Graduate Student Council releases results of advising survey

Significant number of respondents do not feel valued or respected by advisor, 14% do not feel comfortable approaching advisor for help

MIT Graduate Student Council’s (GSC) Subcommittee on Advising conducted a survey of current MIT graduate students and their experience with advising. This voluntary survey was open to MIT graduate students that had conducted research with an advisor over the past academic year, and was accepting responses from Jan. 12 to Feb. 15.  Department-specific results “will be distributed to department leadership by the end of Spring 2021.”

779 PhD students (20% of enrolled PhD students) and 146 master’s students (5%) responded to the survey. The “majority of graduate students who responded” to the survey have “a positive relationship with their advisor, consisting of mutual respect, high quality research guidance, and support with career development and graduating.”

In the report, four “concerning” observations were highlighted. A “significant number” of respondents “do not feel valued or respected by their advisor” — 14% of respondents “do not feel comfortable approaching their advisor for help.” The Subcommittee writes that it is “incredibly concerning” that “so many respondents have a very negative advising relationship.”

40% of respondents were “dissatisfied with their department’s support in finding an advisor, reporting advisor behaviors, and communicating how to leave an advisor.” This includes 33% of respondents who “fear retaliation for reporting their advisor to their department” and 15% of respondents who “fear their advisor can actively hurt their future employment.”

In addition, 19% of respondents are “dissatisfied with their advisor’s research guidance” with 18% of respondents stating that “if they started over, they would not choose their current advisor.”

The survey results show a “clear lack of communication of expectations between advisors and students.” 18% of respondents “do not know what is expected for maintaining their funding,” and 29% of respondents “do not understand expectations for an acceptable thesis/dissertation.”

The report also included recommendations regarding the improvement of communication between student and advisor, an anonymous reporting system, and the process of finding and switching advisors. The subcommittee recommends that departments “provide frameworks for discussing these expectations (semesterly check-ins, written expectations at the beginning of a research appointment, or individual development plans)” and advisors “proactively take steps to discuss expectations with each of their students throughout their degree.” 

Department leadership and faculty should work to provide improved mechanisms for finding and switching advisors “such as a clear and visible matching procedure for advising, publicizing available research appointments, funding a year of advisor/lab rotations, implementing Advising Philosophy Statements, and/or ensuring that both students and advisor have input on their advisor match,” the report wrote.

Department leadership should also work to “protect students from retaliation and take reporting seriously” through “a clear and well known knowledge base that explicitly gives examples on what would happen in cases of retaliation, and through taking any student report seriously (and communicating this to students), independent of the power dynamics of the reported situation.” 

The subcommittee also recommends that departments should ensure that “more than one advisor/faculty member is able to write recommendation letters and approve a thesis” in order to “reduce fears of retaliation.”

Lastly, the GSC “urges MIT” to “work with departments and students to investigate ways to improve reporting mechanisms so that reporting becomes accessible to students” and hope that “MIT can create a supportive environment for all graduate students at MIT, so that everyone can have a successful and healthy research experience.”

The full results of the survey can be found on the GSC website.