The University of Maryland’s Graduate Student Government is intensifying its Mutual Expectation Agreement initiative and hopes to improve student-adviser relationships by the end of this academic year, said Deborah Hemingway, the organization’s president.
The MEA’s main goal is to promote a better relationship among graduate students and their advisers, especially for those in a thesis-based doctorate or master’s program, said Hemingway, a doctoral student studying biophysics.
“We want it to be a good process for students,” she said, “but that’s not always a case. Depending on their relationship, [students] will have a hard time.”
Stephanie Madden, a communication doctoral candidate and GSG’s vice president of public relations, said the GSG will push the MEA campaign into GSG’s “Lobby Day” on Feb. 11 and encourage graduate students to reach out to their deans.
“We thought this would be a great opportunity to lobby our own administration to implement this type of accountability measure across all graduate programs,” Madden said.
Madden said the GSG has been raising awareness about the MEA initiative at the upper administration level, but it is extending that awareness to the graduate student body by conducting email outreach and launching a petition in order to gain support.
“We see the MEAs as an important dialogue-facilitating tool that is designed to help protect graduate students by setting clear and concise expectations between student and adviser,” she said.
Factors such as some advisers’ “lack of accountability” inspired this initiative, Hemingway said.
“Because of the nature of the relationship, a student gets into a lab and your adviser has complete control of your life because everything you do is to impress them,” she said. “Basically, when your adviser and your committee agree is when you get your degree.”
In efforts to enhance graduate students’ experiences, the MEA would require advisers to meet with their students at least once during the semester to discuss their progress. The adviser would be required to give both positive and negative feedback, Hemingway said.
“It helps the professor, too, because if you spend time training a student who isn’t a good fit, we just want to help everyone be on the same page,” Hemingway said.
A lack of feedback could foster a lopsided power dynamic, Hemingway said.
“Because the adviser has a lot of power over the student, students could be scared of approaching, or the adviser would let the power get in their head and, for lack of a better term, they can become abusive,” Hemingway said.
This power dynamic causes some graduate students to experience stress in labs, have research funding pulled after it is orally promised and miss out on qualified pay raises, Hemingway said.
“All this stuff should not be happening, because it’s really dirty and unhealthy,” Hemingway said. “People shouldn’t be treating you like this, but all this happens because of the nature of the relationship. Nobody can talk bad about their adviser because you need their approval to graduate, and then they are your key to networking and getting jobs.”
But this problem continues after receiving a degree. Hemingway said unlike undergraduate alumni, graduate alumni do not donate much money to the university.
“It’s an ethical issue, student health issue, a cultural issue and an alumni relations issue,” she said.
However, Graduate School Dean Charles Caramello wrote in an email statement that faculty members who support graduate students on their grants “do an excellent job of mentoring and communicating with them.”
“In an extensive survey of UMD graduate assistants, research assistants registered a high degree of satisfaction and reported very few significant problems,” Caramello wrote.
Caramello also wrote that the graduate school’s policies for assistantships provide graduate assistants, including research assistants, with both informal and formal processes for resolving potential problems.
“Graduate assistants can also report problems confidentially to the Graduate School Ombuds Officer for investigation and mediation,” he wrote. “In response to a request to the University Graduate Council by the Council’s GSG representatives, I appointed a Working Group on [Research Assistants/Principal Investigators] Mutual Expectations to investigate best practices at UMD and at peer institutions for establishing mutual expectations between research assistants and faculty principal investigators.”
The working group, which includes faculty and GSG members, is investigating and conducting surveys on the issue and will report its findings as well as recommendations to the Graduate Council during this spring semester.
“Clarifying mutual expectations both enhances the mentoring process and helps to anticipate any potential problems,” Caramello wrote.