Revising department handbooks to better support grad students (opinion)

Graduate students are often inadequately supported in academe, setting the stage for abuse, harassment and toxic climates. Their ambiguous classification as both students and employees can leave them in a liminal space, lacking the clear guidelines and structures that afford protection in traditional jobs. Thus, protecting graduate students from harassment and exploitation requires clearer, more consistent and more transparent policies.

Such policies would benefit all students, particularly members of communities that have been historically excluded from academe and are less likely to be familiar with its cultural norms.

Department handbooks are an essential document to establish and communicate those policies. In this article, we will suggest steps that departments can take to improve their handbooks in order to build a more supportive environment for graduate students.

Policies at various levels of the university influence graduate student life—including those a student’s adviser, academic program, graduate school and institution create—but they can be inconsistent or contradictory. That, combined with a fear of future retaliation, can make some graduate students hesitant to question the actions of their advisers as well as other scholars and administrators. A lack of transparency around policy making and enforcement compounds the problems and hinders graduate students’ ability to advocate for policy change.

While some advisers have established strong policies for their labs or offices, for instance, they cannot offer the full protection and oversight of departmental policies. Faculty have significant influence over a graduate student’s standing and future career, which may intimidate a graduate student looking to report bad behavior. Only policies made at higher levels within the university can aid graduate students in constructing a healthy and productive working relationship with their adviser. Differences between disciplines and bureaucratic hurdles, however, can make establishing universitywide policies challenging, and policy change is often slow at this level.

Handbooks represent department-level policies, so they can help regulate the student-supervisor relationship. Meanwhile, they still offer flexibility for departments, as it costs little to change and improve them. Such documents are also generally more familiar to graduate students, faculty members and staff members than university-level policies, and they are regularly updated.

As members of Catalysts for Science Policy, we recently examined 34 departmental handbooks from graduate programs in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine fields at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The goal of this policy analysis was to act as a case study, reviewing and analyzing current handbook policies to better understand their utility as a rapid and feasible first step in establishing a healthy environment for graduate students. We assessed the handbooks based on mentorship guidelines developed by Future of Research, evaluating their policies in several categories: mentoring; academic and nonacademic misconduct; transparent accountability; diversity, equity and inclusion; and graduate student representation in decision making.

Based on that analysis, we offer five recommendations for improving graduate department handbooks and strengthening policies that support and protect students. Because department handbooks are common at many universities, these findings can be applied to policy development at all academic institutions, providing a concrete first step to promote healthy environments for STEMM graduate students across the United States.

  1. Clearly outline expectations for academic and nonacademic conduct for both graduate students and faculty. Our research revealed that, while most departments listed academic expectations in their handbooks, few departments included nonacademic expectations of professionalism and behavior. Clearly defined academic expectations included outlining duties and responsibilities of both faculty and students and detailing the process for dealing with conflict between advisers and advisees. However, most handbooks did not address bullying, demeaning, disruptive behavior and other nonacademic conduct of both students and faculty. A lack of formalized expectations can set the stage for misconduct and harassment. Graduate students who are unaware of what behavior is considered appropriate or find formalized expectations unclear may be less likely to recognize misconduct and advocate for themselves.
  2. Outline a formal process with a full explanation of avenues for reporting all harassment and grievances. This is known as “transparent accountability.” Our analysis indicated that most handbooks included boilerplate statements regarding harassment and grievances, but few specifically defined what such incidents might look like or provided clear contacts for reporting them. Harassment includes hostility and abuse around federally protected classes such as sex, race, religion, national origin, age and disability as well as other classes, such as veteran status, with variable legal protection. The best handbook examples included grievance definitions and policies covering hate and bias, sexual harassment, mistreatment, and consensual relationships. They also provided multiple reporting mechanisms, outlined training and explicitly defined consequences for trainees, faculty and staff who violated policies. Given the difficult nature of such issues, including an updated and diverse list of grievance advisers and confidential reporters can help support and empower graduate students to take action, helping them to navigate the often-complex reporting procedures.
  3. Integrate campuswide diversity initiatives into handbooks, departmental websites and departmental programming to explicitly recognize the role of identity in graduate student training. Though the representation of historically underrepresented groups in STEMM has recently increased for graduate students, academe has been historically inequitable and was established within inequitable contexts. Underrepresented groups have largely been left to self-advocate while being asked to represent the limited diversity within their graduate program. Although the integration of diversity initiatives, such as diversity and inclusion committees or specific interest groups for historically underrepresented groups, and an acknowledgment of the role of identity alone will not drive cultural changes in academe, these steps can provide a framework to redress equity issues and improve campus climate for underrepresented students.
  4. Include student-elected representatives on each of the department’s committees with voting privileges. The majority of handbooks we analyzed had minimal graduate student representation on hiring, tenure or admissions committees and few mentions of department graduate student organizations. However, departments that did have such organizations found them helpful for building the graduate student community. Graduate student representation and inclusion in department decision making is beneficial for all, as graduate students often have experiences and knowledge about the department environment that faculty don’t have. In addition, cultivating this participation can increase transparency about hiring and tenure processes as well as prepare students for future academic jobs.
  5. Develop and list training requirements for mentors and mentees, including resources for mentoring compacts, structured feedback systems and strong mentorship networks. Nearly all the handbooks included suggestions for mentor selection, but only about half emphasized the importance of building broad mentoring networks—and almost none spoke about feedback and evaluation in mentorship relationships. Mentorship training requirements can serve as a communication tool, provide a framework to prevent potential issues in mentorships, and create a positive climate for graduate student success.

Taken together, these recommendations offer concrete steps departments can take to increase graduate student support and improve learning environments. Changing policies in graduate student handbooks will not solve all instances of abuse, harassment and toxic climates, but they can serve as a crucial starting point. Handbooks provide protective policies beyond the lab while avoiding the bureaucratic challenges of implementing changes at the university level. Additionally, the clear expectations of conduct and formal grievance procedures support a mutually beneficial mentorship climate.

Finally, through integrating diversity initiatives and including graduate student perspectives, handbooks can begin to address inequities in graduate education. Providing clear and transparent policies to all members of the department will help to increase student agency and promote accountability, creating healthier and more supportive work environments.

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