“As a grad student, most of the work you do is individual and unstructured,” says former MIT graduate student Patrick Schmid, who graduated in January. “There is a lot of stress, and everyone has different sets of issues.”
In response to graduate student stress, a peer-to-peer, confidential support network is gaining momentum on campus. The Resources for Easing Friction and Stress, or REFS, programs serve as confidential, low-barrier resources for graduate students who seek support but prefer not to go through “official” channels.
“Grad students do face a lot of stress,” says Christy Anthony, director of the Office of Student Citizenship. “Much of it comes from the tangible connection between their work and their careers. It gives them a heightened sense of awareness of how they work in groups, which can lead to added stress.”
Other sources of stress for graduate students can include adapting to department culture, meeting rigorous demands set by faculty advisers, and maintaining long-distance relationships.
Anthony, who serves as the liaison and point of contact for the REFS programs, says the number of programs has been growing by about two per year. Today, REFS programs operate in 11 departments, labs and centers.
Volunteer graduate students, known themselves as “REFS,” lead the REFS programs. Rather than giving specific advice to their peers, the REFS are careful listeners who provide the options and consequences that those asking for help can use to make informed decisions.
“We don’t tell people the right or wrong thing to do,” says Schmid, who served as a REF for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “We’re a sounding board for our peers. We know what they are going through.”
REFS complete an extensive 32-hour mediation-training workshop, and they meet with each other throughout the year for continuing education. Each of the 11 REFS programs is led entirely by graduate students with the help of a faculty adviser.
“Conflict resolution programs need to fit the culture of the communities that they serve,” Anthony says. “That’s why the REFS programs are independent of each other. Most of the decisions go directly to the individual departments, labs and centers.”
“I was happy to work with the REFS programs,” Schmid says. “Being a REF allowed me to help my peers.”
To learn more, including information on starting a new program, visit the REFS programs website.