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MIT faculty share best practices in graduate student advising

Faculty discussion turns into a pamphlet to be distributed to the MIT community.
Professor Kae Tye (third from left) with graduate students
Professor Kae Tye (third from left) with graduate students
Professor Hae-Seung Lee (in blue blazer) advising graduate students
Professor Hae-Seung Lee (in blue blazer) advising graduate students

On May 7, in a discussion open to the entire MIT community, a panel of seven faculty members from across the Institute came together to share their insights on the topic of graduate student advising. In response, a new pamphlet, “Best Practices in Graduate Student Advising,” evolved, and is now available by request to members of the MIT community.

The initial event was organized by the Office for the Dean of Graduate Education (ODGE) and the Graduate Student Council (GSC), as part of their Advising Initiative, to provide a rare opportunity for cross-department dialogue on advising between MIT's various schools. The discussion then served as the launch event for development and publication of the “Best Practices in Graduate Student Advising,” now available in many departmental headquarters and at the ODGE.

The panelists were professor of architecture John Fernandez, professors of electrical engineering and computer science Leslie Kolodziejski and Randall Davis, professor of brain and cognitive sciences Kay Tye, professor of materials science and engineering Jeffrey Grossman, and professor of economics and management Bengt Holmstrom.

As a collection of assistant professors and senior faculty spanning MIT's five schools, the panelists drew from diverse experiences when they spoke on how to promote healthy and productive advising relationships. They came recommended by their own departments, in some cases as dedicated graduate program chairs or as recipients of the Perkins Award, an honor bestowed by the GSC for demonstrating a sustained commitment to graduate student advising. 

Over the course of an hour, the panelists engaged in a moderated discussion, which was followed by Q&A with the audience. The moderator, MIT Ombudsperson Judi Segall, posed questions that were meant to elaborate on portions of “Best Practices” that the ODGE purposefully left open-ended for departments and faculty to specify further. Several issues, such as how and when to deliver feedback to students, and how students should bring forth concerns with their advising relationship, explored paths towards effective communication in the advising relationship.

Other questions prompted panelists to discuss how they establish expectations with their advisees and uphold the expectations throughout the advising relationship. Vacation and allotting time for professional development were identified as common sources of misunderstanding, with panelists sharing how they broach these specific issues head-on. On the topic of expectations, the discussion delved into what constitutes a “timely manner” in receiving feedback on weekly progress or manuscripts, or when advisors and advisees are notified of meetings or leaves of absence.

Holmstrom and Davis advocated for advisors and advisees to meet at regular intervals that they both agree to, whether it be for an hour every two weeks or for 30 minutes every other day. Grossman concurred, but stressed that what works for one relationship might be quite different from what works for another.

In discussing how students should voice their concerns about the advising relationship, Tye and Davis offered advice to the faculty. Entering an advisor’s office is inherently intimidating for students, Davis explained, and faculty needed to remind themselves of that when listening to the concerns of advisees. After having a discussion with a student about the advising relationship, or after offering any advice, Tye recommended that advisors ask for feedback from students on their own performance in advising. But when evaluating anyone’s actions, Davis reminded the audience to “assume incompetence before malevolence.” Professors and students are both burdened by obligations and proliferating piles of unread emails. Kolodziejski, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science graduate officer, reminded students of the importance of not allowing problems to fester, and of providing advisors with advance notice about additional time commitments.

“Career development begins on day one,” explained Fernandez. He and other panelists felt that finding a job and networking should not be an afterthought, but, rather, a pillar of the graduate student experience alongside research and classwork. Speaking from efforts within the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Hardt encouraged faculty to push students into internships as early as possible.

Segall summarized the common theme that emerged from the discussion, despite differences among the departments and disciplines: a successful advising relationship hinges on regular communication between advisor and advisee, both structured and informal, to establish and reinforce mutual expectations and foster a positive relationship.

The GSC and ODGE plan to hold similar discussion panels during the coming school year in various forms, to explore more narrow topics, such as career development, or to hear the concerns of specific groups, such as international students or assistant professors.

In addition, the "Best Practices in Graduate Student Advising" pamphlet will be disseminated and incorporated into common advising routines at MIT in a variety of ways. The GSC plans to include the resource in the material available to students during orientation events in the fall and is discussing the possibility of role-playing workshops where students and faculty practice having the difficult, but necessary, discussions expected of them throughout their advising relationship.

Contents of the pamphlet are now offered on the ODGE website as printable PDFs, under "Student and Faculty" and "Institute" roles. Those interested in the printed "Best Practices" pamphlet should contact Sarah Goodman or visit the ODGE headquarters in Room 3-138.

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