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A Change in Expectations

Even 10 years ago, graduate students were still content to focus single-mindedly on their research and apprentice themselves to faculty. They had only limited interpersonal relationships, and opportunities to interact with people outside their own research groups were almost nonexistent.

“If you came to MIT to work in a lab in Building 8,” says Clay, “there was really no reason to go into Building 7 or to Sloan. Even students who might have had a lot in common and may have taken courses together had no way to casually engage each other in talk about some issue that was not part of their studies.”

But graduate students’ expectations have changed dramatically in recent years. Ike Colbert, dean for graduate students since 1999, has spent many of his 25 years at the Institute listening to what graduate students say they need. “Today’s students demand balance between what we might see as life,” he says, “and the traditional pursuit of knowledge and expertise in their chosen areas. What’s key and new is that graduate students today are talking about opportunities to meet one another.”

For Aurelie Thiele SM ‘00, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, such opportunities can turn into an important support network. “Grad school is a lonely experience,” she says. “Sometimes you’re really scared when your research doesn’t work or when something doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped.” Because research groups are small and often very competitive, it’s important for students to build a network outside the lab or department, she notes.

Unfortunately, many students are not getting that support. Hundreds of written responses on last fall’s survey pointed to what’s missing at MIT. An anonymous respondent wrote, “There seems to be no problem at MIT as far as academics and research go. As far as community, graduate students build it through commiseration. This is not a place that offers much to people in terms of community. As students, we shouldn’t look to MIT for community support. To do so is to be continually disappointed.”

But these days, the administration has a new attitude, and that bodes well for change. In the last three years, the Institute has increased its funding to Colbert’s office and to the Graduate Student Council. Now, through a concerted effort and partnership of the council, administration, and faculty, new programs that support students’ needs are springing up.

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