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News From The Dean

"Community" and the Graduate Experience

Ike Colbert, Barrie Gleason, Blanche Staton

In “News from the Dean” published last year at this time, the Dean for Graduate Students introduced a framework for thinking about graduate community at MIT. Briefly, the Dean suggested that community comprised those “opportunities for priceless encounters” that prepare students for community citizenship.

Such encounters occur at multiple levels of learning along a continuum, but it’s handy to consider just three different levels of community experience (which may or may not be discrete): the departmental level, the Institute level, and the personal level. For the student, experiences of community at the departmental level are the heart of the matter. This is where opportunities flourish for students to connect with their departments, their programs, and their professions. This is the essence of communication within their chosen field, where they learn to express and defend their ideas, seek professional connections, and to exchange observations and criticisms. These intellectual and social interactions represent what faculty are already doing and what many faculty view as their most appropriate venues for engagement with graduate students.

However, priceless encounters also occur at the Institute level and the personal level. At the Institute level are opportunities that exist for students to “connect” with staff and administration. These include opportunities to hear and respond to various concerns expressed by graduate students, and occasions for students to participate in the development of the Institute’s policies and practices.

At the most personal level of the graduate experience are a variety of serendipitous, informal encounters. Some of these encounters are around such “magnets” as location (e.g., housing), ethnicity, gender, and cultural background. Others may occur in the context of social activities initiated by housemasters, student organizations, or staff. Taken together, these provide a rich set of additional opportunities for students to meet across disciplinary and departmental boundaries. Imagine the unexpected ideas that might emerge from conversations over coffee and a sandwich.

One graduate student suggested an analogy for thinking about the three levels of community experience. He compared these experiences with learning how to dress for winter in New England. “You need to learn how to dress in layers, with a warm jacket (the Institute level), then suitable attire for the business of the day (the departmental level), and close to the skin, your thermals (the personal level).”

But, he cautioned, “It’s difficult to achieve the right balance.” That implies pulling that outfit together and achieving the best fit to ensure that the student survives – and thrives. What does it mean to achieve the best fit? If the only consideration were warmth and comfort level, achieving the right balance could be defined solely in the student’s terms. But if thriving is the real issue, then the student may want to check his or her reflection in the mirror as well as in the eyes of significant others at MIT. This implies the need for conversations between the student and others regarding shared expectations for work ethic and professional conduct.

Thus, this student’s analogy illustrates the challenge faced today by graduate students and faculty. On the one hand, many faculty do not acknowledge the need for the right balance in experiences of community at personal and professional levels that recent generations of graduate students demand. On the other hand, the Institute’s continued success in attracting the very best graduate students to our programs requires prompt attention to this challenge. The Institute’s willingness to develop and nurture graduate community is at the heart of our response.

The Dean’s framework for thinking about community is based on observations gleaned from focus groups of graduate students, faculty, and alums conducted under the auspices of the Graduate Students Office (GSO). In 17 unique focus group sessions held over the past year and a half, participants expressed their views on the relevance of MIT’s educational triad. The common question posed to each one of the focus groups was the following:

The September 1998 report from the Task Force on Student Life and Learning states that “An MIT education should prepare students for life through an educational triad composed of academics, research, and community.” How is this relevant for graduate students?

What follows is a description of the common themes regarding the triad that run through the focus group discussions. They are:

Relevance of the triad

MIT is addressing a sea change in the model of what young people have come to expect of the Institute. The challenge is not unique to MIT, but represents a “quiet revolution” in graduate schools across the country in which graduate students are expressing a desire for something different, more relevant from their graduate experience.

The triad is what the typical student would like to have. Important common messages expressed by graduate students in focus groups – and echoed by faculty, and alums – include the following:

In general, faculty believe that MIT does “fine” with academics and research but fails to provide the sense of community that would more completely integrate the graduate experience. Traditionally, MIT has focused its student life efforts on the undergraduate experience. However, the alumni/ae whom we interviewed believe that the triad is extremely relevant for graduate students also, and that the lack of emphasis on “community” at MIT limits the graduate student’s potential contribution. They argued that MIT needs to address and improve the balance among the three components of the triad, for all students.

