Expectations for Graduate Education: Virginia Tech Graduate School

The Virginia Tech Graduate School is committed to providing a “rich learning environment” for graduate students and a quality graduate education experience.  To do so requires clear communication about policy and procedures and especially the expectations for graduate study.  The VT Graduate School’s commitment is articulated in the “Expectations for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech.”

Originally created by graduate students and faculty in 2003, the expectations document was revised in 2011 and highlights the “vital elements of 21st-century graduate education, including ethics, civility, professional and academic development, teaching/learning, and inclusive community”.  The document describes the graduate environment promoted at VT and articulates expectations for graduate students, faculty, departments (programs, schools) and the Graduate School.  The document also includes a section on mentoring and a section on complaints and the appeals process.  A summary of the expectations are shared in a printable format as well.

The expectations are discussed in relation to major components of graduate education: progress toward degree, research and ethics, teaching and training, professional development, assistantships and financial aid, and community.  Although written in 2011, the expectations still provide relevant guidelines for graduate education today. Examples include the following:

  • Clear communication about departmental and Graduate School policy and procedures
  • Regular communication between faculty advisor and student
  • Understand and adhere to responsible conduct of research and scholarly endeavors
  • Discuss and agree upon requirements and expectation for authorship
  • Ensure that graduate programs conform to the highest academic standards and remain relevant through appropriate curriculum
  • Adherence to professional codes of conduct, student conduct and honor codes
  • Provide appropriate teacher training and professional development opportunities
  • Provide annual feedback to students and provide opportunity for students to correct academic deficiencies
  • Ensure fair and equitable treatment of students
  • Provide a safe and collegial work environment; respect work-life balance and working conditions
  • Provide pertinent resources and mentoring for degree completion
While the information seems fairly straightforward and common sense, it is valuable to have the expectations clearly identified and shared with the graduate students and faculty in order to provide the foundation for a quality graduate education experience at the beginning of one’s graduate study and to remind faculty, departments and the Graduate School of our collective responsibility for quality graduate education. The goal of graduate education should be to provide the academic context(s) and mentoring that allows graduate students to demonstrate their ability to achieve, their desire to succeed and their commitment to future professional contributions.
Unfortunately, academic bullying and questionable professional behavior are still prevalent in higher education.  And as I mentioned in the previous blog entitled Academic Bullying and graduate education, these must be eliminated from graduate education and replaced with a challenging yet affirming academic environment.

Academic bullying and graduate education

A recent study by Gentry and Whitely (2014) entitled “Bullying in Graduate School: Its Nature and Effects” concluded that although graduate students did experience ‘aggressive and exclusionary’ behaviors associated with traditional definition of bullying they tended to reject the use of “bullying” to describe their experiences. (see The Qualitative Report 2014 Volume 19, Article 71, 1-18 http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR19/gentry71.pdf).  The behaviors were experienced were as more “covert and indirect” rather than typical images of playground bullying.  These behaviors could also be described under the umbrella of micro aggressions, incivilities, and acts based upon unconscious bias.  To emphasize the importance of understanding these behaviors, how they manifest  themselves in graduate school, and the significant impact that they can have on graduate students, I have written about and will continue to use the terminology of “academic bullying“.

Academic bullying manifests itself in many different ways and can include intimidation, humiliation, belittlement, embarrassment and undermining one’s authority.  Academic bullying also includes behaviors or comments that indicate disregard of one’s concerns, ignoring contributions, minimize one’s efforts in the eyes of colleagues, and other means of exclusion or withholding information.  Expectations of unreasonable workload, limiting earned vacation and prohibiting graduate student’s own agency for professional choices and personal decision could also be inappropriate.  As is well known, comments or behaviors that are sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and more are unacceptable and can fall under the umbrella of academic bullying and should not be tolerated.  Academic bullying occurs throughout the academic or professional space; in the classroom, in meetings, at conferences, in the laboratory setting, in face-to-face interactions, and of course through email and social media.

Essentially, the behaviors and actions described above would be considered unprofessional and could be considered as “misconduct”. In their book entitled Professors Behaving Badly: Faculty Misconduct in Graduate Education, the authors (Braxton, Proper & Bayer, 2011) provide some more specific examples based upon their study including the following (more discussion in a later blog post):

Professors behaving badly

• Publishing an article without a graduate student among the authors who made significant contributions to the study.

• Prohibiting graduate students from expressions differing viewpoints.

• Requiring additional hours of work per week regularly beyond that of the assistantship and on nights, weekends and vacation times.

While it is important to understand what constitutes academic bullying, it is just as important to understand the context for graduate education and what would not be considered as academic bullying.  Graduate school should be challenging and is sometimes difficult and frustrating.  Graduate school should not be demoralizing although students might occasionally question their ability to perform.  Graduate students need to understand the conditions for graduate study set by the Graduate School and the department or faculty.  Obviously there are policies and procedures that need to be followed.  Academic freedom is valued and respected for graduate students and faculty.  Freedom of speech is a right but must be exercised in an atmosphere of respect for others. Disagreements are likely and emotions will be expressed but must be civil.  To read about the VT Graduate School’s description of the graduate environment, link here.

Communication and clarity are key to success in graduate school.  The next blog will focus on expectations for graduate study and ways in which we can move the conversation about graduate school from surviving to thriving.