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OVC & OGE respond to Tech piece on grad mental health

This is a response to an article published Oct. 10, “Graduate student mental health is in crisis.”

To the editors,

We are writing in response to the opinion piece “Graduate student mental health is in crisis” that appeared in the Oct. 10, 2019 issue of The Tech. Authors Jeff Rosenberg, Sarah Cowles, and Nick Selby, writing on behalf of Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, advocate for creating “a healthier academic environment for [all graduate students] to grow as scholars and people.”

We too are committed to that end and applaud the authors for elevating this crucial matter and providing an opportunity to foster conversation — and, most importantly, action. We will be meeting some of the authors soon to discuss how we can best collaborate. Our colleagues from MIT Medical have already begun working with the authors to better understand the issues that the piece raised about mental health, so we will focus our comments on improving the advisor-advisee relations and enhancing local-level climate.

Like the authors, we have cited and extensively shared across campus the results from a University of California Wellbeing Survey that suggest that having a supportive advisor-advisee relationship is one of the most important protective factors for ensuring that a graduate student feels supported. At MIT, we know from a meta-analysis that Institutional Research conducted on graduate student advising and professional development that the advising relationship is the biggest indicator of how graduate students feel about their entire MIT experience.

Spurred by these insights as well as strong advocacy from the Graduate Student Council, we have been working collectively with our schools, departments, student leaders, and other Institute partners to coordinate efforts to improve graduate student advising, from training to promoting best practices.

Recent progress includes a multi-pronged response to the National Academy of Science and Engineering (NASEM) report that assessed sexual harassment of women in STEM fields. Of note is a presidential advisory board, one component of which is a working group focused on addressing academic and organizational relationships. Led by Professor Paula Hammond, ChemE department head, and Professor Tim Jamison, associate provost, this group will soon be making recommendations on ways to enhance mentoring networks and is exploring models for research funding, advising, and supervision. Moreover, last spring, President Reif devoted a Department Heads lunch to these topics and they have been regularly discussed among the faculty graduate officers and the graduate administrators.

In parallel, a pilot drawing upon expertise from the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) will soon be underway to offer mentorship training for faculty in the School of Engineering. EAPS also just participated in a three-hour CIMER training to address advising and inclusion. The MindHandHeart’s Department Support Project (DSP) has been helping departments develop plans to improve local climate for the past few years. The MHH DSP is supported by the Provost and the Chancellor and is designed to bring together department leaders, data analysts, students, and key experts in student life, teaching and learning, diversity and inclusion, and human resources.

We have been excited to see the rise of school-based activities like GradSAGE, a new graduate student-led advisory group launched by the MIT School of Engineering in late 2017. This group has been instrumental in leading an advisor philosophy statement pilot, now active in EECS and AeroAstro. At the same time, we’re doubling down on existing efforts such as OGE’s Committed to Caring, a program that recognizes excellent faculty mentors and now a new peer faculty advising/mentorship program.

As the authors point out, another key aspect of encouraging positive change is developing more tools that promote transparency within and across departments. This summer, OVC and the Teaching and Learning Lab conducted the Graduate Advising Practices survey to gain a better understanding of graduate advising practices across the Institute. The questions were focused on the advisor selection process, resources for students, feedback to advisors and training in advising and mentoring. As a result, in the coming weeks, a team from across MIT expects to release an “advising playbook” or roadmap to help guide departments to best practices and there are discussions about ways to assess progress.

Other activities to achieve increased transparency include investigating how to best manage transitional funding; testing a multiple advisor model; offering students individual development plans; and conducting formal end of semester reviews.

Finally, we are investing in training for both faculty and students. This summer, in partnership with the learning company EverFi, we created a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion module, required for all incoming students and recommended for all current ones. This was in keeping with the recommendations by the BSU & BGSA and was well received by students, administrators, and departments.  TLL also launched MIT Teaches, a series of workshops and activities aimed to support MIT faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants in teaching for equity and academic belonging.

We agree with the authors that greater accountability, standard on-boarding and continual training opportunities for new and current faculty, and ways to help students to transition to other advisors are laudable aims.

To achieve this vision, we will need faculty, student, and staff leadership from all levels of the Institute. Again, we thank Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT and their supporters for championing change and look forward to working with them to make MIT a better place to live and learn.


Blanche Staton, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education, Director of the Office of Graduate Education

Ian A. Waitz, Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education