Survey: Relationships with faculty,
advisers influence grad school experience
A comprehensive survey of 1,454 U-M doctoral students found that their relationships with advisers and other faculty play a powerful role in influencing whether they pursue faculty positions at top universities.
“There’s a lot of very encouraging news showing that most doctoral students feel satisfied with many aspects of their graduate school experiences,” says Janet Weiss, dean of Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for academic affairs.
The survey also identified students who feel less informed and more discouraged, and offered ideas about how to improve the climate for them, Weiss says.
The research, conducted by the ADVANCE Project to assess the climate for University doctoral students, asked students about morale, the overall climate of their departments, their experiences, advising and support and career goals.
One of the simplest ways to improve these measures is to get students paired up with the best possible advisor, the study found.
“The best news is we’re doing well at helping our graduate students—but we can do better,” says ADVANCE Principal Investigator Abigail Stewart. “Many of the things we found were consistent across divisions and University-wide. The next steps are first to think through the implications of these findings and to develop some concrete steps for schools, departments, faculty and graduate students themselves to take.”
The ADVANCE report called on University schools and colleges to:
• Sensitize graduate chairs, department chairs and faculty in general to the different experiences and needs of female students and students of color;
• Ensure that critical information about graduate training is formally, widely and clearly disseminated to all students;
• Provide formal support structures, including systems making it easier for students to find advisers especially for students who may be less well-integrated into a department;
• Increase exposure to a range of alternative ways of managing personal and professional lives in academia.
The survey found men and women equally confident about their research skills and ability to obtain an academic job, but found women less confident than men when asked about their teaching abilities, their chances of obtaining a non-academic job or being able to balance work and home life.
The gap in confidence levels between men and women, however, disappeared for the women who had a female advisor. And few differences were found based on racial differences.
More than half of students surveyed said their departments offered a supportive environment for women, international students and racial/ethnic minorities. Women found the department climates less supportive overall than did men, and U.S.-born students of color and women both found them less open to diversity.
Roughly a quarter of the students reported that some faculty have condescending attitudes toward international students and slightly fewer said some faculty have condescending attitudes toward racial/ethnic minorities, women, sexual minorities and students with disabilities.
About 10 percent of women students and 1 percent of males felt they had experienced sexual harassment within the past year. International students of color were far more likely to feel they had an insufficient number of opportunities for important graduate education experiences.
One third of students surveyed had an advisor assigned to them, but 41 percent of those who did not found it hard to find one, with international students of color finding it the hardest.
Students overall expressed positive career goals. Women with male advisors, however, were more likely to be interested in becoming a professor at a four-year college or working for a nonprofit or government agency, while women with female advisors and males were more likely to be interested in becoming a professor at a top research university or getting a research job in the private sector.
Overall, men and women students ranked most of the same features of academic life as most influential to them. Both considered research and teaching to be the most attractive features of an academic life.
ADVANCE, begun in 2001 with University backing approved through 2011, is an effort to bridge the gender gap, particularly in engineering and the sciences, where male faculty long have outnumbered women. Before ADVANCE, 14 percent of new tenure-track science positions at U-M went to women, but since the program has been underway that rate has increased to 34 percent.