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Improving Your Communication with Graduate Students

The greatest problem in communication is the illusion it has been achieved.
—George Bernard Shaw

Departments should communicate clearly and frequently with their graduate students for two reasons. First, students who understand the requirements and expectations of their degree programs are more likely to succeed. Successful students become happy alumni. Happy alumni are more likely to recommend potential students to the department and to contribute in other ways. Second, graduate students are junior colleagues who can offer good ideas. Faculty, staff, and students are together responsible for the operation of a graduate program.

According to Barbara Lovitts [1996], who conducted an extensive study of doctoral education, graduate students who successfully completed their degree programs accurately understood the structure and process of graduate education, both the formal requirements and the informal expectations. Formal requirements include courses, examinations, and assistantship duties. Successful students learned what courses were required, and in what sequence courses should be taken. They knew not to take five full graduate courses simultaneously, in contrast with undergraduate courses. They understood the content and performance standards for comprehensive, qualifying, and preliminary examinations. Furthermore, successful students grasped the informal expectations of the department: standards for quality of work, the process of choosing a research adviser, and participation in seminars and social events. For example, they realized that whereas B is a good grade in an undergraduate course, B may be a poor grade in a graduate course. They attended brown bag lunches and colloquia given by visitors. These requirements and expectations are too important to leave to the graduate student grapevine. Lovitts writes,

Graduate departments also appear to defer information about too many important and complex processes to the graduate student subculture... By virtue of the information they do (or do not) provide to their graduate students, graduate departments inadvertently set some of their students up for failure. (pp. 122-123)

Even when departments explain the requirements and expectations of their graduate programs, students may not comprehend them immediately, because graduate education is unfamiliar-especially unfamiliar to international students and students from underrepresented groups. Graduate program administrators should engage students in a two-way dialogue, encouraging students to ask questions. That is, they should both inform students and listen to students.

How Can Departments Inform Students?

  • Orientation for new students. The orientation should not only cover degree requirements and departmental policies and practices, but should also build a sense of community by enabling students to meet faculty members, to learn about their research interests, and to meet other students, both new students and continuing students. The orientation provides an overview of the structure of the department and degree programs, but because of the barrage of new information, students cannot be expected to understand or remember every topic covered during the orientation.
  • Annual meeting for all continuing students. At this meeting, continuing students can learn about changes in the department, such as new faculty, courses, and policies.
  • Individual advising. Usually, students can choose courses to meet their individual interests and needs. They need individual advising from well-informed mentors to make wise choices.
  • Handbook. The departmental handbook should state explicitly all of the degree requirements, without duplicating information found in other campus publications.
  • Examples of theses, dissertation proposals, qualifying examination questions and answers. Generally, as undergraduates, students did not encounter theses, proposals, and qualifying examinations. Graduate students should see several examples of high quality work to understand performance standards and expectations.
  • Newsletter. A weekly or monthly newsletter, distributed electronically or on paper, should announce new policies, procedures, services, courses, and opportunities for funding. A regular newsletter helps integrate students into the departmental community. All graduate students should have mailboxes or mail folders so that they can receive the newsletter and other information distributed by the department or the campus.

How Can Departments Listen to Students?

  • Departmental committees. Graduate students are junior colleagues, and they should participate in making decisions as members of committees. According to the Task Force on Graduate Education [1997],
    Graduate students rightly deserve a voice in forming policies that affect their education, present financial circumstances, and professional futures. Many graduate students are preparing for academic careers, and could benefit by close involvement in university decision making... According voting rights to student committee members similarly strengthens both their voice in the decision and their sense of full participation. Faculty and administrators should be proactive in securing graduate student participation, by making students aware of opportunities for committee service, encouraging them to become involved, and welcoming them as committee members.

  • Student advisory committee. A department head or a director of graduate studies could benefit from advice provided by a committee composed entirely of students.
  • Graduate student association. The department should encourage the formation of a graduate student association. The director of graduate studies should regularly attend meetings of the department's graduate student association to learn about students' interests and concerns.
  • Open meetings with the department head. Once per semester or once per year, the department head or chair could host an open meeting for all graduate students, to answer questions about the department.
  • Exit interviews. Many department heads routinely interview doctoral students about their graduate program experiences when they are ready to deposit their dissertations.
  • Focus groups. A department could convene a focus group of randomly selected graduate students to obtain ideas for improving the graduate program.
  • Surveys. A survey, via e-mail or on paper, can gather information and opinions from all students in the department.

The Graduate College can provide advice on all of these activities. In particular, the Graduate College reviews departmental handbooks and provides suggestions for improvements.


Barbara Lovitts, Leaving the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Analysis of the Causes of Departure from Doctoral Study, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Maryland at College Park, 1996.

Report of the Task Force on Graduate Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, June 4, 1997.

Adapted from material by Michael C. Loui, 1999.

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