Common Themes Among Graduate Students

While all graduate students have unique needs, goals, and expectations, they do share some common concerns about their graduate experience.

Good mentoring can help to address and resolve these concerns.

Balancing work and lifestyle

Students from all disciplines observe that professors devote large parts of their lives to their work in order to be successful in the academy.

In turn, students who feel that faculty expect them to spend every waking minute on their work can become overwhelmed. This feeling causes concern for those seeking to balance success in their graduate career with other interests and responsibilities. To help keep the pressures of graduate school in check, consider these suggestions.

 

Suggestions for Students
  • Ask faculty you admire as role models about their interests and hobbies, and how they balance their professional and personal lives. Ask them to help you balance tasks among your obligations.
  • Ask your peers how they balance family or personal problems and what they do when they encounter difficulties.
  • Demonstrate through your behavior and work that you are focused and productive when in your office or lab.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Demonstrate to students that you value each dimension of your life. Be open to bringing up your interests and hobbies. Share your thoughts about the benefits of balancing work and life to refresh and regroup.
  • Offer your students tips on managing time wisely and help them understand that large tasks can be broken down into more time manageable components.
  • Recognize that students work hard to balance school and home demands. Those with family responsibilities are not able to spend as many hours on campus as other students, but often can be better focused when they are there.
  • Learn something about the demands your students face beyond the department. If you sense that a student is encountering difficulties, listen first and offer ideas for solutions. Or, guide the student to appropriate campus resources.

Burden of being a spokesperson

It is unfair to assume that any one student represents the experiences or beliefs of an entire group.

When certain issues arise in classroom or theoretical discussions, especially those relating to race, class, or gender, the pressures of being a spokesperson arise. These pressures tend to burden underrepresented students more than others. Consider the pressures put on a woman in an engineering seminar if she were asked, "How would a woman approach this design problem?" or on the man in a feminist theory class if he were asked to provide "the male perspective."

Suggestions for Students
  • Avoid asking your peers and professors to speak as spokespersons for a group to which you think they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
  • Avoid assuming that the "white male" experience is the norm. Seek to understand how race, gender, and other characteristics are factors that can influence people's perspectives on intellectual problems or issues.
  • Emphasize, when called upon, that you speak from your own perspective. If you voluntarily take on a spokesperson role for an issue you feel strongly about, explain that there may be others present who do not feel the same way.
  • When you hear other students voluntarily taking on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have learned from their contributions to the discussion.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Avoid assuming that the "white male" experience is the norm. Understand how race, gender, and other characteristics influence, but do not predetermine, your students' perspectives on intellectual problems or issues.
  • Avoid asking students to speak as spokespersons for the group to which you perceive they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
  • When you hear students voluntarily taking on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have gained from their contributions to the discussion.

Fear of being categorized as a "single-issue" scholar

Some students are concerned that if they select questions of gender, race, sexual orientation, or the content of marginalized cultures as their thesis/dissertation topics, faculty will assume they are interested in pursuing only these topics for their entire career or will question the relevance of their work.

Students who are passionate about such questions in their research and teaching should not feel apologetic. Instead, they should consider these ways to bolster the scholarly nature of their agenda.

Suggestions for Students
  • Articulate clearly and compellingly to potential mentors the value of your research interests and strive to make connections to others' work, as well as to other major topics and questions in the discipline.
  • Discuss with your peers and faculty members the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics expand questions asked in your discipline and the approaches used for answering them.
  • Seek assistance from faculty and advanced graduate students on how to frame the issues that drive your intellectual curiosity.
  • Practice job talks and interview responses that demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research interests.
  • Understand that some people who are uninformed about your topic may perceive it as narrow or limited, so practice effective ways to address questions from skeptics.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Ask students what their research interests are rather than assume that their interests are driven only by personal characteristics.
  • Find out what motivates your students. Then, help them learn how to use sound disciplinary concepts and theories to frame the issues that drive their intellectual curiosity.
  • Discuss with your students how race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics expand the types of questions asked in your discipline and the tools used for answering them.
  • Help students practice job talks and interview responses that illustrate the depth and breadth of their research interests.
  • Encourage students to anticipate skeptics' responses to their topics and to plan ahead for addressing them.

Feelings of isolation

At times, graduate study may seem to be an isolating endeavor. Isolation, whether from other students or one's home community, is a difficulty all graduate students face at one time or another.

If it goes unchecked, isolation can lead to loneliness and self-doubt, or, in more severe cases, to depression or dropping out. Depending on the discipline, students from historically underrepresented groups or women might feel more isolated than other students, especially if the composition of students, faculty, and content in the department is highly homogenous.

