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Advising communication

Communication and clear, shared expectations are crucial for any healthy relationship, including that between a graduate student and their adviser. That’s one of the key take-home messages from “Common Values on the Graduate Student Experience,” a concise list of 11 best practices for both advisers and advisees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Office of the Dean for Graduate Education.

Several guidelines directly address the importance of good communication in the adviser-advisee relationship, stating, for example, that “[f]aculty members and their graduate students are strongly encouraged to build their relationship by establishing common expectations on the major elements of their professional interactions” and “to attempt to resolve conflicts through direct discussion and other informal procedures.” Furthermore, “[g]raduate students are strongly encouraged to keep their advisor apprised of academic progress and seek their advisor’s input on the same subject on a regular basis.” Likewise, advisers “should consider providing additional periodic feedback of academic progress, performance and professional potential, preferably in the form of a written evaluation.”

It’s a resource that brings together important policy for advisers and advisees to enhance communication.

–Carl Brozek

Other guidelines include making sure that graduate students receive proper professional attribution for their work and that faculty members support graduate students’ “extra-academic activities,” such as getting training for job interviews, seeking information on career options within academia and beyond, or doing an internship.

Carl Brozek

Carl Brozek

Courtesy of Carl Brozek

“It’s a resource that brings together important policy for advisers and advisees to enhance communication,” says Carl Brozek, formerly a chemistry graduate student at MIT and now a postdoc at the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, Seattle, who spearheaded the creation of the document. “It isn’t a battle cry, or a shield, or a last resort.” Nor is it a directive. “A lot of the items are pretty vague, and we deliberately kept them vague, because what works for one adviser may not work for another.”

Brozek also points out that the adviser-advisee relationship is a two-way street. Among graduate students, it’s “very common to complain about their advisers, but maybe students have a few more responsibilities than they’re willing to admit,” he says. The document encourages graduate students to take ownership of their part of the relationship.

The document came together after about a year of work, triggered by a December 2013 chemistry department town hall meeting that Brozek attended. Among the issues raised was the fact that some graduate students were dissatisfied with their advising, and Brozek was struck by the lack of good ideas to address the problem. “I started thinking, ‘Is the solution to have a list of what is expected of graduate students, their rights, and responsibilities?’” he recalls. He reached out to graduate students from across MIT, and together they created a working document enumerating what they saw as their rights and responsibilities—and those of their advisers. He then approached the university administration—including heads of divisions, the chancellor, and the chair of the faculty policy committee—to figure out how to move forward to make the document official. “My goal was to have one good, meaningful meeting with an administrator once a week,” he says. “I did that ... for 3 or 4 months.”

Based on those meetings, he opted to take the document through MIT’s Committee on Graduate Programs, which institutes and oversees policies and procedures related to graduate education. Working with the committee chair, mechanical engineering professor Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou, Brozek brought a draft of the document to the committee’s September 2014 meeting. “It was extremely well received,” Brozek recalls, but the committee felt some changes to the language were needed to make sure it was clear that these were recommendations, not mandates. Christine Ortiz, the dean of graduate education, approved the final document in February 2015.

The document is now being distributed at MIT student orientation events, and anecdotally, Brozek has reason to believe that his efforts have already made an impact. “I hear stories from students saying, ‘Carl, what have you done? My adviser keeps asking me if he or she is a good adviser; what’s happening?’” The answer may be simple: communication.