There are few things that play as significant a role in a graduate student’s experience as the relationship with one’s advisor, yet the Institute does not currently emphasize enough the importance of faculty mentorship. A positive advisor/advisee relationship enables students to make the most out of their experience, to learn important lessons for their personal and professional development, and to find support in times of difficulty. On the other hand, poor advising can often lead students to feel trapped, discouraged, unappreciated, and unable to reach their potential.
There are a variety of positive steps the Institute could take to address these issues. New faculty must be properly oriented and trained with regards to the importance of advising and mentoring, and the Institute must create clear expectations regarding their role in training students. Best practices, such as maintaining open and honest communication, should be emphasized. Faculty should be encouraged to make their expectations clear to new advisees, with regards to both work and funding, before the start of the student’s research. The Institute must find ways to encourage faculty to consider the individual needs of their advisees and mentor them appropriately, rather than merely examining the volume of their output as a research assistant.
On the other side, the Institute must also guide graduate students on how to choose an advisor with whom they will work in enjoyable and productive manner. Students should understand what will be expected of them and what they can expect in return.
Similar to the case for effective teaching, the Institute should reflect its commitment to good advising in its tenure decisions. A professor acts in the roles of researcher, teacher, and advisor. Many graduate students feel that in order to truly consider merit in terms of a professor’s advising capabilities, one must solicit input from the professor’s past advisees.
UROP is one of the most unique and frequently highlighted aspects of MIT’s undergraduate program. Conceptually, the program has substantial strengths: students get an opportunity to interact closely with faculty and develop professionally through hands-on experience in research labs where they begin to appreciate the applications of their academic studies. Students recognize the value and significance of these opportunities, which better prepare them for the rigors of the research environment as compared to students from our peer institutions.
As with any program, there is room for improvement with UROP. Greater attention needs to be placed on research mentorship and advising. Practices similar to what is needed in the arena of graduate advising (as discussed above), such as clearly communicating expectations at the start of the research, should be encouraged. In addition, while UROP offers significant opportunities, students often have difficulty finding positions unless they directly contact a faculty member. Through improved publicity, UROP can better match students with their fields of interest and allow them to have the best possible experience. Finally, it is important that MIT continue to evaluate the most effective way to distribute funding for the UROP program, including the basis upon which the central UROP office determines which applicants to fund.
One of the primary limitations for graduate research opportunities is funding, particularly for graduate students in their first year. New students given funding to work on a particular project often feel that they lack flexibility in their research, and those interested in working with junior faculty face increased difficulties in finding funding. Depending upon the department, a new student is given a variable number of opportunities to obtain funding through a teaching assistantship, which might give them additional time to search for an appropriate research group. Students with fellowships generally have the most flexibility, though many external fellowships are unable to cover MIT’s large tuition. The Institute should examine the ways in which policies regarding graduate funding might be altered to allow for increased flexibility, particularly among new students.