Suggestions for Students
  • Ask advanced graduate students and faculty to introduce you to peers and potential mentors with complementary interests, whether academic or personal.
  • Attend as many departmental functions as you are able. Offer to organize functions or form groups (e.g., interest, study, or writing groups) to become known as a contributor to department life.
  • Invite mentors to join these activities when appropriate.
  • Be aware of students who seem to find it difficult to take active roles in academic or social settings and find ways to include them. Take the initiative to talk with them by asking about their research interests, hobbies, and activities outside of school.
  • Get involved with the wealth of organizations within or outside the University that can increase your sense of community, such as cultural and religious groups, reading groups, and professional associations.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Encourage students to attend departmental functions and form study or writing groups.
  • Be aware of students who seem to experience difficulty taking active roles in departmental settings and find ways to include them. Ask them about their research interests, hobbies, activities, and avocations.
  • Introduce your students to others with complementary interests, regardless of their background.
  • Remind students of the wealth of organizations on and off campus that provide a sense of community, e.g., cultural and religious groups, reading groups, professional associations, and varied resources of the Office of Graduate Studies.

Need for role models

All graduate students benefit from role models they can admire — professionals whose lives they may want to emulate. Quite often, people identify role models based on shared outlook and connections to similar experiences.

Although the composition of faculty at UNL is becoming more diverse, students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups, and women in some disciplines, can face greater challenges finding faculty role models who have had experiences similar to their own. Some students convey that they hope to find "someone who looks like me"; "someone who immediately understands my experiences and perspectives"; "someone whose very presence lets me know I, too, can make it in the academy." Even so, while shared background and experiences are important, they do not "guarantee" a good mentoring relationship. What is key are shared interests and interpersonal compatibility. All students also benefit from reaching out to potential mentors who are different from them in race, gender, or other characteristics.

Suggestions for Students
  • Expand your knowledge of people within your department, across UNL, or at other universities, who may help you obtain the kinds of experiences and resources you need.
  • Ask other students with whom you have common experiences or interests to identify faculty in the department they hold as role models, and why.
  • Hold occasional discussions with other students and faculty, either informally or through your graduate student association, on how well your department's educational and work climates welcome all contributions.
  • Know that you can receive very good guidance from mentors who are of a different gender, race, or culture from you. What is important is to focus on what you need in order to learn and make progress.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • If the composition of faculty and graduate students in your department is homogenous, help identify and recruit new members who represent diverse backgrounds.
  • Hold departmental discussions on how to provide educational and work climates that welcome contributions from all members.
  • Become familiar with people across the University or at other universities who can help your protégés.
  • Know that you can provide excellent mentoring to students of different gender, race, or culture from you. What is most important is focusing on what students need in order to learn and accomplish their goals.

Questioning the canons

To do adventuresome academic work, students may need to question the implicit assumptions and ways of knowing in their disciplines.  Indeed, it is because of this kind of questioning that disciplines evolve.

Sometimes students find that their perspectives or intellectual interests do not fit neatly into the current academic canons. For instance, interest in interdisciplinary questions and the social applications of knowledge is growing, but the structure of some programs makes it difficult for students to pursue these questions in their research and teaching. Studies suggest that underrepresented students experience this disjuncture more keenly; however, majority students face it as well.

Productive scholarly environments value new ways of thinking and encouraging students to explore, and possibly challenge, different models of inquiry.

 

Suggestions for Students
  • Be open to hearing about other students' and faculty members' experiences and perspectives.
  • Convey your interests by sharing an essay or scholarly article that exemplifies the kind of work you would like to do.
  • Be prepared to formulate and present strong, compelling arguments for the importance of a new or nontraditional line of inquiry. Seek feedback on your arguments, identify their weaknesses, and work to strengthen them.
  • Check out interdisciplinary programs and research centers across campus that can provide a community of scholars whose interests cross traditional boundaries. For instance, find out more about Programs in African American and African Studies, Latino and Latin American Studies, Native American Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
  • Identify content that is traditionally excluded or marginalized in your discipline and help develop strategies to address that content via teaching and research.
  • Throughout your graduate school career, demonstrate the breadth of your intellectual curiosity through your contributions in classes, seminars, brown bags and lectures.
  • As you develop your mentoring relationships, be clear with the faculty about the range of your research interests.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Listen to students' experiences and perspectives. Ask them to share scholarly articles or essays that illustrate the work they would like to do.
  • Identify content that is traditionally excluded or marginalized in your field and expand the boundaries of your discipline by addressing it.
  • Help your students learn about the many interdisciplinary communities of scholars that exist on campus.
  • Foster ongoing departmental discussions on how disciplinary and interdisciplinary theory and methodology are changing because of the inclusion of more diverse content, approaches, and perspectives.