MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 4
March / April 2011
Protecting Education in America
The Contributions of Institutions Such As
MIT to a Knowledge-Based Economy
Reinventing and Sustaining the
Faculty of the Future
Departmental Discussions of Diversity
and Inclusion
Practical Considerations for the Involvement of Graduate Students in MIT’s International Engagements
The Roadmap to the Future of MIT’s
Student Information System
Free Market Apocalypse: Safeguarding the World from Large Disasters
About DSpace@MIT
Disappointed in NRC Rankings Prominence
MIT 3rd in World University Rankings
U.S. News & World Report:
Top 10 Graduate Engineering Schools
U.S. News & World Report:
Top 10 Graduate Business Schools
Printable Version

Practical Considerations for the Involvement of
Graduate Students in MIT’s International Engagements

Ulric J. Ferner and Christine Ortiz

The topic of international engagements has been one of recent conversation throughout the MIT community, with discussions taking place on the opportunities, risks, principles, funding, and strategy for involvement [L. Rafael Reif, “MIT's Approach to International Engagement,” MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, Jan./Feb. 2011]. Graduate students are involved in a broad array of international programs, and MIT receives large numbers of proposals from abroad involving graduate education, including many for dual and joint degree programs. Click here to see a table of selected MIT initiatives and programs that involve international components and graduate students.

MIT is not unique in this arena; in 2007, a survey of graduate deans found that 29% of responding U.S. universities had graduate-level collaborative programs with international institutions of higher education and 56% of both the largest 10 and the largest 50 universities had at least one collaborative program [Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) International Graduate Admissions Survey Phase II: Final Application and Initial Offers of Admissions, August 2007]. Online education, distance-learning, and communication tools are greatly facilitating the development of such initiatives. Discussions of benefits, challenges, and best practices for international engagements involving graduate education have begun to emerge [“Degrees of Success,” International Educator, May-June 2008; “Joint Degrees, Dual Degrees, and International Research Collaborations,” Council for Graduate Schools Report 2010].

The MIT Global Council in their 2009 report Mens et Manus et Mundus: New Directions for Global Education and Research at MIT urged the Institute to make international studies a core part of the MIT education, and also to pursue new avenues for engagement of graduate students in international initiatives.

Recommendations included building targeted fellowship support for graduate students engaging in research on global challenges, creating an international graduate resident tutor program, and expanding department-based initiatives such as the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Course VI-A International Masters of Engineering Thesis Program. Given the increasing interest in this topic, here we discuss a number of factors to take into account when considering international programs and engagements involving graduate education.

Educational aspects

A recent report by the Council for Graduate Schools articulates the many educational benefits to graduate students for involvement in international programs, such as: enhanced research skills, expanded research networks, access to specialized equipment and expertise, exposure to different academic, pedagogical, and scientific styles, and increased career prospects [“Joint Degrees, Dual Degrees, and International Research Collaborations,” Council for Graduate Schools Report 2010]. Such experiences can train students to become “globally-cognizant” scholars; those who have an appreciation of their discipline in a broader cultural and socio-economic context, who build a meaningful understanding of different regions of the world, and who construct deep local relationships that constitute a basis for lifelong interactions with other institutions, countries, and cultures.  In addition, the added value of immersion in another culture often significantly benefits the personal development of the student, in particular self-confidence, leadership skills, working in multinational teams, and communication. At MIT, there has been much thought about providing substantive intellectual and educationally enriched international programs, which are much more than “academic tourism.”

One critical area to consider is academic advising. In particular, open communication is needed between the student and advisor on how travel abroad fits in and complements the student’s educational program and the formulation of a plan to ensure that the student’s academic milestones and goals are met, so as not to increase time-to-degree (e.g., qualifying examinations, thesis proposals, thesis committee meetings, etc.).  Understanding mutual work expectations is a key component of any advising relationship; clear milestones, timelines, and timely and detailed feedback are highly beneficial [Graduate Student Council, “The advisor-advisee relationship: Where we are, and where we are going,” 2010 Report].  The Singapore-MIT Alliance explored the use of distance-learning in graduate education and was able to create trans-pacific advising, research collaborations, and classroom discussions between graduate students and faculty at MIT and in Singapore. Advisors should also consider a graduate student’s willingness to participate in and travel as part of an international program, in particular for graduate students with families.

For programs that involve research, it should also be ensured that graduate students have appropriate access to necessary facilities and instrumentation abroad, as well as a rich intellectual environment to ensure a high quality educational experience, while not extending the time-to-degree. Additional areas to bear in mind include: maintaining admissions standards and processes, research ethics and responsible conduct of research, synergy of educational curricula and activities, program quality assurance and assessment, accurate accounting of costs and resources needed (e.g., space, faculty time, administration, etc.), sustainability, differences in graduate student funding models, and strategies for enrollment consistent with the educational goals of the program.

