Improving the Graduate School Experience

Leslie Ellen Blood describes three ways to help increase graduate student satisfaction and success.

January 23, 2020

The transition from student to scholar, which happens during graduate school, can be a very challenging period of growth for many future academics. Graduate school is relatively unstructured, which means that students must be good at time management and should need little oversight from their advisers.

But many students benefit from a more structured approach in order to accomplish their academic goals in a reasonable amount of time. As educators, we must create grittier, stronger, healthier and, last but not least, happier graduate students who are thriving and not just surviving in their quest for an advanced degree.

The programs that we have created at the University of Colorado at Boulder focus heavily on diversity and inclusion, retention and time and cost to degree. Over the past two years, we have expanded a number of resources that have greatly increased graduate student satisfaction. In an effort to change the “sink or swim” culture of higher education and create a more inclusive and supportive environment, we have developed strategies to focus on graduate student well-being and success.

Here are three ideas that we’ve found to be helpful for improving the graduate climate, ones that you can implement today at your institution.

Accountability seminars. Our graduate accountability seminars meet weekly and focus on building good habits and time-management techniques, as well as defining values and connecting those to goal setting. The best part of the accountability seminars is that they provide the structure that many graduate students are missing once they have finished their coursework. All you need is space and an instructor! These seminars benefit students in so many ways. They can serve as a support group for students who feel isolated. They teach students to be resilient. And they foster a community that embraces diversity and inclusion practices during the whole Ph.D. process.

We are now surveying all of our accountability seminar attendees to find out which aspects of the service are most beneficial to them. In the past, the consensus has been that the students appreciate the structure and community they find in the seminar.

Advising agreements. Organized and effective advising is beneficial to both the adviser and advisee. Many common issues that occur during the advisee/adviser relationship happen because of poor communication. Most advisers are not trained to be mentors, and advisees have no idea what to expect from this new and incredibly important relationship. We drafted the advising agreement to create a guide for both parties as they discuss expectations.

This document is a supplemental strategy created to support the graduate student advisees’ short- and long-term goals while also giving advisers tools to clarify expectations. It is an agreement between the graduate student and their adviser and should be reviewed once a semester and/or after significant educational milestones have been met. This agreement should be modified and developed collaboratively throughout the advisee/adviser working relationship.

Writing retreats and workshops. The accountability seminars help students adhere to deadlines and meet their goals. However, many students lack experience in writing  and publishing articles and dissertations. How can we best help improve and support their writing process?

We host weeklong writing retreats, our most popular writing support offering, usually just before the start of the semester and right after it ends. These catered events take place on campus and offer editing services so that students can receive feedback on their writing during the retreat. We just hosted out largest writing retreat to kick off the spring 2020 semester, with 102 students in attendance.

Workshops are also an important part of the writing process. Many students suffer from impostor syndrome, which can make writing and publishing stressful. Providing workshops focused on forming an argument, setting appropriate deadlines, tips and tricks for writer’s block, and communicating research through storytelling can help students as they begin publishing their research and writing their dissertations.

Unlike the retreats and accountability seminars, workshops can focus on very specific topics based on the needs of the students at your institution. I enjoy informally polling our students who attend the seminar to find out which workshop topics would be most beneficial. Our most popular workshops concentrate on career advice, mentoring, publishing and how to overcome impostor syndrome. Over the past two years, attendance has increased significantly, and requests for more seminars and workshops all over campus continue to come in. We have conducted a survey to further determine the best topics, and our graduate area liaisons have helped to directly communicate all of the offerings to various departments.

In sum, students come to graduate school with different backgrounds and a variety of unspoken understandings and expectations. Given the wonderful diversity that we see in our institutions, we must improve our student-centered services. To respond to the need for more inclusive programing, we must find a way to level the playing field in graduate education. Providing services that help reach all students, especially our first-generation or international students, as they navigate the complex, challenging and fulfilling graduate school experience is key to student retention and satisfaction.


Leslie Ellen Blood is the director of graduate community and program development at the Graduate School of the University of Colorado at Boulder.


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