Student Leaders Report
The Changing Needs of Graduate Students
A new academic year, another year to keep working on closing the gap between what is absolutely needed and what is currently available for graduate students.
The graduate student mindset and their graduate school lifestyles are constantly changing ones. Accepting this continuous change and adapting and catering for these needs can be very challenging.
In most respects, graduate students' needs and ambitions differ greatly from their undergraduate counterparts. This makes the adapting and catering for student needs even more difficult. The Graduate Student Council (GSC), the closest link for the bulk of 5,700 graduate students, identifies and brings to the fore most of these demands by identifying the needs and setting up the foundations to help graduate students achieve and satisfy those needs. With the assistance of the MIT administration, the GSC helps the Institute better guide and address graduate student needs.
Given the importance of adapting to those needs, we truly need a collective effort. Along with the main administrative branches, faculty have a big role to play in helping and assisting the graduate students achieve their targets.
Sampling a set of graduate students reveals a series of common beliefs and ambitions: Coming to graduate school, especially to a highly prestigious one like MIT, is a means of enabling them to gain a greater thrust in propelling them in their future careers. Most of the students look for quick throughput, to enable them to begin their careers early.
A comparison of students graduating from grad school over the last decade indicates that what were generally termed "alternative" careers in the past (e.g., management consulting, finance, patent law, venture capital) are now main stream career options for most graduate students. The reason is simple: independence and startup culture being the norm, there is an ever-increasing demand for talented individuals with a wide scope. High-paying industries like finance and consulting are also in the constant hunt for such people.
Students are constantly looking for ways to add value to themselves. This is evidenced by the large demand for places in Sloan School courses, increasing interest in programs like TPP (Technology and Policy Program), and demand for interdisciplinary research. Essentially, it is about learning other fields, participating in courses outside their departments, and learning about the business environment. The result, is that increasingly students spend less time on their main research. Furthermore, students are looking to graduate quickly so that they can engage in the New Economy.
Student lifestyles have also evolved a great deal. Nowadays, graduate students are more extroverted, looking to engage in a host of extracurricular activities. Engaging in extracurricular activities offers students the opportunity to network and socialize with fellow students, alumni(ae), and the few faculty who venture out to meet students.
In line with this new "style," there is a striking point in how students select their graduate school. Long gone are the days when a graduate school was selected purely based on prestige. Nowadays, it is about finding a graduate school that offers a good balance between study, research, and student life. A healthy stipend, availability of funding at the start, good advising, convenient and comfortable accommodations, a vibrant social life, the ability to network and interact with future trendsetters, are some of the key points pondered before selections are made. Students who come to graduate school at MIT are fully aware of the other opportunities that are available to them. It is no secret that other universities with reputable graduate schools such as Stanford and Northwestern offer higher stipends and better standards of living. That is why these schools continue to attract more and more bright students away from MIT. It also has to be remembered that students opt to attend graduate school at the expense of working in industry. It is easy for students to drop out, if things do not go their way in graduate school.
The additional 125 beds this year (the new Warehouse residence, formerly called NW30) and up to 650 available next year (at the Sydney/Pacific residence) will no doubt alleviate the housing problems of new arrivals. Indeed, this is a positive step in confirming MIT's commitment towards improving the difficult housing situation faced by graduate students. A great deal of perseverance and collective effort will be required to ensure that the new buildings do indeed cater to students especially with regards to amenities and community-building. This has been satisfactorily done in the case of the Warehouse residence and the basic design of Sydney/Pacific. We have to ensure that student input continues to be considered as construction of Sydney/Pacific steams ahead. Similarly, the completion of the new athletic facility will help improve MIT's image of offering students more facilities outside of the laboratory
Preparing students to face the outside world is one of the issues in which the GSC is directly involved. The Academics, Research and Careers Committee of the GSC organizes Professional Development Seminars (PDS) aimed at highlighting the current career trends, identifying the career choices available, and discussing the skills required for various fields. The Graduate Leadership Program is another positive activity. This year the GSC, together with support from the Graduate Students Office, Residential and Student Life Programs (RLSLP) and Graduate Administrators, developed a Leadership Program for graduate students. A group of 70 student leaders involved with various student groups will participate in the first session. It is hoped that this idea of providing opportunities for professional development can be expanded and be made available to the larger graduate student body. There is no doubt how beneficial this can be.
