The University of Minnesota Graduate School has been working to improve advising based on data from last year’s Graduate Student Experience in the Research University survey.
The 2019 data was made accessible to advising programs earlier this academic year. Programs were given suggestions for addressing student concerns and encouraged to consult with graduate school staff. However, small student numbers in some programs and other factors can create challenges in addressing feedback.
The comprehensive survey is administered to gauge students’ experiences and is used to make improvements to the University.
Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education Scott Lanyon said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that advising programs will touch base at the end of spring semester about what actions they have been taking to improve.
However, these efforts are put in perspective by the need to support students through the ongoing challenges related to COVID-19, he noted.
Some students from underrepresented groups have raised concerns about just how anonymous their responses may be due to small numbers of students and limited diversity in their programs.
“I think that it is important for our students to know that we do not report results for a particular identity group at the program level if there are fewer than five responses from that identity group,” Lanyon said in the email.
Kathleen Thomas, the director of graduate studies in the developmental psychology program, said her program sometimes has as few as 30 students at a time.
This, combined with having 18 faculty members, has presented an ongoing challenge to address student concerns in a way that doesn’t single them out, she said.
“It has much bigger consequences for the student to raise an issue when this person needs to write your letters of recommendation and shepherd your research or [when] you're using data from their laboratory,” she said.
The 2019 survey wielded mostly positive data about advising, with some variation within programs and student populations.
Students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, asexual and pansexual responded at slightly lower rates than their straight peers when asked if they feel their adviser has a good reputation.
However, Krista Soria, a senior analyst for the University’s Office of Institutional Research, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that LGBQ+ students report about the same rates of agreement as straight students to other, positive statements about adviser support.
Therefore, it is possible that the survey item is interpreted differently by students or that adviser reputation is independent from the support advisers offer.
Factors like college of enrollment, whether they are a master's or doctorate student, and the student-to-adviser ratio also likely play a role in the data, Soria said in the email.
Retaining and supporting a diverse graduate student body has been a focus for the graduate school and her department in recent years, Thomas said.
First-generation students can struggle to feel comfortable asking for what they need from faculty, she said, and international students can have more limited funding opportunities for their research.
Thomas said her program has held listening sessions in the past to determine which gradSERU questions are most important to both students and faculty.
“It's really helped us to figure out what is important to our students and how we as a faculty can address that,” she said.