Many students who go directly from undergraduate to graduate school are often still operating in full academic discipline mode. Consequently they may not be as intimidated by the rigors of graduate study. Nevertheless, transitions from an undergraduate college to a large research university or relocation to a new part of the country can pose significant challenges for students. In addition, students who are returning to the educational environment after some years may face even greater challenges. Their absence from academia may result in a degree of culture shock, especially when they are faced with both family responsibilities and the volume and difficulty of reading, lab-work, and classroom assignments required for graduate study.
The process of obtaining a postgraduate degree differs greatly from that of an undergraduate degree, and this process should be clearly articulated in an extensive program of orientation for all new graduate students. The program may be sponsored by a combination of units—the graduate school, the departments, and the graduate programs. More institution-wide processes and procedures may be covered by the graduate school whereas program/discipline-specific information may be covered by departmental and graduate program orientations.
Such an orientation should include:
• an overview of university policies regarding such topics as academic integrity, responsible conduct of research, sexual misconduct, grading, registration, and deadlines;
• an explanation of university procedures and services such as parking, library hours and resources, food options, postal services, health care, counseling and mental health services, career development, child care services, and insurance;
• help in securing Social Security Numbers for foreign students;
• advice on obtaining on-campus or off-campus housing and banking services for new arrivals, and student identification cards;
• discipline-specific policies, e.g., regarding the use of human subjects, animal care and use in research, and lab safety training;
• departmental policies and procedures for graduate students, including mentor selection, lab and office assignments, building and room keys, applying for financial assistance;
• explanation of course loads, the advising system, the core curriculum, research opportunities, and thesis and dissertation expectations;
• clear information about the departmental milestones students will confront as they progress towards the degree (e.g., comprehensive exams, candidacy, dissertation defense);
• tours of the main campus buildings (library, recreation facilities, and student center), department and labs;
• introductions to key university administrators, Graduate Student Association leadership, department chair and faculty, graduate program director, and current graduate students;
• social events that foster networking and bonding.
Besides a formal program of orientation, each student should be supplied with a graduate student handbook (printed and/or on the university's website) that provides both academic and non-academic information of importance and interest to graduate students. The handbook is a compendium of information about the university's policies, procedures, requirements, and resources relevant to all graduate students.
In addition to the orientation provided to new students, an on-going, systematic program of student integration and community-building is essential in creating an environment that is nurturing to all students. While some of this integration activity naturally occurs at the program or departmental level, the graduate school can assure that these programs are campus-wide in scope, across colleges and between departments. Particularly when the number of students from underrepresented populations is small, it is important that activities, programs, events, and initiatives are in place that cut across college or departmental boundaries. Student support staff may need to be hired to organize affinity groups and operationalize such activities as the following:
• Encourage and support departmentally based graduate clubs or organizations that organize lectures and social events.
• Sponsor speaker series to bring in distinguished scholars in one or more related disciplines.
• Offer workshops and informal opportunities for research sharing and professional development for both faculty and students.
• Create regular seminars that address common problems of graduate students—getting along with their mentors, time management skills, writing grant proposals, getting research published, dissertation pitfalls.
• Provide campus-wide as well as departmentally-based social events for graduate students and faculty. If the number of students representing one minority group (e.g. American Indians) and/or gender (African American women) is relatively small, a social event highlighting that group provides an opportunity for students to become acquainted with similar students and faculty in other departments.
• Resources that encourage departments to sponsor annual or semi-annual off-campus retreats for faculty and graduate students. These retreats could include adventure and recreational activities such as snow skiing, white-water rafting, hiking, or a social service project to help break down communication and other potential barriers.
• Organize career fairs or luncheons with representatives from the top industries and employers in the discipline.
• Encourage a strong Graduate Student Association on campus in order to foster student leadership, graduate student services, social opportunities, and cross-disciplinary, campus-wide networking.
• Encourage graduate students in each program to assume responsibility for building a supportive community for other students. Peer support can provide a valuable atmosphere for students to both commiserate about the challenges they encounter and celebrate their achievements.
As the national advocate for graduate education, CGS serves as a resource for policymakers and others on issues concerning graduate education, research, and scholarship. Based in Washington, DC, the organization provides its members with regular updates and analyses of legislative and regulatory proposals and policies that affect graduate education.
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