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The New Graduate Student

Today’s graduate students want cross-disciplinary interactions and more meaningful social connections
November 1, 2002

When Chancellor Phillip Clay PhD ‘75 was a doctoral student at MIT in the early 1970s, he had one main goal: to conduct and complete his research so that he could launch his academic career. Intramural sports, student government, performing groups, residence hall activities-any kind of life outside research-was just that, outside. He neither expected nor desired a graduate community. To satisfy the occasional craving for a social experience, Clay would attend a lecture at Harvard University or hang out in Harvard Square. “There was a time when graduate students saw MIT as a place to come and work on their thing,” he says. “And their life, to the extent they had one, was separate. They didn’t really expect a lot.”

Today they do. And Clay, now MIT’s senior administrator responsible for all facets of student life outside the classroom, recognizes that. He has made money available to fund community-building efforts, and his message to everyone is that these efforts are important.

In a nutshell, Clay wants to develop a sense of community through social and academic events that put students in touch with peers outside their labs and departments. Clay didn’t come to this realization alone. During the last few years, students have been pushing the point and setting up their own programs and events. “Students today are looking for a broader skill set beyond just academic training,” says Sanith Wijesinghe, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics who is president of the Graduate Student Council. Students want the financial support to develop their own communities through events and programs they create, but Wijesinghe says they also expect the Institute to provide some venues for community building and to address major quality-of-life issues.

Those issues have been on everyone’s mind since the Task Force on Student Life and Learning released its report in 1998. In the two years leading up to the report’s publication, the committee found that a quality education contains three important aspects-academics, research, and community-and that to answer the needs of today’s students and society, MIT would need to join these three formerly discrete realms into one triad. That report focused on undergraduate life, but a survey that MIT’s Office of Institutional Research administered to MIT’s 5,984 graduate students revealed that more than 70 percent of those respondents found the triad concept was relevant to them as well. Even before getting that verification, the Institute had committed itself to forging a new relationship with its graduate students and creating an integrated educational experience.

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.

A Richer Experience

There are ways to break through the isolation of the graduate experience and promote cooperative efforts. Events and programs geared specifically to graduate students aim to help students develop closer ties to the Institute, make their time here richer, and prepare them better for life after MIT.

Colbert describes one such effort, TechLink, which has attracted scores of students, as “wildly successful.” Initiated three years ago by the Graduate Student Council and the Sloan Student Senate, TechLink brings together students from across the Institute each month for social and academic programs. The annual reception for women graduate students that Colbert started three years ago is another success story. This year, he says, “We had to turn out the lights and sweep out the place to get people to leave.”

Two years ago, Colbert and the Graduate Student Council collaborated on another new program, Graduate School 101, which provides first-year students with a series of seminars on a broad range of information about graduate school. So far, less than one-fifth of the population attends the seminars, but attendance is growing.

Colbert’s budget for this academic year includes $200,000 derived from student activities fees. For the fall, $40,000 of that budget has been allocated to new programs, and next spring more will be distributed to support additional proposals. A portion of the $200,000 will underwrite existing programs or activities, as well as events that originate elsewhere on campus or from Colbert’s office.

For this fall, a committee of students, faculty, and staff has selected nine student proposals for new activities, including a series of graduate student art receptions at the List Gallery, an expo where students can present their research in a conference-style venue, a series of community-building events in the physics department, and the overhaul of the Graduate Student Council Web site, a center where students can gather information about services and programs and share opinions.

Colbert is looking at the chemical engineering department and the Sloan School of Management, both known for having tight-knit graduate communities, to discover whether they use techniques that might be transported elsewhere in the Institute. For example, by installing a cappuccino machine in a central location, the chemical engineering department has sparked conversation between department faculty and students. Sloan faculty, on the other hand, have what Colbert calls a unique approach. “They’re about community building. They work as teams. There’s something to be learned from them about how to get graduate students to bond.”