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Graduate policies

For MIT graduate students involved in international programs and collaborations, the length of travel varies greatly, from a few weeks to an entire calendar year or more abroad.  If the length of contemplated travel is equal to an academic semester or more, programs should ensure that the student’s residency requirement is maintained. Residency requirements are consistent with the philosophy that MIT will grant MIT degrees for those who carry out their education at MIT in Cambridge, MA (02139).

There are two types of student status under which thesis research may be carried out while not in formal residence at the Institute. “Thesis Research in Absentia” is applicable to all graduate degrees and intended primarily for students who are on location away from MIT but who maintain in every other respect full access to and contact with the academic life of the Institute. This status is appropriate for trips of shorter duration than one semester. “Nonresident Doctoral Thesis Research Status” is available only to doctoral students who have completed all requirements other than the thesis and is granted one semester at a time to students with limited access to the campus and MIT resources. The visiting student category can be used for students pursuing a graduate degree at universities abroad who have been invited by faculty in an MIT department or laboratory/center to do research.

Risk management

It is advisable for graduate programs and administrators to be aware of the itineraries, passport, and health insurance information of their graduate students traveling abroad. The Global Education Office maintains the database MIT-Horizons, which captures such information for GEO study abroad programs, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), and travel through the Public Service Center (PSC).  Additionally, students should inform themselves about their destination.  General MIT travel policies can be found through the Office of the Vice President for Research. The MIT Risk Acknowledgement form is required for travel with MIT-sponsored programs.  One should also be aware of MIT’s Travel Risk Policy regarding countries with travel warnings.  Travelers should also obtain a membership card for the International SOS program, which provides 24-hour emergency medical and security evacuation services to MIT travelers.  It should be noted, however, that these services are not a substitute for personal health insurance.


All students, both domestic and international, should secure an educational visa from the embassy or consulate of the country they will visit.

Visa regulations vary dramatically depending upon the host country and the student's country of origin; there are no generic visa requirements that apply to all nationalities. 

International students must also contend with getting their U.S. immigration papers and status in order so that they can return to the U.S. and MIT in a timely fashion.  This will invariably involve strategic planning in consultation with the International Students Office advising staff before departure.  Once again, with U.S. immigration regulations, the difficulty of getting a renewed student visa to return is dependent upon country of nationality and field of study.  International students who contemplate studying abroad have to be concerned about extended visa security clearances, which are more likely if they have been abroad during their MIT degree program. In addition, their ability to take advantage of pre- and post-completion employment benefits associated with their F-1 or J-1 student visa status upon return may be impacted. If an MIT international is out of the U.S. for more than five months, they will likely need to accumulate another academic year of study in residence in the U.S. before they will be eligible to apply for employment-based benefits such as CPT, OPT, or Academic Training.   

Cultural acclimation

International programs may want to consider formal cultural training for students traveling abroad prior to departure. MISTI has been a leader in this regard and includes extensive country-specific preparation sessions for each of the countries to which they send students.  Topics include: safety, political and socioeconomic background and history, language, practical aspects such as in-country travel and cultural differences. These sessions are available to all MIT students. 

Personal support, professional development, cohort building, and community

Graduate students at MIT are given access to and utilize a wide variety of support services including, for example; advising and counseling on academics and graduate policies and procedures (e.g., Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, departmental graduate administrators and chairs), personal and professional development (e.g., Graduate Student Council, MIT Career Development Center, etc.), medical emergencies, wellness and stress reduction (MIT Medical), mental health services (MIT Mental Health and Counseling), conflict resolution (Ombuds), immigration and visa issues (International Students Office) and family support (Center for Work, Family & Personal Life).  In addition to an administrative coordinator at MIT and abroad, equivalent support to those services available on the MIT campus should be identified for graduate students. Lastly, cohort-building and graduate student community aspects should be considered as well.

Graduate student initiatives

MIT has a large international graduate population: 2356 graduate students or 38% of all enrolled graduate students (fall 2010) representing 97 countries [Office of the Provost, Institutional Research], as well as a growing number of international exchange and visiting students. The graduate student community actively participates in bringing international companies and universities to MIT through numerous events, such as the MIT Energy Conference [T. Zeller Jr., Energy Geeks Converge on M.I.T.,” Mar. 5, 2011], the MIT 100K competition, the MIT European Career Fair, and the MIT Career Fair, all organized by students.  MIT can provide support to such graduate student-organized initiatives, as well as coordination with laboratory, department, School, and Institute-wide activities.

The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education ( and the Graduate Student Council ( welcome feedback and are happy to provide advice and support on this topic.

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