Advising improves for grad students

A 2007 study showed a fifth of students faced academic harassment.

by Linda Yang

The University of Minnesota has improved its advising and mentoring services to graduate and professional students since a 2007 survey showed they experienced harassment.

A follow-up survey of about 3,300 graduate and professional students showed about 17 percent were being harassed.

Last year, two workshops were offered for faculty, staff and students to communicate problems. Both were full, with 75 to 85 participants attending.

The University started an initiative in 2008 to bring better awareness to graduate and professional students’ needs after data outlined the existence of academic harassment —“hostile, intimidating, or threatening behavior which interferes with the ability to work or study,” according to the University’s 2011 Academic Incivility and the Graduate and Professional Student Experience survey.

“The response has been very strong and positive,” said Jan Morse, ombudsman and director of the Student Conflict Resolution Center.

She sent out a survey in fall 2007 asking graduate students about issues they were facing. The results included academic harassment, an offensive and hostile environment and graduate students saying they did not know where or whom to turn to, according to the survey.

Based off that data, Morse started the Graduate and Professional Advising and Mentoring Initiative in August 2008. The initiative is a push for a better understanding of the issues and experiences of graduate and professional students and bettering practices to help students, faculty and staff create a lasting and beneficial relationship.

About 1,800 graduate students responded to the 2007 survey, with about one in five responding that they had been academically harassed. Almost 80 percent of those didn’t report the issue to anyone at the University, though almost 45 percent considered leaving as a result.

Jennifer Corcoran, a third-year natural resource science and management doctoral candidate, became involved with the work group when she was a member of the Council of Graduate Students.

She joined midway through the initiative but enjoyed being involved. Corcoran said her role in the work group was to “listen and chime in.”

Corcoran never experienced major grievances of her own at the University, but she has known “at least one amongst colleagues, friends and peers” who have had gripes with advisers.

Morse said after receiving the data, she and faculty at the SCRC started identifying best practices of “improving advising and mentoring from a departmental perspective.” A work group was created of staff, faculty and graduate students in order to help the progress of the initiative.

Morse added that not a lot of information was available in order for the Student Conflict and Resolution Center to put pamphlets and other sources of information together.

“I looked really hard on data on the academic incivility stuff and I couldn’t find anything,” Morse said. “This was 2007, back then this was not such a big topic, nothing really at the college level.”

Matt Hanson, a senior psychologist at the University Counseling and Consulting Services, is a member of the work group and said there are multiple resources available for graduate and professional students on campus.

Students who cannot find someone to talk to or do not want to speak with someone locally can call the National Graduate Student Crisis Line, which is open 24 hours a day, said Nick Repak, president and creator of Grad Resources.

Grad Resources started in 1999 as a result of the 1998 suicide of Harvard University student Jason Altom and a national survey by the Barna Group. 

Repak said that what keeps the hotline and site going are the stories of students who have sought help from the hotline and responded with feedback about how positive their conversations were with the counselors and how it has changed their lives.

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly is working closely with administrators, Boynton Health Service, faculty and staff to better the adviser and advisee relationship.

“Currently, the academic culture nationwide demands publication and research, then teaching,” said GAPSA President Brittany Edwards via email. “Until the structure rewards and acknowledges excellent advising, it may be limited to the natural or altruistic.”

Although the mental health, advising and mentoring of graduate students is a big issue, only a quarter of graduate school deans surveyed listed it as a top priority, according to the 2012 Pressing Issues Survey from the Council of Graduate Schools. More than half reported that admissions, recruitment and enrollment management as the top issue.

Repak said that “every university is about sustaining their image” — attention isn’t brought to an issue unless something bad happens.