Survey Says: Graduate Students Don't Approve

Graduate students are reacting with dismay to a decision by the organizers of the Graduate School Survey * not to distribute rankings of student satisfaction in graduate departments across the country. "The promise to release scores specific to the departments was THE selling point of the survey," says University of California, Berkeley, chemistry grad student Elisa Cooper. "It is a terrible betrayal to see [graduate students'] attempt to make their voice heard buried in the department chair's desk drawer once again."

The Graduate School Survey--conceived by Geoff Davis, creator of, and Peter Fiske, motivational speaker and Next Wave columnist--solicited anonymous graduate student responses to a series of questions about their overall satisfaction with their graduate program. Assurances of complete confidentiality, and the promise of an e-mailed copy of the final department rankings, persuaded over 6500 students to air their opinions between April and July 1999.

Concerns about bias in the survey forced Fiske and Davis to abandon their original plan to release department rankings publicly. With only one or two responses from some departments, "many of the deans were upset about being ranked using such a small sample," says Fiske. Releasing rankings now would probably inflame people and cause the survey to be ignored, adds University of Texas, Austin, Associate Graduate Dean Rick Cherwitz.

Although the decision was welcomed by the deans, participating graduate students are not so pleased. "We are starting to hear from very angry grad students who feel burned that we are not publishing rankings," says Fiske. Many of these students saw the survey as a way to overcome their departmental isolation. "Departments often use the 'divide and conquer' strategy of maintaining general secrecy about how students fare," Cooper tells Next Wave. "Publicly available statistics on particular departments could be used to combat this."

Other students are advocating a middle road: releasing department-wide data only to each department's students, faculty, and administration. They argue that such a limited release could accomplish many of the survey's goals. At the very least, students could find out "whether each department is meeting minimum standards as set forth by the Association of American Universities (and others) and whether each graduate student feels comfortable enough at the department to stick with the graduate program and finish with a degree," says graduate student Susan Mahan-Nieber of Washington University in St. Louis. But until the sample size increases, "I would hesitate to release rankings," Mahan-Nieber tells Next Wave.

For the time being, Fiske and Davis are sticking by their original decision, leaving many grad students feeling betrayed. "It would be one thing if they hadn't promised to release the results," says Cooper, "but they did promise."

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