Since the Task Force report has already established the necessity for “bringing the community side of the triad to the same standard of excellence as research and academics…” the important next step may be to identify the appropriate experiences. They may reflect the cultures of unique disciplines of study, or of departments, or transcend them.

Community and communication

When students and alums talk about the importance of community experiences, they invariably link the notion with refining skills of communication. These are opportunities for students to talk to, persuade, teach, explain, interview, and sell, and to refine those skills and abilities.

Faculty opinion differs on where the responsibility lies for creating community – with the faculty or with students and administrators – and there is a sense that faculty don’t really understand what students specifically want in this arena.

If the GSO’s proposed framework for thinking about graduate community is valid, the responsibility is certainly a shared one. Surely what is most important occurs at the departmental level in the professional context, that is, in the lectures, papers and presentations, lab conversations, and other department-centered activities through which students and faculty clarify their expectations for one another, in formal and informal ways.

Providing support to graduate students at the Institute and personal levels may lie chiefly within the purview of MIT’s administrators, taking the shape of opportunities such as the curriculum for leadership training for graduate students; Institute funding to support student activities; the annual reception to celebrate graduate student women sponsored by the Provost and the Dean for Graduate Students; or enhanced career services and counseling for Ph.D. students. Certainly, faculty are invited to participate at these levels, but we recognize the challenge to fit any additional activities into their schedules.

Grad students as future alums

Graduate students believe that community experiences are a very important part of their education. They also make the connection between such experiences and their role as alums once they leave MIT. They believe that developing graduate community here at MIT is the essential first step towards developing a vibrant alumni/ae community. Some observations from the focus groups include the following:

These thoughts are congruent with what the Dean has learned in focus groups conducted with alums as close as New York City and as far away as Hong Kong. Not only are alums eager to contribute their thinking along these lines, they also welcome any opportunity to support the Institute’s efforts toward their greater inclusion.

Role of the GSO

The biggest surprise in what the GSO has heard from students is the extent to which they are passionate about the triad, and their willingness to support the GSO’s efforts to promote graduate community. How does this happen?

As the Dean observed, “I think we are improving the way in which we interact within this [the graduate] community of learning at all levels: faculty, staff, and students. And I think all of that is going to provide a rich array of opportunities for learning, both in the traditional sense…and in the informal ways in which students and faculty learn from and among one another, and in the kinds of facilities that we make available to enhance these opportunities.” [MIT Museum Exhibition Video, tape 3, 2001]

With regard to the community aspect of the triad, Chancellor Phil Clay believes that, “One way of thinking about the issue of community is to talk about it…and come up with some ideas on how we can create a caring and open community that furthers the growth of students both intellectually and spiritually, where they feel a sense of cohesiveness, kinship, and trust.” [An Interview with Chancellor Phillip L. Clay, The MIT Faculty Newsletter, September 2001] Working closely with graduate students and with administrative colleagues, the GSO has made considerable progress in that direction by setting the stage for conversations with students, faculty, and the administration. These conversations began with explaining how the work in the GSO has evolved from and is centered on the educational triad. They have evolved into a discussion of shared responsibilities for graduate community that serve to spell out some of the terms of MIT’s “social contract.”

What’s next?

The GSO plans to continue its work in three different arenas:

The GSO will continue to promote “opportunities for priceless encounters,” especially at the Institute level and at the personal level. On its newly redesigned Website (http://web.mit.edu/gso/) the GSO describes a number of activities that the Office oversees or supports. These activities are opportunities for priceless encounters that enable students to learn more about Institute priorities and policies (for example, participating on the leadership team of the Graduate Student Council) or for students to come together informally and make the connections that may enrich their professional and personal lives (e.g., Graduate School 101, and the Graduate Women’s Group).

At the departmental level, the GSO can play a role by spotlighting what is already working well. Some examples: Faculty from one department recognized the value of a grad lounge in contributing to a sense of community and support. Other faculty considered being more aggressive with their future marketing by including information referring to quality of life in the department. They reasoned that including the testimony of students about graduate life at MIT showed that “we care enough to include that information, and second, to point out that you can actually have fun here.” Still others referred to the positive reaction on the part of students and faculty once the department began hosting open houses. Not only did these social events serve to break down barriers, but the department linked an increase in yield to this outreach. Another department created an internal reward system to acknowledge women students who brought the community together. Many faculty already agree that more social interaction would benefit students intellectually as well as personally!

The GSO plans to articulate a set of overarching messages that fashion a clearer picture of the full range of the graduate experience available at the Institute; and complement departmental outreach about unique programs. The GSO has harvested rich material from its focus group research in which students have described what they are getting from their graduate experience; faculty have described what they are providing; and alums, from the perspective of hindsight, have described what they got. From this mix, the GSO has teased out a set of themes or messages. This article is one of several venues planned for “going public” with what the GSO has heard.

After his conversations with the Chancellor, the Provost, the Deans of MIT’s five Schools as well as with the Council for Graduate School Programs, the Dean for Graduate Students and his communications team will refine the set of messages that are relevant to share with the MIT community.

These messages have the potential to help us understand what young people expect of the Institute and how best to address those expectations. These messages can inform communications with current students as well as with the prospects we hope to attract to the Institute, whether we’re describing the MIT community experience overall or the unique professional communities within the five Schools. As Chancellor Clay has expressed, “…there are some concrete things we can do that will make it possible for colleagues to like being here, to want to stay, to want to give back to and strengthen community.” [An Interview with Chancellor Phillip L. Clay, The MIT Faculty Newsletter, September 2001]

We have strong reasons to believe that acting on this understanding will strengthen the Institute’s competitive position by presenting MIT’s face to the world in a more compelling manner.

The GSO plans to sustain outreach to students and to administrative colleagues. The GSO is a small office with a big charter. Without collaboration, it would be impossible to do what needs to be done. For the past two years, the GSO has aligned its work efforts with 13 of its “collaborators” with the express purpose of enhancing the graduate experience. Examples of this work include collaboration with the Graduate Student Council on testing the usability of the GSO’s new Website and the creation and implementation of the Leadership Development Initiative; with the Office for Institutional Research on the design of questions for their recent survey of graduate students; with the MIT Libraries in their ongoing effort to meet students’ unique needs; and with the Publishing Services Bureau on the design and implementation of a quick reference guide and administrative Website. Collaboration also includes working closely with the Alumni/ae Office to create a new paradigm for thinking about relationships with grad alums and their willingness to contribute time and resources to the Institute.

The Dean’s team meets on a regular basis with the GSO’s collaborators and also maintains a Website (not public) for this group to monitor progress on mutually defined objectives for the current academic year.

In summary

Consistent throughout this discussion of what we’ve learned from the 17 focus groups is the notion of striking a new balance in the way we think about the graduate experience. The GSO has set the stage for further conversations by training the spotlight on the community aspect of MIT’s educational triad. Using the Dean’s framework for thinking about graduate community on three levels has the advantage of being grounded in what we have heard from the students themselves. It’s one place to begin.

Another potential outcome from ongoing discussions may be greater clarity about the rights and responsibilities of both students and faculty. We can use the stage we’ve set to discuss the critical issues for improving the quality of life for graduate students at the Institute and what the common graduate experience should be. In the process, by spelling out and communicating expectations – what the Institute expects of the student in terms of work ethic and behavior, as well as what the student expects of the Institute, both faculty and administration – we’re one step closer to meeting the needs of both.

The GSO has defined some of the ways it plans to move forward. The Dean welcomes any comments about or suggestions for the work at hand.


We wish to acknowledge and thank those faculty, staff, students and alumni/ae who participated in focus group discussions over the past 18 months and shared their candid observations and thoughts. We offer special appreciation to Professor Gordon Kaufman for his advice, counsel, and steadfast support for this effort to define graduate community and to set the context for discussion.

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