, or perhaps asked to take a leave of absence, but it is much more common for a student to leave, whether temporarily or permanently, on his/her own.  However, it is inappropriate to assume that a student who resigned from the program was “in trouble” – some students making quite satisfactory progress simply decide they are not interested in pursuing a doctorate, at least not right now, or receive job or other offers they “cannot refuse”.

A Black Friday letter might also address some unusual individual circumstances of a particular student, but most Black Friday letters are generated by filling in templates.  Yes, it is a “form letter”.  The faculty have only a few hours to discuss over 100 doctoral students, there simply isn’t time to write personal letters for each student.

Send suggestions for additional questions (to answer) to phd-chair