What Makes Grad Students Happy

Graduate officials who want to improve students' quality of life -- but admit they don't know how -- get some pointers.
December 7, 2010

WASHINGTON – Over the years, many campuses have improved services for students – from dining to advising to health care. But even though graduate students have benefited from some of those changes, they aren't necessarily happier than in the past.

Researchers presented that finding Friday at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, imploring colleges to do more for graduate students outside the classroom. Several institutions in recent years have conducted quality of life surveys among their graduate students, but many in a room full of college officials said here that they are struggling to figure out what to do with the findings.

They may not have gotten explicit answers here, but they did get a nudge in the right direction. The presenters, officials and graduate students from Texas A&M University and the University of Oklahoma walked the audience through their approaches to determining what students want and then turning those findings into actionable intel. “If graduate colleges can identify and reduce these 'dissatisfiers' while focusing on facets of life that motivate students, then quality of life can be enhanced,” said Tim Davidson, graduate liaison at the University of Oklahoma. “Our undergraduate system is really well-developed, but how can we serve the graduate population in a similar way?”

The presenters praised Stanford University and the University of Maryland at College Park for their surveys, which measured various areas of graduate student satisfaction including finances, housing, childcare, campus climate, student services and transportation. Similar efforts have also been made at Cornell University and, more recently, the University of Oregon. But that progress can stall when the data come in and the inevitable question arises: What next?

“Quality of life has been under the radar for probably the past 10 years or so… [but] is now emerging as an important discussion. Retention and graduation have always been hot topics in the world of graduate colleges, and we hypothesize that improved quality of life initiatives will help with these two areas,” Oklahoma graduate research assistant Abbie Allums wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed while en route home from the conference. “I think the question now is shifting to, ‘What do we do that will work on our campus?’ I think that’s what we’re all trying to answer.”

Megan Palsa, director of graduate recruitment at Texas A&M, works with on-campus student groups to address their needs. She emphasizes the importance of organized events, such as career development workshops for navigation through the grueling job market, or home dinners to deal with another common downer – the isolation of graduate student life. “Even though I’m director of recruitment, it’s really retention, too,” Palsa said. She described one instance where a graduate student approached her after a barbecue to say thank you; he and others had been in school for a year and never really knew anyone. “These are the kinds of things that they’re looking for and they’re very, very appreciative that we do them.”

At Oklahoma, Allums and Davidson created a two-part survey with the belief that graduate programs are responsible for addressing students’ concerns beyond academics. The questions went to students from all disciplines, master’s and Ph.D., international and domestic. The first survey gathered quantitative data (for example, which students use which services) and the second, led by graduate student Ebony Pope, gathered qualitative data (among other things, student opinions on what should be changed, and how). In analyzing the data to decide what actions to take, they looked for cost-effective solutions that capitalized on the existing infrastructure.

For instance, more than half of those with a spouse or partner reported that that person is employed outside the university, and almost 20 percent of them said that their partners had difficulty adjusting to the area. So, the recommended action is not only to ease the moving transition with a comprehensive guide to graduate life, but also to ramp up inclusive campus programming to involve families on campus. Allums said that might consist of ID cards so spouses can use student unions and libraries; another idea is utilizing facilities more effectively -- for example, graduate students could attend a lecture at a campus museum while their children explore the exhibits.

But the cost of those provisions was a dwelling point for some graduate officials – including one whose institution just completed a survey and is now struggling with the “tremendous diversity of needs.” Realistically, how important is it to address quality of life compared to other needs, she asked? And how do you decide which to meet when you can’t meet them all?

You can start by implementing low-cost solutions, the presenters said, such as student manuals. And while it’s understandable to give preference to cheap solutions, colleges shouldn’t rule out actions that cost money, either, said Karen Butler-Purry, associate vice president for graduate studies at Texas A&M. “It is extremely important if we want to have very good graduate students,” she said.


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