Student Leaders Report
Improving the Graduate Student Academic Experience
How do graduate students rate MIT faculty support for academic and professional advising? Are they learning the skills and getting the training and advice they need for future success? Where can we do better?
The Graduate Student Council (GSC) has worked over the course of this year to actively engage students, faculty, and staff to start answering these questions, and we are now in the unprecedented position of being able to do so in a meaningful way. Over 50% of all MIT graduate students responded to the 2004 Graduate Student Survey in which the GSC placed a number of questions related to graduate advising, training, and support. Over 85 faculty, students, and administrators from 25 academic departments participated in focus groups held by the GSC to discuss how MIT might be able to improve in these areas. Both the survey data and focus group discussions show that while there are many things MIT can be proud of, there is certainly room for improvement. This article highlights some central themes that have emerged.
The Advisor/Advisee Relationship
A student's relationship with their research advisor can often be the single most influential factor in their graduate and professional career. When asked who they turn to for support, the advisor ranked higher in students' responses than even their parents and family - only peers and spouses were more frequent sources of support. A positive relationship based on trust, mutual understanding, open and honest communication, and a shared set of goals allows a student to be inspired, to learn, and to grow to their full potential. A negative relationship can leave a student feeling isolated, unsupported, and, in the extreme, unable to succeed in their post-graduate careers.
The good news is that approximately 85% of graduate students say they are satisfied with their relationship with their research advisor. The bad news is that nearly 1,000 current graduate students (15%) are dissatisfied.
The root of students' dissatisfaction with their advisors is almost always the level of personal attention, feedback, and mentoring they receive, and the quality of communication between them. How often do you meet with your students? A third of the graduate students at MIT feel that they do not meet with their advisors enough, and 56% report availability of faculty as an obstacle to their academic progress. How much of your discussion with your students revolves around what you expect of them, or what they expect of you? 44% of graduate students say that their advisor does not communicate expectations clearly. Most striking of all, perhaps, is that over half of all MIT graduate students believe their advisor considers them to be a source of labor to advance their own research.
The quality of an advisor/advisee relationship is based on the personal interaction between those individuals, and cannot be dictated by the department, school, or Institute. There are, however, mechanisms which could do well to reinforce positive relationships. A common theme to emerge from the focus groups has been to emphasize the importance of mentoring and communication in the orientation of new faculty. Well-respected senior faculty, or faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in advising (e.g., Perkins Award winners) could play vital roles in such orientation programs. In addition, creating and enforcing some standard format for evaluating student research progress could go a long way towards ensuring some basic level of regular communication.
Skills, Training, and Advice
For a student to reach their full potential, a good relationship with their advisor must be accompanied by training in essential skills and advice to assist with their professional development. In the technical arena, students fare well - 92% of graduate students who are planning to graduate by the end of the current academic year feel that their critical thinking skills have "greatly" or "somewhat" developed during their time at MIT, and 85% say the same about their research skills. When it comes to the development of "soft skills" (communication, writing, leadership, teamwork, time management, etc.), however, there is considerable room for improvement.
Students rank soft skills to be as important as or more important than research skills; yet they are not able to adequately develop themselves in those skills.
In the best case of soft skill development, 19% of MIT graduate students at the end of their programs will not have learned the critical communication skills they think they will need for the future (i.e., they rank the skill as "very" or "somewhat" important but have developed "very little" or "not at all").
Students are least developed in ethical issues - only 48% of those at the end of their programs have developed in their understanding of ethical issues, while 86% believe the topic to be important.
Only 39% of students report having received advice related to ethics.
It is important to note that while graduate students overall receive very little advice related to research ethics, this number varies a great deal by school. In the Whitaker School, for example, 70% of students reported receiving advice on ethics. The Schools of Architecture & Planning, and Science, also provide more advice on the topic of ethics than the average. These schools are not doing better than the rest by accident - in each case some form of formal training is integrated into their curricula.
In the area of professional development, students are left wanting. Less than 40% have received advice on how to find a job, prepare a résumé, or develop professional contacts outside of their program. We can, however, once again identify a best practice at the school level. Because of a very conscious decision on the part of the Sloan faculty, nearly 70% of Sloan students report having received advice on how to develop professional contacts outside of their program.
It is clear that there are solutions to the problems of how to teach students the skills they deem important and how to give advice on topics essential to their future progress. Best practices from one school or department should be examined by others, and adapted in a way that makes sense given that community's culture and needs. In addition, the focus groups emphasized the importance of regular discussions - among faculty, students, and graduate administrators - to assess the state of advising and to seek out best practices from other departments or schools.
Resources and the Importance of Peer Support
Though there are many Institute resources meant to improve student life and learning, utilization of these resources varies widely. Most self-service (e.g., library) and essential (e.g., health care) resources are heavily utilized (over 75%) while the number of students who take advantage of resources such as MIT Mental Health (19%), Counseling and Support Services (11%), and the Ombudsperson's Office (4%) is much lower. Among those who do use these resources, a large majority (over 75%, and in many cases over 80%) rank them to be of "good," "very good," or "excellent" quality (except dining and parking, which fare much worse). It is difficult to gauge exactly what a "good" utilization level is or should be for many of these resources. What is clear, based on the focus group discussions, is that many of these resources, particularly those related to conflict resolution, could benefit from increased publicity of their existence and purpose.
On the departmental level, the same trends can be seen (high satisfaction levels and varied use of resources) but things are complicated by the fact that departments do not all offer the same resources and do not publicize the resources they do offer to the same extent. For example, one in five students does not have an academic advisor distinct from their research advisor, 40% are not aware of the existence of a faculty member serving as graduate officer in their department, and only 21% of students know of any sort of counseling or mediation services within their department. Departmental resources can often play an even more significant role than those offered by the Institute, and should not be overlooked when considering how to provide more support for graduate students.
Finally, one must not forget that the most valuable resource for graduate students, and their primary source of support, are their peers. In many cases, the best way to support graduate students is to empower them to help themselves as a community. Among nearly all of the resources available to them, graduate students are most satisfied with their departmental graduate student groups and graduate support groups. Beyond their direct effect, these groups also create a supportive community for graduate students throughout the department. All departments should seek to encourage and foster peer support - this can occur on a variety of levels ranging from personal mentorship to formalized mediation programs that involve students. For each of these there are again a number of best practices to learn from.
How Do We Do Better?
Improving the graduate academic experience will require work to be done at all levels. There are five primary areas in which we can be most effective. The importance of personal guidance and mentoring must be emphasized to faculty through orientation and training programs. We must do better at developing graduate students in their soft skills, and learn from best practices in doing so. Resources should be better publicized, and expanded where needed, particularly in departments that are lacking. Peer support should be very much encouraged and supported at the local level and in a variety of forms. Finally, departments should perform regular assessments and discussions among faculty, students, and administrators regarding the state of graduate advising. Overall, MIT is doing well for its graduate students - but there is still much work to be done in order for us to be doing as well as we could be doing to provide the most rewarding graduate academic experience possible.
Barun Singh is president of the Graduate Student Council.