Academia is hard.
Especially for those that are ethnic, first generation, BIPoC, LGBTQ+, and/or disabled. Or even just new researchers.
If you’re on #ScienceTwitter at all, you’ll regularly see posts addressing these struggles, and many others in regards to the difficulty of graduate school. Just check out #phdchat and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Probably one of the most difficult aspects of graduate school is coming in during your first year, being thrown into your program, with little guidance on what is expected of you, what opportunities you may have, and how to navigate your way in your department and the university in general. Not to say that departments aren’t doing what they need to do in providing the correct info (some do so better than others), but rather that there’s so much to know, in such a short period of time, that this stage can seem daunting and discouraging.
In order to combat this, my fabulous department-mate and one of my besties, Tina Lasisi, started a Graduate Welfare Committee within our department. After hearing her explain what the purpose of the committee is, to ensure that incoming cohorts have all the tools and information necessary to begin their graduate school career, I jumped on board and have been helping plan events with her ever since.
Tina and I have come up with some effective strategies for ensuring that the incoming students have everything they need to start their first year as PhD students successfully. If you’re thinking about potentially doing this in your department, here are some suggestions for how to get started.
Graduate Student Survival Guide
About a month prior to the new students arriving, the Graduate Welfare Committee generated and distributed a New Student Survival Guide, with allllll the information the incoming cohort needed to start off on the right foot.
This included information ranging from how to get a PSU ID card to the plans and policies of the graduate student insurance.
In writing this survival guide (which was modeled off of a previous one generated by PSU PhD graduate Kevin Flaherty), we realized a few things worth noting if you hope to start something similar in your department:
- Information for programs, deadlines, insurance, and almost everything else changes regularly. Maintaining this survival guide would mean editing the document each year and revising based on new requirements or changes in policy.
- The first draft of the survival guide took serious time to edit, even with a previous model. The last version was updated in 2011 and almost everything was different, including the contact people in the department, the new curriculum, and even where to go to get a new ID.
All in all, the survival guide proved useful not only for the new students, but also current students in reminding us about aspects of the program we may have forgotten. Although specifically targeted for the incoming cohort, this document is a resource for all graduate students in the department.
Graduate Student Mentor/Mentee Program
Another initiative we implemented was a graduate student mentor/mentee program whereby all incoming students would have two older students as mentors, ideally one within their lab and another outside.
Graduate students in the department were asked to volunteer for these positions, if they were able to. This gave new students an opportunity to directly connect with people in the department who were 1) interested in their wellbeing and 2) approachable enough to where the new students didn’t have to feel awkward about reaching out.
This program provided the incoming students with direct points of contact for any questions they have moving forward. The new students and their mentors were connected via email prior to the start of the semester.
New Student Orientation
At the beginning of the semester, we decided to hold a new student orientation separate from the department orientation (run by the Graduate Affairs Committee, the group that oversees graduate student progress and composed of faculty members and administration).
This was especially important because our department has recently revised it’s curriculum for PhD students. The program is much more streamlined, but requires front loading on all your PhD requirements. This includes taking candidacies at the end of your first year, getting your Master’s during your second year, and comping at the end of your second year. This gives students the opportunity to focus on research alone for at least three years, which is super valuable.
That being said, coming into a program where you have to basically start studying for candidacies right away is not easy. And with only one cohort that is part of this new curriculum (my cohort), resources are limited at the moment.
So, Tina and I sat down with the new cohort for two hours the week before classes began (with some catering sponsored by the department, heyyyooooo) and broke down the curriculum, candidacies, and upcoming deadlines for that $$$$.
This was also a safe space for students to ask any questions in regards to the program; realistic questions that they may not have otherwise asked the Graduate Affairs Committee.
We have a variety of workshops planned for the semester, ranging from mental health resources to being a financially responsible human. These workshops will be other ways in which we are actively engaging with the graduate students in the department and providing advice outside of the program and graduate school in general.
Do you have something similar in your department and/or have benefitted from the resources you were provided? I’d love to hear about how we can make this committee better!
Until next time,