Complaint & Appeals Process - PhD

Complaints and Appeals Policy

PhD Program

Department of Computer Science

November, 2020

The university and the department have safeguards in place to protect members of the community both as students and as employees, and to maintain standards of responsibility and professionalism in graduate education.  Here is the graduate school code of responsible conduct and professionalism in graduate education, for faculty, students, mentors and mentees: https://gsnb.rutgers.edu/code-responsible-conduct-and-professionalism-graduate-education

We expect and encourage:

Honesty and integrity

Respect and tolerance

Sensitivity to differences among individuals

Professionalism

Attention to goals and responsibilities

Timely and constructive feedback

Acceptance of constructive feedback

Inappropriate behaviors:

Mistreatment, abuse, bullying, or harassment, whether by actions or language

Unprofessional criticism

Requests for personal services

Assigning tasks as punishment or retribution

Sexual assault or sexual harassment

Discrimination

Indifference to inappropriate behaviors that are witnessed

University Resources:

School of Graduate Studies (SGS) Problem Resolution: http://gsnb.rutgers.edu/student-services/problem-resolution

Code of Student Conduct: http://studentconduct.rutgers.edu/disciplinary-processes/university-code-of-student-conduct/

Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance: http://vpva.rutgers.edu/

Title IX, to report complaints http://compliance.rutgers.edu/title-ix/

CAPS: https://sasundergrad.rutgers.edu/academic-standing/student-services/1895-caps

University ethics and compliance: https://uec.rutgers.edu/programs/ethics/

We expect you to fulfill your part here.  But we also are ready to assist you if you feel you are not being treated fairly by the people you are working with in the program, which includes your advisor or any staff members you are interacting with.  The above listed university resources are here to help you. If you don’t know or are unsure what university resource to reach out to, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Barbara Bender, Senior Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. She will get you in touch with the appropriate university resources.

Goals and Scope of this Document

The goal of this document is to clarify the complaint and appeals process for the PhD program in the Department of Computer Science. For simplicity, we will refer to a complaint or appeal as simply a “complaint”.

If you experience any form of inappropriate behavior including harassment, bullying, or retaliation, you should reach out to Dr. Ulrich Kremer (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), the Graduate Program Director, or any university resources as listed above. Any member of the University who is aware of any harassment, bullying, or retaliation is strongly encouraged to report such inappropriate behavior. Any such behaviors will not be tolerated. There are separate processes and procedures in place to deal with these situations.

The scope of this document is limited to complaints addressing academic decisions or situations, including your course grades, TA and GA-ship , PhD thesis, independent study, and CPT.

Sometimes graduate students need another avenue for dealing with problems that cannot be resolved within their graduate programs or other Rutgers office. If you have been unable to solve a problem or if you do not feel comfortable addressing a concern within your graduate program, you may wish to contact Dr. Barbara Bender, Senior Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, who is available to confidentially assist students and faculty in addressing a wide variety of concerns. Dean Bender will help students and faculty identify options, consider avenues to pursue, and seek alternate resolutions to disputes.

When and How to File a Complaint

As a general rule, you first need to clarify a decision or try to resolve a disagreement with the faculty member who made the decision. This may be your instructor who graded your homework or exam, your faculty and thesis (research) advisor, the instructor you TA for, or the Graduate Program Director who approves your CPT and monitors your progress through the PhD program. The root of many conflicts is a misunderstanding of a particular decision or situation, or a miscommunication about the expectation of a deliverable. If you made a good faith effort to resolve the situation, but still feel that you are treated unfairly or that a decision is not justified, you may file a complaint. Keep in mind that being unhappy about a grade or a decision is not a sufficient reason to file a complaint. For example, the fact that an instructor could have given you more points for an exam problem is not a valid reason for a complaint as long your score is consistent with the grading policy used for the particular exam problem, and the grading policy has been applied evenly and fairly.

