Supporting Grad Students Who Have Partners and Families

A menu of programs and supports could help draw and keep top talent, writes Kay Kimball Gruder, who offers some specific suggestions.

March 4, 2019
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Imagine you are moving, accompanying the person you hold dear as they embark on their graduate degree program or postdoc experience. Your partner or spouse is traveling to engage in an exciting academic endeavor, intent on making a positive impression with their adviser or boss, and eager to show their capacity to conduct research and publish.

You, in contrast, are headed toward uncertainty, wondering how your ambitions and goals might also be met. Perhaps you need to:

  • find employment;
  • enroll in a degree or courses of your own;
  • navigate day-to-day logistics in unfamiliar surroundings;
  • manage transitions for children or other family members;
  • understand new norms -- perhaps regional, cultural, institutional and the like;
  • look for a more permanent living situation; or
  • learn another language.

When universities create partner and family initiatives that address these types of needs, it contributes to the well-being of not only the family or partner unit but also of the graduate student or postdoc. Having fewer things to worry about at home opens up more brain space for the student or postdoc to focus on their research, writing and teaching. We know that when people feel supported, they typically experience less stress and adjust better than their counterparts who lack such support.

While many universities provide relocation information that features local services and resources, consider what an array of initiatives for partner and family engagement might look like at your institution or department. Any number of individuals could contribute programming and resources. Some initiatives might emerge from the current graduate students or postdocs. Other programs might be delivered through existing campus centers, such as career services, mental health counseling, international student services and so forth. And still others might be led by current partners and spouses.

And how might faculty help? They could lead in advocating for the development of campus-supported family/partner engagement services and facilitate positive partner/spouse transitions through activities in their departments.

Partner and family engagement might include:

  • Offering complimentary job-search coaching or a job-search support group to partners/spouses who accompany graduate students;
  • Establishing a full-time position in the graduate school with the primary role of guiding partners/spouses in their transitions. This role might also support partners/spouses of new faculty members;
  • Providing an orientation program for the partners/spouses of entering graduate students and/or arranging a family orientation activity;
  • Sharing a welcome packet, manual or website, written by partners of current graduate students and postdocs, that includes tips and other important information about relocating;
  • Developing a social media network for graduate students with children to share information and connect;
  • Offering a “Welcome to Our Community” webinar offered in advance of relocation and recorded with 24-7 access available;
  • Encouraging and providing resources (space, budget, personnel) for the formation of a “Graduate Students With Families” community that self-organizes gatherings and activities;
  • Developing an accompanying spouse/partner mentor program;
  • Advocating for student and postdoc family housing;
  • Inviting family members to degree milestone events or departmental holiday gatherings;
  • Hosting a “What I Wish I Knew as the Spouse or Partner of a Graduate Student” panel;
  • Opening a seat on the Graduate Student Senate, or a similar student government organization, for a spouse/partner representative;
  • Varying the schedules of classes and department events to make it easier for those with family commitments to attend;
  • Making it possible for graduate students and postdocs to enroll dependents in university health insurance plans; and
  • Organizing family-friendly campus and departmental events, making it clear that the invitation extends to all and is truly suitable for all.

And don’t underestimate the little things. I once arrived at an event that encouraged families with children to attend. The event only had coffee and tea and did not feel family friendly, as one by one children began to cry about not having anything to drink. As silly as it might sound, just having juice boxes would have been a positive addition.

A Differentiator in Recruiting and Keeping Talent

What might an incoming graduate student or postdoc do when entering a university where partners and families are largely ignored or existing in the shadows? At universities vying for top talent, postdocs and graduate students might have some leverage in asking for access to campus and community services relevant to relocation and a partner’s job search.

A graduate student who is aware that they are in demand might, for instance, find that a call to the institution’s career services department results in a partner or spouse being able to have a complimentary appointment. Some institutions provide career programming to partners and spouses, while others don’t because of limited personnel or budget stipulations that require funds to be directed only to current students or postdocs. Perhaps the graduate school, if hosting a new graduate student orientation, would be willing to arrange a couple of presentations relevant to the needs of the people accompanying the graduate student or postdoc.

There is a cost to recruiting, for those universities that need to do so, and being able to retain new students and trainees becomes increasingly important. A menu of partner and family programs and supports, offered by an institution, could be a differentiator in drawing and keeping top talent.

Michael Limberg recognized the difficulties of relocating with a family after his own experiences beginning a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut. “Getting my wife started at her new job, arranging childcare for my daughter, finding a pediatrician, trying to settle in with my cohort while balancing school and home responsibilities -- there was a lot of stress my first semester in Storrs,” Limberg recalled. “We eventually settled in and built a network for information and support, which included a lot of help from my adviser and other department faculty. But that initial stress left a big impression, and I jumped at the chance to help support other students when UConn’s Graduate School decided to pursue programming for students with families.”

The Graduate School funded a part-time position where Limberg helped expand information resources on the institution’s website, created a social media network and hosted professional development and social events. Those programs positively impacted graduate students and postdocs by helping them make connections, build community and find resources. Limberg observed, “Little things can make a big difference. I heard from a number of students who had simply not been aware of programs or resources that UConn already offered, such as a childcare reimbursement for graduate assistants, that made their lives as students easier.”

Shalyn Hopley is the current graduate programming assistant at the University of Connecticut’s Graduate School. Hopley shares, “Graduate students are coming to us with a diversity and richness of experiences, and if we are wanting to make the most inclusive graduate student community possible, we need to be thinking about not only graduate students, but their families and partners, too.”

Recognizing that supporting graduate students and postdocs with partners and families is a needed area of development, the Graduate School is expanding resources and adding gatherings for students with families. And it is intentional in using inviting language to make sure that partners are also joining the Husky family.

“There is plenty student affairs and higher education professionals can do to support students with families. As a field, we are moving from only considering family members’ impact on students when it is a family emergency or crisis situation to considering how we can be proactive in serving our students with families, “says Hopley. “I have seen excellent examples of professors carving out part of their syllabus to explain their policies and supports for students with dependent children. Spending resources on student partners and families ensures that our graduate students can be fully present and themselves in their time with their university.”

It is through deliberate conversations with the people who are most affected, understanding their needs and collaborating with university partners that we can better provide resources and supports. Take note of those around your institution who already seem invested in family and partner transitions. Co-create a framework to guide and support the people who are accompanying your graduate students and postdoc trainees on the academic journey.

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Kay Kimball Gruder is assistant director of graduate student career programs and services at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Kay Kimball Gruder

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