Opinion guest column

Grad students suffer from lagging support

Campus resources are often geared solely towards undergrads.

According to the Registrar's office, in addition to MIT’s 4,602 undergraduates, there are 6,972 graduate students this year. Though we graduate students make up a sizable population of MIT’s student body, we often feel forgotten when searching for support. The relative lack of graduate student support resources at MIT is partially historical: the graduate student population has grown by 175% in the past 50 years, whereas the undergraduate student population has only increased by 24% in that same timeframe.

Given that undergraduates are younger, it makes sense that a higher percentage of undergrads would need these support services. At the same time, I have seen many graduate students suffer silently from conditions which were either developed or exacerbated in graduate school, and when they reached out for help, the help offered did not meet their needs. Despite the need for graduate support, the notion that graduate students would not benefit from these types of services is still pervasive at MIT.

Memories about the times when MIT ignored me and other graduate students are forever etched into my memory. Four years ago, after a string of undergraduate, graduate, and faculty deaths when the whole campus was feeling down, I received an email urging professors to be understanding and accommodating of student needs. In not one of my all-graduate classes did the professor mention the email or possibilities of extensions.

The subconscious idea that graduate students would not benefit from additional support resources seems to underpin the naming and training of student offices. Walk into Student Support Services as a graduate student,  they will probably help you, but you might feel weirded out because the office is designed to support undergrads. Then you check out how Office of Minority Education can help you feel more included just to find out it is also for undergraduates. Maybe your first year at MIT was tough, so you register for the class “Designing the First Year Experience” to help make life better for new grad students. You might be surprised that MIT appropriated the term “First Year” to refer to undergraduate freshmen, valuing political correctness and brevity over ambiguities with graduate students. But don’t worry too much: you can always look out for a Grad Friendly logo to help you identify which events won’t make you queasy, though I am surprised when I notice even one poster with this logo as I cross the infinite.

In times of desperation, you’ll most likely be directed to the Office of Graduate Education for support, which lacks the convenient drop-in hours of the undergrad-Student Support Services. You may also be directed to MIT Mental Health and Counseling, which has turned away a few of my graduate student friends who were asking for services that are meant to be provided to all students.

MIT is well-aware that graduate students are unsure of where to get help, and I think tangible improvement have been made in the four years I’ve been here. MIT renamed the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education (ODGE), which I often confused for Office of Diversity in Graduate Education, to the shorter Office of Graduate Education (OGE) and gave it a more central location. It also created the Graduate Assistance and Information Network (GAIN) to help graduate students more easily navigate the entangled web of support services.

MIT has also tried different approaches to reach graduate students, with varied success and a lack of transparency. MIT created a conflict management office with the goal of helping graduate students deal better with conflict between labmates, advisors, and in life in general. The office provided excellent trainings and support for graduate students. I enthusiastically joined this program and it has been immensely helpful for me. However, despite the success, the full-time staff coordinator changed positions, the website became outdated, and I am left wondering why this excellent resource was maimed.

In order for MIT to significantly improve the level of graduate support, it will need to collect and analyze relevant data. When data is not available, MIT makes non-optimal solutions. One recent example came from the Grad Housing Preferences Survey which indicated that people did not value large bedrooms and gyms. If this had been known before SidPac was designed, it might not have been designed with almost entirely large bedrooms and large exercise rooms. Data could be collected for a much wider range of decisions. For example, restructuring student support could be much more effective if the administration knew where students would go to seek support, which might require a survey asking students (graduates and undergraduates) “Which of the following support services do you think would best help you if you wanted to discuss leaving MIT?” If a lot of false positives come up, then the administration can figure a way to fix it.

MIT should be experimenting with new strategies to support graduate students and trying to better integrate the successful ones into graduate life. Pilots within graduate dorms could inform how support resources can be better integrated into new dorm structures, which could passively provide support for hundreds of students without large recurring costs. Programs successful at department levels could be expanded to provide best practices across the institute.

The administration should set a target for how much student support graduate students should have relative to undergrads, and then crunch numbers to see how much is spent on graduate student support (academic, professional and personal) and undergraduate student support (splitting mixed programs like GECD and MH&C based on fraction of attendance), to determine how far we are from ideal, and use this information to ensure MIT is effectively supporting graduate students.

Throughout the student support process, transparency would provide multiple benefits. Wider community participation, which enables transparency, can lead to more optimally designed programs. Showing both promising and disappointing results indicates to graduate students that MIT is taking student support seriously, leading students to more likely feel valued by the Institute. Transparency can also help administration uncover oversights which might never be looked at without needing to undergo the process of making data public. Releasing public department level statistics, like retention rates and average time to receive a Ph.D., might motivate departments to improve their programs and remove barriers to for graduate students success.

The issue of graduate student support carries itself way beyond MIT’s borders. While talking with a friend from college who is applying to Masters programs involving technology and policy, I asked if she had considered MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. She responded that she had looked into the program but decided against it primarily because she couldn’t see herself as happy at MIT. Though I was sad she wouldn’t be living nearby, I totally understood her perspective. Graduate students at MIT often feel more like replaceable cogs in MIT’s research machine than humans that MIT cares about investing in.

Mark Goldman is a graduate student in the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering.