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Graduate school task force improves advising resources

Future initiatives include digital CV repository, faculty workshops on graduate student advising

Anne is having a difficult time. Working as a teaching assistant and finishing another chapter of her dissertation is taking a toll on her. After Anne ignores her advisor’s initial advice, her advisor turns to other alternatives, such as recommending she graduate early with a master’s instead of a PhD or submit shorter pieces more frequently. Anne, discouraged by the suggestions, meets with the department chair to tell them that her advisor is unsympathetic and controlling.

This is one example of a Graduate School case study that faculty members can use as a resource for doctoral-student advising. Case studies like these are some of the many resources published by a Graduate School task force aimed at improving the advising system. The task force — composed of eight University faculty members and staff from the Graduate School — spent the last year developing best practices for doctoral-student advising at the University and curating resources from other institutions on advising, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Thomas Lewis said.

The results of the task force’s meetings can be found on the Graduate School’s website, which includes resources for faculty members, graduate students and directors of graduate studies. For example, faculty members are encouraged to meet regularly with their advisees, prepare advisees for a wide of range of careers and be open about any challenges students might face.

Lewis added that the new advising materials are part of a multi-pronged strategy to “normalize” conversations on how to improve advising and alternative career paths. Another Graduate School initiative in the pilot phase focuses on creating a Brown Graduate Digital CV for graduate students “to keep track of their activities, whether it’s conference participation, the teaching that they’re doing (or) other kinds of professional development activities,” Lewis said.

The aim of the new initiative is to lower the hurdles to accessing resources on graduate advising, Lewis said. With a declining job market for entry-level assistant professor positions, “how do we support our students for a wide range of career trajectories?” Lewis added.

According to the 2015 graduate student climate survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research, doctoral students rated their programs’ responsiveness to student concerns with a score of about 4.08 out of five.

“Beforehand, it felt like programs were sort of on their own to try to figure out what best practices were,” said Kate Carey, director of the behavioral and social health sciences doctoral program, who was also a member of the task force. The goal of the task force was to start conversations in different departments about what their advising practices should look like, Carey added.

Although graduate students were not included on the task force, the group received feedback on its work from student organizations such as the Graduate Student Council, Lewis said.

Through discussions, the task force chose resources on advising and mentoring that would be helpful for faculty and graduate students, said Professor of Applied Mathematics Bjorn Sandstede, a member of the task force. “We also didn’t want to reinvent the wheel because there’s a lot of discussion about advising and mentoring across the U.S.”

Some resources that the task force chose were sourced from other institutions, such as the University of Minnesota, and academic journals such as “Nature.”

Sandstede explained that brevity was crucial in choosing these resources. “If you give a faculty member a 100-page document and say ‘Read this. This is everything you need to know about advising and mentoring,’ they don’t have the time to do it.”

Other future initiatives include holding workshops on advising for faculty and increasing data transparency for graduate programs, Lewis said.

“Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you have the training to advise graduate students,” Carey said.


Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that doctoral students rated their programs’ responsiveness to student concerns in a 2015 graduate student climate survey with a score of about 4.14 out of five. In fact, students rated their programs’ responsiveness with a score of about 4.08 out of five. The Herald regrets the error.

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