MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 4
March/April 2006
Diversification of a University Faculty: Observations on Hiring Women Faculty
in the Schools of Science and Engineering
at MIT
Squeezing Out the Graduate Students
When Disasters Strike!
Faculty Roles in Administration:
A Critical Part of Institute Governance
Why Students Don't Attend Class
Life in the Lowlands
Provost Announces Government Inquiry
Into Lincoln Lab Misconduct Charges
International Students at MIT Post 9/11
A Failure in Communications
Peer Support: Taking Advice from a Friend
Students Need Dental Insurance Plan
International Students at MIT:
Top 10 International Countries Over 10 Years
International Students at MIT:
Top 10 International Countries (2005)
Printable Version

Peer Support: Taking Advice from a Friend

Barun Singh

As the role of graduate education in our society continues to evolve, the needs of graduate students are changing too. Support for graduate students is no longer restricted to academic and financial issues – MIT must also consider how it might help this changing demographic deal with the amorphous pressures and stresses of graduate school. An examination of advising issues done by the Graduate Student Council last year points to peer support as the single most effective mechanism for doing this, and it comes with the added benefit of teaching valuable mentoring skills. MIT has the opportunity now to adopt formal peer support programs and thereby add great value to its graduate programs – but doing so will require the full backing and active involvement of the faculty.

Sources of Stress and Sources of Support

Institutions of higher education have long recognized the varied forms of support that must be provided to undergraduates. The modern graduate student faces issues that are different in nature from those faced by undergraduates, but are no less complex or challenging.

For over a third of first-year graduate students, MIT presents their first time away from their native culture and country.

The very nature of conducting research, in which the student must be responsible for keeping themselves on target without the aid of regular problem sets or exams, can present a major challenge to most graduate students. Picking an advisor, and indeed a research area, can be a very stressful decision. Confusion and potential conflicts are commonplace in dealing with research collaborators and advisors. Uncertainty regarding career paths is equally if not even more prominent for graduate students than undergraduates, and the common notion that “MIT must have made a mistake in admitting me” is nearly universally prevalent.

Support for these issues comes from a number of places. Last year, the Graduate Student Council conducted a survey of all MIT graduate students that sought to determine, among other things, which of these sources of support is most useful. What this survey found was that students seek out the support of their significant others, families, advisors, and mentors, but the largest number of students - over 80% - turn to their peers. Institutionally, students’ satisfaction levels for graduate student groups and peer support groups (where available) are among the highest of all resources available at MIT. In an article published in the March/April 2005 edition of the Faculty Newsletter, I used the data regarding peer support to draw a simple conclusion that I repeat again now: In many cases, the best way to support graduate students is to empower them to help themselves as a community.

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Defining Peer Support

So what exactly is a “peer support program?” There are a few currently in place at MIT that may be used as exemplars. One that has received much attention over the past year is the “Resources for Easing Friction and Stress” (REFS) program located in the Department of Chemistry. REFS consists of a group of volunteer graduate students, trained in mediation skills, who meet regularly with students and work with department faculty as well. The volunteers are also trained with regards to the various support options available at MIT. This program has proven its effectiveness since its inception five years ago, both through a dramatic reduction in the number of cases reported to the Ombuds office from Chemistry, as well as very high satisfaction ratings from Chemistry graduate students.

Many departments have adopted very different sorts of peer-support programs that are not as formal as the REFS program. For example, HST has a “big buddy” mentorship program that partners every first-year graduate student with an experienced upperclassman. Similar one-on-one mentorship programs can be found in other departments as well, including Mechanical Engineering, Materials Science, EAPS, and Economics.

All of these programs rely on the fact that students feel much more comfortable discussing their concerns with a peer they trust than they do with faculty, administrators, or mental health providers.

By acting as a first contact, the peer is often then able to direct the student to a more knowledgeable Institute resource, and provide the student with the encouragement they need in order to seek out that resource. Even more valuable, however, is that these programs allow students to get support without having to explicitly ask for it.

Because of the localized nature of peer support programs, students will run into their upperclassman mentor, or their lab’s REFS volunteer, on a regular basis. These chance encounters provide an opportunity for the volunteer to ask the student how they’re doing, and follow up on concerns the student might have expressed at some point in the past. For many students who feel especially isolated, these simple acts can make a world of difference.

A Mechanism for Skills Training

Unlike other alternatives, peer support programs place students at both sides of the equation. Not only do they receive the benefits of a supportive environment, they are also responsible for providing that support. In fulfilling this responsibility, students are taught valuable mentoring skills. They learn how to deal with difficult situations and they gain new perspectives on the conflicts and issues that arise around them – all of which helps prepare them for future careers both within academia and outside of it.

Most faculty will agree on the importance of advising and mentoring – not just as services to provide to students but also as skills to teach. Peer support fits within that framework quite nicely. It provides students a unique opportunity to learn by doing, as is the MIT way.

Necessary Next Steps

Though peer support programs by definition involve student-student interactions, the creation and success of these programs will require a great deal of faculty support. Last year, the Graduate Student Council recommended faculty to espouse the development of formal peer support programs within their departments. In a variety of forums, faculty members have expressed agreement with this proposal, and we are now presented with an opportune time to transform this into action. A large quantity of feedback, from students, faculty, and administrators, has suggested the following steps in order to mover forward:

  • Department faculty must reach out to interested graduate students.
    This is the single most important step. Students must know that their advisors and their department as a whole support (both in theory and in practice) their involvement in a peer support program. The most effective way to do this is to send general messages to all graduate students in the department as well as more focused messages aimed at those students known to be active participants in student life issues (if you have a departmental graduate student group, many of the active students will be members of it).
  • Involve students, faculty and graduate administrators throughout the process.
  • Survey what exists currently within your department.
    Even if a program exists within your department, it is important to consider how that program might be augmented or altered to better meet students’ needs.
  • Survey what exists in related departments.
    The Graduate Student Council may be able to assist you with this task.
  • Determine what structure works for your department.
    Each department has its own culture and a single solution is unlikely to be optimal for all of them. Each program must create an environment where students feel comfortable and familiar with those whom they might turn to for support. Will formal mediation training help in your department? How should faculty be involved in the long run? What about existing departmental student groups?
  • Encourage Institutional support for your departmental program.
    The only component of a departmental peer support program that might constitute a non-negligible cost is the mediation training. A practical implementation of departmental programs would fund and coordinate this training at an Institute-level, most logically within the Office of the Provost and perhaps the Office of the Chancellor, and require departments to work with this central office and their graduate students regarding the details.

Peer support ought to be seen as not only a possible mechanism for the advising, mentoring, and support of graduate students – but as a vital component of the Institute’s overall vision. It has the potential to provide an incredibly effective way to improve the quality of graduate student life, and it also poises MIT graduate students to act as mentors in their future careers. Effectively implementing these programs requires leadership by both faculty and students, and work at both the departmental and Institute level.

Barun Singh was President of the MIT Graduate Student Council in 2004-05, where he oversaw its Advising Initiative, a component of which examined peer support issues.  He would be happy to discuss ideas and concerns regarding the development of peer support programs at MIT, or to help link faculty and administrators with appropriate resources.

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