In addition, the GSC organizes the annual graduate career fair at MIT in an effort to bring together employers and students under one roof. This has proven to be a great service for graduate students, with last year's event attracting nearly 2000 graduate students and over 350 companies. This year's career fair will take place on the 20th and 21st of September.
The need for the GSC to organize these events stems from the fact that there are no staff members at MIT fully dedicated to catering to graduate students and their career needs. This is a rather surprising and disappointing situation, given that graduate students constitute more than half the student population, yet lack administrative support in certain critical areas, like career assistance. This point has been raised over and over again in the past, with only limited action.
While the Office of Career Services and Pre-professional Advising (OCSPA) has made efforts and carried through with having one dedicated person dealing with graduate students, this is by no means sufficient. In fact, a comprehensive review of graduate student career needs and trends, and identifying ways to effectively cater for those needs, is necessary.
Grad School 101, which was started last year, will be held again this year during the fall semester. Moderated by Dr. Ike Colbert, dean for Graduate Students, and Professor Steve Lerman, former chair of the faculty, the series of four seminars will address some of the critical issues facing students in graduate school. We strongly recommend new graduate students attend these seminars and your assistance in informing them about them will be most appreciated. There is nothing better than being well prepared!
This year, the GSC also initiated a couple of programs to help new students. The mentoring program for incoming international students is one of them. The program involves pairing up an incoming international student with a current MIT student and also an MIT alumnus. This has been hugely popular, with nearly half the incoming international students participating in the program. Another new program is the MIT airport shuttle service for newly arriving graduate students. This is aimed at ensuring new students arrive at their graduate residence trouble-free. Both these programs will go a long way toward promoting a favorable first impression of MIT to the new students.
On a different note, it is no secret that it is the graduate students who help the faculty carry out the research which in turn helps build the image of MIT. That is why attracting the best and the brightest is important. It is also no secret that attracting the best and the brightest graduate students to MIT is a challenge. As was mentioned above, graduate students now look for many things other than just repute. As the cost of living continues to increase (spiraling rents being a major factor) stipend increases are still necessary. While there have been some substantial increases in the past two years, MIT is still not in the same league as other institutions such as Stanford and Northwestern in terms of providing a stipend based on the cost of living in their respective areas. Subsidizing health and dental insurance (when and if that is made available for graduate students) will help improve MIT's ranking in the "student compensation" league.
I'll wrap up with a quick mention of some events coming up in the next year where we would really like to see faculty participation. Run4Kids http://www.run4kids.com is a charity run (open to everyone, young and old) scheduled for the 23rd of September, with proceeds going to charities dealing with kids. We hope you will join us with your families. Then there will be the Infinite Buffet (a buffet along the infinite corridor), another family event being planned for the 27th of October. In the spring semester we are planning for an Institute-wide exhibition of MIT research (Research Expo) presented by various research groups. We will be soliciting your input on this in the coming weeks. We hope you'll be part of this unique exhibition. Also in the planning is a conference on developmental issues for third world countries. This is planned for next April. In addition, there will be a number of social and networking events. Some are technology-specific, such as those organized by TechLink http://web.mit.edu/techlink. Others will simply be opportunities to socialize with students, alumni and alumnae. Whichever of these you intend to participate in, students will be eagerly awaiting to meet you!
Finally, it is clear that there is a fair bit of work to be done in order to make the graduate experience at MIT truly enjoyable and in line with some of the other competitor schools. Some courage on the part of the faculty in understanding the demands and needs of the new-generation graduate student will go a long way towards achieving that goal. I invite you to help create a cutting-edge graduate student experience!