University to pilot global graduate student survey

The SERU survey will be available to grad students for the first time.

Blair Emerson

Come fall, University of Minnesota graduate students will be among the first in the nation to take part in a survey measuring their experience at research institutions.

In an effort to better understand graduate students’ issues, outcomes and overall experience, the University will pilot a graduate-level version of the Student Experience in the Research University, or SERU, which was previously available only to undergraduates.

The University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education administers the survey, which is currently administered to undergraduate students in top-tier research universities worldwide on a variety of topics ranging from academic performance to sense of belonging.

A version of the survey, tailored to graduate students, will not only provide new insights about the specific issues that students face, but it will also allow for comparisons among graduate institutions.

“Their experiences are very different [from undergraduates], and their needs are very different,” said Ronald Huesman, the University’s principal researcher for the survey in the Office of Institutional Research.

For example, he said, the graduate version of the survey will measure topics like research and teaching experiences — major components of graduate programs.

Currently, undergraduates at more than 30 research institutions around the world may take the survey, including 23 in the United States and 10 internationally. Each of the institutions pays $20,000 per year to take part in the survey, Huesman said.

When the survey is completed, responses will be shared among participating schools so they can compare results with their peers, Huesman said.

“It’s good to know if a group on your campus is low or high in a particular area,” he said, “but is that normal or is that atypical compared to other universities?”

Currently, there are few surveys available for graduate and professional students at public research institutions.

One of SERU’s principal investigators, Gregg Thomson, said the problem with many similar studies is that they don’t measure the experience of graduate students during their educational careers.

“There’s nothing that was capturing the graduate student experience as they were going through the experience in their first year on,” he said.

SERU, however, studies the entirety of an academic experience instead of just one specific point.

The University’s Council of Graduate Students currently administers a biennial survey to graduate students. The 2014 survey was administered Monday.

COGS President Andrew McNally said the group’s study has been useful in determining which issues are relevant to graduate students.

“It certainly red-flags the issues that are important to us,” he said.

For example, COGS’s last survey found that 65 percent of graduate students said student fees were a burden, so the council created a resolution to address that, McNally said.

Once COGS has pinpointed specific issues, the group uses the survey results to present research-backed findings to the University administration, which McNally said is helpful.

“It’s much better to have some statistical evidence to say there’s a large group of graduate students … that think this should be a priority for the University,” he said.

Huesman said using the COGS survey in conjunction with SERU will be more efficient and provide a better picture of graduate students’ full educational career.

Seeking a global comparison

SERU is currently active at 10 undergraduate research institutions outside the U.S., and officials want to make the graduate survey worldwide, too.

This fall’s pilot survey will likely include Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, but some hope to boost the number of international universities in future studies.

“This is a huge need internationally,” said SERU principal investigator John Douglass. “We need to learn more. … American universities need to be aware of the world outside.”

He said research universities often use SERU to help retool their programs. It also serves as an opportunity for similar institutions to discuss their shared challenges.

“There are organizational and cultural differences, but there’s a lot more in common,” Douglass said.

Survey results will likely be different for each institution, he said, but still follow a similar theme.

The undergraduate version of SERU works like a census, Huesman said, and he hopes the graduate-level version will produce similar results.

“The University relies on good information for improving the experience for graduate students,” said Melissa Anderson, associate dean of graduate education. “We really have high hopes that the survey will provide good and valuable information for us.”