Even outside Sloan, students are starting to instigate that kind of bonding. Teams of graduate students are working together to create and run social and academic programs in every graduate residence hall on campus. Christina Silcox, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology, was president of the Warehouse, a graduate residence, when it first opened in 2001. She says community building was a spontaneous benefit of having created a homey atmosphere for the 100 residents. But at Sidney and Pacific, the 750-bed residence hall that opened this fall, the process was more formal. Silcox, now serving as secretary of the house council and a member of the executive council there, says that because the residence is so large, a 50-member leadership group had to be formed. That group designed a governance structure aimed at encouraging a sense of community at the hall, wing, and residence hall levels. And, at the expense of forfeiting housing for additional residents, students requested lounges and other public spaces throughout the building to encourage socializing and to accommodate small dinner parties and other functions.

On-campus residents may benefit from these programs, but more than half of all graduate students live off campus. “You can see how on-campus residents have a great time,” says Megan Hepler ‘99, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology. “I never hear that from anyone off campus. This neglect of off-campus folks is a vicious cycle. They’re neglected, and so they think they’re not important, so they don’t want to give back when they graduate. We need to break that cycle. Show them MIT cares, and they’ll care about MIT.”

Up until now, off-campus students have had little representation in quality-of-life issues at the Institute, but the Graduate Student Council is working to revive an off-campus student organization and include representation on the council. And at least one of the fall proposals funded by Colbert’s office was specifically aimed at students who live in MIT-owned apartment buildings off campus. “The most important thing for off-campus students is to let them build their own community,” says Alisa Morss, a doctoral student in health sciences and technology, who was on the committee that reviewed students’ proposals for building graduate community. “It’s important to support them and to make life easier for them financially, whether it’s for subsidized events like the Boston Pops or Red Sox games or for transportation to campus.”

Resolving Issues

Activities and programs may be wonderful community-building events, but graduate students say that more help dealing with difficult practical problems would go a long way toward creating closer ties to the Institute. Without exception, everyone’s biggest concern is finding affordable housing. Rents in the Boston area are among the steepest in the nation, and students end up spending as much as 40 percent of their stipend on housing alone. Rents for campus residences are about 40 percent below market rates, but competition for those spaces is stiff. Even though two new residences have opened in the last two years, only about 45 percent of the graduate student population can live on campus. In the last three years, stipends have increased about 6 percent annually. No other group of MIT wage earners received a higher increase, according to Provost Robert Brown, but some claim it’s still not enough.

“Living off campus is a major downside at MIT,” says Andreas Woess, a second-year graduate student at Sloan. “MIT needs to either build more housing or subsidize off-campus students.”

The Graduate Student Council would like to tie annual stipend increases to the increase in local housing costs, but Colbert cautions that stipend levels have already been pushed aggressively. “There’s a trade-off between how much of the research funding goes for equipment and research infrastructure and how much goes to graduate students,” he says.

Medical insurance and child-care are two other significant costs graduate students face. All students are required to carry medical insurance, and the fees keep going up. This year alone, the cost of MIT’s only health-care plan for graduate students jumped 17 percent. Colbert expects the price to increase by at least 10 percent next year. “The costs have risen to the point that we have to do something about it,” says Colbert. But what and how are not yet clear.

Nor is it clear how to provide affordable child-care for graduate students’ children. “It’s such an expensive proposition; we don’t know what to do about it yet,” says Colbert. But, he acknowledges, it’s an issue the Institute needs to address within the next few years.

Last year, communication between graduate students and members of the central administration was strained by what many saw as the administration’s arbitrary decision to alleviate crowding in undergraduate residence halls by housing some undergraduates in graduate student housing. A new student- activity fee, which primarily supports athletics and operations in the new Zesiger Athletic Center, also contributed to the tension. Graduate students were unhappy with the decision because the new fee comes out of their stipends, further reducing their income.

“We need to create a bit more transparency in the decision-making process,” says Wijesinghe. “The administration made a string of decisions that had no input from students.”

Chancellor Clay agrees, saying, “We were often finding ourselves on the verge of making a decision without having given as much time and thought and involvement to the stakeholders as we should have.” As a result, Clay created the housing strategy group, composed of students, administrators, faculty, housemasters, and staff, to advise him on a host of long- and short-term housing issues.

Although the issues may seem thorny and student needs seem difficult to meet, attention to graduate community concerns will continue to evolve as students’ demand for balanced lives grows and Ike Colbert’s passion for the highest-quality experience takes shape. “We’re producing world-class scientists and engineers who are significant players in businesses and industries that are critical to the world,” he says. “We should have those people be able to look back at MIT and say, I not only learned a lot, I had a great time.’”

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