A typical day in the life of a graduate student involves juggling class, assistantships, research projects, internships, and personal responsibilities.
The number of graduate students is decreasing at alarming rates, as support for international students is being threatened, COVID-19 has restricted travel for prospective students wishing to visit campuses, and the economy has negatively affected students’ and their institutions’ ability to fund graduate education.
This downward trend may threaten already wobbling budgets as institutions have sought to buffer their lower undergraduate enrollments by trying to increase graduate enrollment.
Advocating for graduate students is a critical responsibility for institutions, not only for their enrollment numbers and budgets but also to ensure that graduate students are succeeding and staying mentally well throughout the pandemic.
So, whether you work with students inside or outside of the classroom, this article is for you!
I consulted Dr. Kari Taylor, assistant professor of the Student Affairs Administration program at Springfield College and former program director of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Connecticut. Kari is a tremendous advocate for graduate students and provided critical support for me as I navigated completing graduate school and starting my career during the pandemic.
What are some unique challenges graduate students face?
A variety of factors contribute to this phenomenon, including:
- Competing responsibilities: 57% of graduate students work either full-time or part-time. Balancing coursework, assistantships, and employment can quickly take up a graduate student’s time and lead to seemingly insurmountable stress.
- Age differences: Although campus culture often caters to 18- to 22-year-old undergraduates, the average graduate student is 33 years old, with 20% over age 40. This age gap may result in clashes of values and priorities between graduate students and their institutions. For example, a grad student in their 30s may be more interested in convenient parking and childcare affordability than a spring concert or free T-shirt.
- Affordability: With graduate fellowships and assistantships decreasing due to budget cuts, graduate students have become increasingly reliant on student loans. On average, graduate and doctoral students receive $6,750 in non-loan financial support and $16,400 in federal student loans per academic year. This can add up very quickly, especially on top of the loans that students may have already taken out for their undergraduate degrees.
How has COVID-19 presented additional challenges to graduate students?
The pandemic has heightened the awareness of many inequities within higher education. For graduate students, the following concerns are especially salient:
- Financial challenges: The pandemic has increased the rate of unemployment. Whether students were working full-time or part-time, on-campus or off-campus, the unemployment rate and students’ ability to pay their bills is a massive concern for many graduate students.
- Transitioning to online work: Many graduate assistants walk the line between students and employees on their campus, causing confusion about their statuses when many institutions went remote. In addition to moving their own courses online, graduate staff also faced the challenges of being forgotten in communications, losing funding for their work, or even being asked to take on additional tasks (for example, many live-on graduate community directors were tasked with coordinating emergency student move-out).
- Research delays: Most academic research was brought to an abrupt halt upon this spring. Many graduate students became understandably concerned about due dates, effects on funding, and even their graduation if it depended on their defense of a research dissertation.
How can you advocate for individual graduate student success?
Despite these challenges, there are a number of ways you can advocate for graduate students.
1. Build community
In my first class with Kari, she introduced me and my classmate to the concept of a Community of Practice. Doing so set a welcome tone that established us as a group of equal learners. This follows the best practice of setting expectations early with graduate students. My classmates and I immediately understood the norms, power dynamics, and policies within our new shared setting.
2. Challenge and Support
Kari shared with me her own idea of “needs versus interests”, based on the theory of Challenge and Support, in which she works to address the needs of her graduate students while fostering their interests. Needs are addressed through checking in on students’ wellbeing at the start of class, while students’ interests are acknowledged through discussions surrounding inequity within the pandemic.
Kari is aware that she sets high expectations for students, but she also aims to provide ample support — by providing first-draft feedback, offering opportunities to improve grades, and fostering students’ interests to create an engaging classroom experience.
3. Provide professional development opportunities
What I loved most about my graduate program was how it enabled me to complete internships for credit, eventually leading me to my career. Finding a great internship site would not have been as easy without the tight-knit network of Springfield alumni, who were actively engaged beyond their graduation.
Other meaningful professional development opportunities for graduate students can come in the form of research projects, conference presentations, volunteer roles, and teaching experiences.
4. Foster mentorships
Advising and mentoring are considered best practices for working with graduate students. Kari has assisted students with finding graduate assistantships or fellowships, internship placements, fostering career and interest conversations, and even in providing general life advice. As a graduate student, I appreciated having someone I can bounce ideas off of and talk to when faced with professional challenges.
How can you advocate for graduate students on a larger scale?
5. Conduct program and curriculum assessments
A call for an assessment of student learning outcomes for grad courses has led to greater usage of standards within many fields (for example, CACREP standards for Counseling students) and a focus on best teaching practices. Many graduate programs emphasize a critical reflection of course material beyond job-specific skills. This expectation helps set students up for success in higher-level courses and in their careers.
Kari also advocates for critical and relevant issues, such as racism, to be intertwined in courses of every academic field.
6. Integrate graduate students into the community
Creating a warm, welcoming environment is key to building student engagement, especially for new graduate students this fall who may not have yet visited campus or met with a staff member in person.
Your grad student welcome might come in the form of a socially-distanced orientation, a meet-and-greet with faculty, or even a video conference welcoming everyone to the cohort. Although you might assume that grad students have done this all before, having an orientation can prevent many hiccups in their fall start.
7. Build support systems catered to graduate students
You can help address graduate student needs by offering mental health counselors specifically trained in common grad student challenges, social media accounts geared toward grad students, grad student unions, and even a graduate student government association. Some schools have also started emergency funds specific for grad students in crisis.
8. Provide political and legal advocacy
While at the University of Connecticut, Kari and her colleagues partnered with the institution’s legal team to determine how to continue to provide access to graduate opportunities for undocumented students. This helped provide a voice for grad students affected by this issue who may have not had the time, ability, or societal power to participate in activism.
9. Allow flexibility in program requirements
Moving exams or presentations online, rather than requiring students to take place in person, may relieve some stress for students. For programs requiring a research component, provide emergency research funds and allow extra time for completion.
There is no singular ideal route in creating a great graduate student support system; what really matters is that faculty and staff aim to support holistic graduate student wellness. By providing your graduate students with opportunities for mentorship, financial stability, and flexibility, even when they’re stuck at home, you’ll empower them to fully blossom as confident professionals in their chosen fields.
What questions do you have about advocating for grad student success? Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.