Roundtable discussion examines communication, relationship between graduate students and their advisers
By Alvin Powell
A group of Harvard faculty and graduate students gathered at Dudley House last Thursday to exchange views about graduate student advising and to share ideas about how it can be improved.
The roundtable discussion was attended by about 30, including graduate program directors, faculty members, and graduate students. They discussed the current state of advising in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and talked about what programs and procedures are working in different departments.
The two-hour roundtable was the second such discussion this year and may lead to further meetings next year. A report on the discussion is expected within several weeks. Recommendations for changes may be developed next year.
The meeting was organized by GSAS Dean Christoph Wolff, the William Powell Mason Professor of Music, and Dudley House Master Everett Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science. It was put together after a survey of graduate school alumni last fall showed they shared the same concerns as today's graduate students, Wolff said.
The survey showed that then, as now, graduate students were most concerned about their relationship with their adviser. With so many different departments, programs of study, and individuals, it's difficult to generalize about that relationship, but Wolff and Mendelsohn felt it was important to begin working to improve it.
Thursday's discussion was broad-ranging, touching on everything from logistics, such as how and when an adviser should communicate with a student, to whether and how to discuss a student's personal problems.
Mendelsohn said he was struck by the variety of experiences students had with their advisers. He said information gathered at the two events will be used to design another series of meetings next year, perhaps focused on particular aspects or problems.
Communication, or a lack of communication, was a recurring theme during Thursday's meeting. Mendelsohn said very few graduate students he asked knew the director of graduate studies in their departments. Similarly, some faculty members were unaware of important developments among the graduate student community, such as the suicide of a graduate student last fall.
"Perceptions of what's happening and what's available [in terms of advising] aren't always accurate," Mendelsohn said.
Several graduate students said it's important that their advisers respect them and that the relationship is trusting enough that students feel they can talk to their adviser. Some students expressed frustration that they don't know the criteria by which they're being evaluated and said the guidelines for completing degree requirements can be vague.
Faculty members discussed how important it is to keep in touch with their advisees, but said the appropriate level of contact varies from student to student. Some students are fine if they check in infrequently, even once a year, while others need more regular, even monthly, contact.
E-mail was discussed as a good way to touch base with a student, but not as a substitute for personal contact, which some faculty said is the best way to tell if a student is having problems.
Experiences varied widely from department to department, with small departments, such as Celtic Languages and Literatures, saying they have more informal advising relationships. Larger departments, such as Economics, appoint advisers according to their areas of expertise. It is up to students to seek out other faculty members if they're dissatisfied with their relationship with their adviser.
The picture gets more complicated when a student is experiencing personal problems. For some students, particularly those far from home such as international students, their adviser can be their only close personal contact.
Several students, however, said there are problems with discussing some personal difficulties with their adviser, particularly if a student is considering dropping out of the program or experiencing troubles that could affect his or her work. In those cases, several suggested it would be better to develop a relationship with a neutral third party, such as another professor, who can help.
Wolff said Thursday's discussion led to an important exchange of views. But with 47 different departments, each with a measure of autonomy over its graduate program, it's important that similar discussions begin at the departmental level, he said.
"This really opened up topics that are of genuine concern to students," Wolff said. "It's important that we heard them together. What's most important is that this discussion also be conducted within each department."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College