  • Where to send your complaint? If the complaint is about a grader or teaching assistant (TA), you should send the complaint to the instructor of the class. If your complaint is about the instructor of the class, or your academic or thesis advisor, you should file the complaint with the Graduate Program Director, assuming that the Graduate Program Director is not the instructor or the advisor. If the complaint is about the Graduate Program Director, you should file your complaint with the Graduate Program Committee. For any complaint beyond this level you should reach out to the Dean’s office or general university administration.
  • What is the format of a complaint? The format of a complaint is an email message. You should clearly state the reasons for your complaint, list all individuals involved, and describe your failed, good faith effort to resolve the conflict in question. Be respectful and do not leave out any relevant details even if they may seem to weaken your case.
  • What to expect after filing a complaint? You can expect to receive a response to your complaint via email within 10 working days from sending your complaint email. Please note that you may be asked to clarify some aspects of your complaint in order to allow a fair and informed decision. If you believe that the resulting decision is unfair or unjustified, you may escalate the complaint to the next level (see “Where to send your complaint?”). Please note that any escalation has to be justified and is not just another opportunity to be successful with your complaint.

Sample Situations Where Conflicts May Arise

This is not meant to be a complete list.

(a) TA Workload

As a TA, you are expected to spend an average of 15 hours per week to support course instruction.  You must expect some crunch times where work is higher, especially around exam times.  This is because Rutgers gives very little time for grading, especially in the spring semester—students need their grades for graduation just a couple days after the exam period ends.  In addition, no matter what other teaching obligations there are, recitations and similar fixed sessions associated with the class must always meet as scheduled.  Although we know conflicts may arise because of considerations such as research travel, illness, and family emergencies, we expect you to notify the instructor as soon as possible and arrange for someone to cover for you (for example, swapping duties with another TA for the class). 

Over the semester, the occasional weeks of heavy load should average out.  However, if you find that you are consistently spending more than the allocated 15 hours per week, you should prepare a short memo itemizing your duties for the class and the time that you are spending on each. Present it to your instructor for discussion and problem solving.  Be prepared for a range of outcomes that let you focus your time back on your own coursework and research:

  • The instructor hires additional staff to assist with problematic tasks, such as grading.
  • The instructor adjusts aspects of the course implementation so that TA duties are reduced. Small changes with few pedagogical ramifications – like making a difficult-to-grade program component extra credit – can sometimes lighten TA workload substantially.
  • The instructor offers mentoring advice to improve your efficiency. Ineffective email strategies can be extremely time consuming. In grading, it’s usually not worth agonizing about details or writing long comments to students.   Being a successful teacher means finding the point of diminishing returns and stopping (maybe sooner than you’re comfortable with). 

Write up your understanding of your discussion and share it with the instructor; keep track of how your time demands change in the week or two that follow. 

If you still feel the burden is too large, or you feel that the tasks that you are asked to do fall outside what’s appropriate, you should file a complaint.  We will expect you to include in your complaint both your summary describing your initial problem with the class and the outcome of your meeting with the instructor to attempt a resolution.  Keep your messages short and to the point.  We are obligated to find a way to reduce your hours to the contractual amount.

(b) GA Workload

A GA also involves 15 hours per week of work, on average.  It’s important to be clear on what that means, however.  Research, like teaching, has crunch times where you will need to sprint—conference deadlines, project meetings, deliverable due dates.  It should average out.  Also, there is not always a clear divide between GA duties and your own research.  You need to have realistic expectations—finishing a PhD is a full-time job, and you should expect to work diligently but consistently on your own research ideas.

Bottom line: If you are a GA, you should not be asked regularly to spend more than 15 hours per week on tasks that do not contribute to your research portfolio in terms of your dissertation work, publications, or other measures of research productivity and visibility (e.g., releasing open source software or data sets, participating in a high-profile competitive evaluation).  Such tasks might include building software infrastructure for others’ experiments, maintaining general lab software or equipment, managing or mentoring other teammates, or supporting external collaborators and assisting in technology transfer. If you find that you are consistently spending more than the allocated 15 hours per week on such tasks, you should prepare a short memo itemizing your duties and the time that you are spending on each. Present it to your supervisor for discussion and problem solving.  Again, be prepared for a range of good outcomes, including not only bringing on additional assistance but learning to work more effectively or finding ways to formalize the contributions the work brings to your own research.  Write up your understanding of your discussion and share it with your supervisor; keep track of how your time demands change in the weeks that follow. 

If you still feel the burden is too large, or you feel that the tasks that you are asked to do fall outside what’s appropriate, you may file a complaint with the Graduate Program Director. We will expect you to include in your complaint both your summary describing your initial problem and the outcome of your meeting with your supervisor to attempt a resolution.  Keep your messages short and to the point.  We are obligated to find a way to reduce your hours to the contractual amount.

(c) Course Grades

You can appeal your grade in a course. You should first contact the grader or instructor, (the latter for classes without graders or TAs) stating the grade you received, the grade you think you deserved, and your justification. In many cases, the grader or instructor will agree with you, apologize for the error, and make the change.  (Remember how quickly grading has to be done—errors unfortunately occur.) In other cases, the grader or instructor will explain their reasons for sticking with the original grade.  Be open to the possibility that there may be areas where you fell short in the class that you didn’t appreciate, in terms of technical skills or specific tasks and requirements. If you are still unsatisfied, you have the option of initiating the complaint process.

(d) PhD Theses and Independent Studies

Major aspects of our PhD program involve a negotiation between you, the student, and a faculty or thesis advisor. This includes your PhD thesis topic, your PhD thesis, and independent study courses (198:60X). Here, you and your faculty advisor will have to agree on the scope of the work required to successfully accomplish your deliverables. The negotiation of these required deliverables should be done in advance, resulting in an agreement between you and your advisor. However, since some of this work requires research or implementation work, things are unpredictable in nature, i.e., things may not work out, or are harder (or sometimes easier!) than expected. In these cases, a “re-negotiation” is often required which should involve your advisor and all members of your thesis committee. Your thesis committee members are an important resource who will be able to guide you and help with solving conflicts. Do not hesitate to reach out to them. If you believe that your advisor’s and committee’s expectations with respect to workload and timeline to produce results is unreasonable, and your advisor and committee disagree with your assessment and are not willing to change their expectations, you may file a complaint.

Most likely, there will be stumbling blocks on the way, which is the expected rather than the exceptional case when conducting research or implementing a larger software system. You should inform your advisor as soon as possible about such stumbling blocks in order to get your advisor’s help to solve your issues, or allow your advisor to adjust your “deliverables” if these issues cannot be solved within a reasonable time. It is your responsibility to keep your advisor informed in a timely fashion, and it is your advisor’s responsibility to guide you around these stumbling blocks.

(e) CPT

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is another possible aspect of your PhD education. If you are an international student, you are allowed to spend up to 20 hours per week during the fall and spring semesters at an industrial internship covered by the CPT. During the summer, the CPT can be up to 40 hours per week. Your CPT has to be approved by the Graduate Program Director. The CPT has to match your research plan, and will only be approved if you are making good progress towards finishing your degree. The CPT should not be a distraction, but a contribution to your educational and research goals. Typically, up to 10 - 15 hours per week may be considered reasonable, but based on your academic performance or research progress, you may only be able to work fewer hours, or not take a CPT at all. For students with a TA or GA-ship, getting an approval for a CPT during the academic year is rather rare, and if granted, is likely to be restricted to 5 hours a week or less. You may appeal any CPT decision.

More details related to CPT and OPT (Optional Practical Training) can be found here:

https://global.rutgers.edu/international-scholars-students/students/current/employment/practical-training/cpt  

    and

https://global.rutgers.edu/international-scholars-students/students/current/employment/practical-training/opt

Other Matters

Students can reach out to the Graduate Program Director about all matters concerning their status in the PhD program, including any paperwork that requires approval from our PhD program office, or a request for advice how to proceed with a potential complaint. In addition, students may contact Dr. Barbara Bender, Senior Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, about any issues related to our PhD program.