Building a Plane That Includes Grad Students

Dawn Culpepper and Michael A. Goodman explore how advisers and institutions can -- and should -- better communicate with those students during COVID-19.

December 17, 2020
Evgeny grooms/istock via getty images plus

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt academe, higher education employees have rarely gone a day without receiving a university message that reminds us that these are “unprecedented times” and institutions are “building the plane as they are flying it.” Daily messages have included correspondence from university presidents, provosts, student affairs, health centers, deans and unit heads regarding when, where, how and if we are expected to be on campus and do our work and the protocols and processes we should follow to do so. Yet graduate students -- who exist within professional and graduate fields with vastly different requirements and expectations -- are often left to decipher how such messages apply to them and are merely instructed to consult their advisers.

Many problems are associated with unclear guidance for graduate students. Faculty members and graduate supervisors themselves have been struggling to cope with the impact of COVID-19 and may have questions about how such guidance applies to them -- not to mention their advisees. Graduate students are already economically vulnerable, and amid widespread furloughs and layoffs, they may be subject to even more financial hardship. In the worst of circumstances, graduate students are highly vulnerable to harassment and coercive behavior from faculty members -- behaviors that may be more likely to emerge when there is ambiguity regarding the work and expectations for graduate students.

Moreover, the failure of institutions to specifically guide graduate students reveal the diverse but often invisible contributions graduate students make to campus life. Should graduate students be considered employees? If yes, are they instructors, researchers or staff members -- or something else entirely? Even more pressing, are graduate students students, who should, for example, follow university guidance for “all students” to return to their permanent homes?

Of course, these questions relate to the national debate regarding graduate students’ right to unionize, but they also lead us to broader issues about which groups matter and are valued as institutions make and communicate COVID-19 decisions.

As practitioners, researchers of graduate education and current (Dawn) and recent (Michael) graduate students, we recommend some concrete strategies that institutions and advisers can use to enhance their communication with graduate students. These recommendations can also help institutions and advisers to be more empathetic and inclusive in the guidance they provide.

For Institutions

Recognize that graduate students serve multiple roles with different kinds of relationships to the institution. Graduate students are students, researchers and instructors. Some work in campus administrative offices, others in labs, community health centers or legal clinics and still others in nonuniversity professional jobs. Some are full-time and others part-time.

Given that diversity, graduate students may receive mixed, and sometimes conflicting, communications regarding expectations about returning to work, research restrictions or in-person instruction. Some may not know or understand if they are considered “staff” or “employee.” Clarify how your communications apply specifically to graduate students, and do not take for granted that they are all only one “kind.”

Evaluate which messages are for whom and who will receive them. For example, when writing about “faculty” and “researchers,” institutions should consider graduate students who are also instructors or those who are conducting independent or grant-funded research. Institutions should also evaluate if graduate students are on the specific Listservs for messages to faculty/instructors or researchers, or if the messages will need to be relayed through faculty or supervisors for graduate students to receive them.

Provide clear guidance on if/how human resources policies apply to graduate students. Many institutional messages about COVID include information regarding family and medical leave, insurance enrollment, layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions, among other human resource-related policies. Often, it is unclear which policies impact or apply to graduate students using university benefits. Institutions should consider creating dedicated communications or websites that indicate the extent to which graduate students are included in relevant human resources policies. (This recommendation applies to non-COVID-19 policies, as well.)

Consider possible dangers in interpretation. Advisers and departments may differ in their approach and engagement with graduate students. Messages such as, “You will receive more information from your supervisor or advisers,” may be inconsistently relayed or administered across an institution or department. Academic leaders like deans, chairs and other administrators can set concrete expectations for how faculty members should respond and lead. Being as specific as possible provides graduate students a benchmark for what to expect from their supervisor or adviser and limits the extent to which they must rely upon that person as a sole source of information.

Engage graduate student groups and organizations. When considering who is part of decision making and messaging, include graduate student leaders and activists involved with graduate programs across the institution. For example, if announcing something for all students, consider how leaders of undergraduate student government associations are included and do the same with those of graduate and professional student organizations.

Acknowledge the personal lives of graduate students. There has been much discussion of the ways that the productivity of faculty members, especially women with children, has been hampered due to caregiving responsibilities. Recognize that many graduate students likewise have caregiving responsibilities -- including not only children but also potentially siblings, parents, extended family and friends. Ensure that graduate students are aware of and eligible for the same caregiving accommodations you offer to faculty and staff members.

For Advisers

Follow up on institutionwide messages. Proactively help students interpret how messages apply to them -- whether they are in labs, conducting human-subject research remotely or serving as teaching assistants. Do not assume that all messages you receive reach your students, or that all messages students receive reach you.

Help students individually modify their program plans. Many institutions have put in place waivers for time to degree. Advisers can support graduate students by helping them restructure their program plans and modify research plans. That may include checking in with graduate students who are at different points of their degree journey and understanding that each one may need something different.

Set expectations for virtual dissertation presentations. Many graduate students can now present their dissertation defenses online. Advisers can assist those students by setting clear expectations for how such meetings will be facilitated or moderated and helping them practice with the associated technology beforehand.

Facilitate social interactions. In addition to regular meetings with research teams, help facilitate social interactions. In normal circumstances, graduate students often share important information during informal interactions that occur before or after class, in the lab or in the hallway. Creating virtual spaces for information exchange helps fill that void during the pandemic -- and may be especially important for international graduate students, who would have benefited greatly from in-person orientation programs at the start of the academic year.

Consider new ways to support incoming graduate students. Advisers can take stock of their teaching pedagogy and in-class expectations. For newer graduate students, these first few semesters may not be like anything they have previously experienced and may have long-term impacts on their sense of belonging, career development and success. You may need to rethink your regular teaching and advising approaches in order to fully support them in the new environment.

Clearly communicating expectations for graduate students is vital at all times but even more so during a pandemic when health and safety depends upon clear guidance. We recognize that the decisions institutions are making are not easy ones and that accounting for the wide variation in the needs of students, faculty and staff is a difficult endeavor even in normal circumstances. But as your institution continues to fly its plane through COVID-19 turbulence, we hope that these recommendations will help it, and you, attend to and be inclusive of graduate student passengers.


Dawn Culpepper works in faculty development and is a part-time graduate student in higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Michael A. Goodman is a student affairs practitioner and instructor at the university.

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