By Mary Kate McGrath - September 28, 2020
The relationship between a graduate student and their advisor is fundamental to success in a Masters of PhD program - either students will find a lifelong mentor who can help them reach their full potential as a researcher and academic, or the negative relationship will be a major obstacle, potentially encouraging students to prematurely leave programs.
One of the most fundamental ways to encourage positive relationships between students and advisors is to encourage open communication - students should be meeting frequently with advisors to discuss their progress, and technology can help facilitate these meetings and other critical communications.
Administrators must prioritize mentorship - the stakes are high, as one study concluded negative relationships with advisors was a root cause of the graduate mental health crisis, with early half of graduate students with anxiety or depression reported feeling their advisor did not provide “real mentorship,” as per Inside Higher Ed.
A similar number of respondents reporting anxiety and depression also reported that advisors did not offer enough support and did not have a positive impact on students’ emotional wellbeing. Many graduate students interviewed also reported feeling undervalued by their advisor, with more than 50% of survey respondents claiming that they did not feel their advisors were assets to their career.
Many graduate students have also experienced abusive behavior from faculty advisors - these can include derision, infantilization, neglect, undermining, or exploitation, as per Inside Higher Ed. The schools “see something, say something” policy must be expanded to include graduate students, expanding university protections to students who are victims of faculty abuse.
Watch this video on how higher education institutions can reach and support their students mental health both on and off campus:
First, establishing graduate student guidance committees will provide one way that universities can process complaints - by doing so, students will be able to open a dialogue with the advisor in question, have redress if necessary for any exploitative behavior, as well as the capability to initiate an advisor change with approval from the graduate school director or chair.
Technology can facilitate healthy student and advisor relations, empowering advisors to set up frequent meetings or communications, allowing students to access relevant degree resources and allowing graduate students who are experiencing abuse or harassment from either a peer or advisor to anonymously report the incident using a two-tip texting tool.
One tool that can be valuable for improving graduate students' relationships with their advisors is a campus communication app, which both provides a resource and call directory, but also can be valuable in a variety of emergency scenarios, allowing students to report any concerning behavior among peers or faculties to the institution.
Many students might not understand the procedure for contacting an advisor, or their advisors might not have up-to-date contact information. The app can help proactively distribute accurate contact information and encourage students to reach out to their mentors - the directory can feature a variety of relevant resources, such as the semester schedule with important events, office hours, and how to take advantage of the academic advising center or other relevant services.
For graduate students struggling to meet their academic goals, not receiving institutional support on research, and lacking emotional support from their advisor, it might be important to contact the department’ ombudsman. The “ombudsman” is an individual tasked with investigating individual complaints, especially an instance of maladministration, on campus. Often this individual - whose contact information and role description can be listed in the app - can field a report from a graduate student and connect them with the next steps, whether this is contacting the graduate dean or mediating a session with the advisor and student directly.
The anonymous two-way tip texting tool in the app can also help students report instances of abuse or harassment, encouraging a positive learning environment and structural accountability. The app allows students to submit anonymous tips or conduct discreet two-way conversations with campus safety teams. Many graduate students are afraid to come forward with a report out of fear of relation, or a perception that the complaint will be dismissed.
If unaddressed, toxic advisor relationships can leave students to step away from research or even leave the program entirely. The anonymous-tip tool allows students to come forward with confidential reports of bullying and harassment that can then be independently investigated as necessary.
Administrators can also use the app to proactively set up meetings and encourage positive, frequent communications between advisors and students from the start of a program. The use of geo-targeted push notifications can help target certain departments, such as the university graduate school or even a specific program, such as a biology or chemistry departments.
This is an effective strategy for raising awareness about community events, such as department-wide meet and greet or other information sessions. These can be unique opportunities for students to bond with their mentors, and by distributing information proactively, administrators can encourage attendance.
The stakes are high for advisors looking to improve student-advisor relationships, as these are a core aspect of graduate student success. The rigor of an advanced degree program can be particularly taxing on a student’s mental health, and without adequate support from their advisors or mentors, graduate students will be far more likely to leave a program and suffer long term health consequences.
The graduate program at each college or university can leverage technology to proactively connect students to their advisors, boosting positive relationships, and allowing students to pursue a different academic plan if their designated advisor is unable to adequately support their success.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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