The Graduate Handbook Project: Mental Health & Policy Changes to Support Students

Content warning: suicide

This project was completed by Sarah Alexander, Samantha Anderson, Jennifer Bratburd, Alejandra Canales, and Tina Lynch, all current students or recent graduates from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and members of Madison-based NSPN chapter Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP). 

This article is featured in the National Science Policy Network blog:

Abuse of power, bullying, and harassment are unfortunately too common in academia. These problems disrupt research and students’ careers and well-being. In the worst cases, students may even end their own lives. When we, a group of graduate students from different departments across campus, learned in 2019 of a toxic lab environment that may have contributed to a grad student’s suicide, we decided to add our voices to the calls for transparent and accessible graduate student policies to help prevent harassment, bullying, and tragic outcomes for graduate students.

Our group compared policies by using the documents that departments provide graduate students when they first arrive — student handbooks — a source graduate students routinely check for information related to their jobs and education. We adapted criteria from Future of Research to evaluate handbooks on five criteria are associated with a positive training environment:

  • Academic/non-academic conduct– Did the department clearly describe acceptable or unacceptable behaviors?  
  • Transparent accountability — What mechanisms were students recommended to use if they had a grievance or were being harassed? Were these events tracked?
  • Diversity and inclusion — What effort had departments made to create a diverse and inclusive environment? Did they help connect historically marginalized students to available resources on campus?
  • Graduate representation in decision-making — What say did students have in department policies? Did they have avenues to give feedback?
  • Mentorship training — How are principal investigators trained and supported to successfully mentor students?

We found that while a few departments had strong policies, the majority relayed standard information from the University on academic misconduct and grievance procedures, few had substantial diversity initiatives, and none mentioned required mentor training. While news reports on complaints and harassment characterize these events as rare and as a failing of a particular lab or department, many departments, schools, and universities lack the policies to identify bad environments for students. In this report, you will find a short history of recent documented issues for students, a detailed description of our findings, and recommendations for change in order to create safe, inclusive, and productive learning environments for graduate students.

Our recommendations are as follows:

  1. All departments should clearly outline expectations for academic (course, research) and  non-academic (professionalism, behavior, etc.) misconduct for both graduate students and  faculty in graduate student handbooks.
  2. At a minimum, departments should clearly outline the formal grievance process with a  full explanation of the many avenues for reporting various kinds of harassment and  grievances, and an updated list of specific grievance advisors/confidential reporters.  
  3. Campus-wide diversity initiatives should be integrated into departmental programming — starting with the language in program handbooks and department websites — and explicitly  recognize the role of identity in graduate student training.
  4. Departments should include student-elected representatives on each of the department’s  committees, including hiring and tenure, with voting privileges.
  5. Departments should develop and list mentorship training requirements for both mentors  and mentees in graduate student handbooks and support strong mentoring relationships through mentoring compacts, facilitation of student membership in professional societies, and use of structured feedback systems.

Many of the policy changes included here are those that have been suggested for years by marginalized students and higher education researchers. While changing the culture of academia is a challenge, it is not impossible. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, many departments have issued statements on their commitment to change. Some have even swiftly implemented or updated policies, including taking more student feedback and trying to provide better support to historically marginalized students. We worked with the UW-Madison Graduate School to help improve the overall template upon which many departmental handbooks are based. We hope that this analysis will prove useful to graduate students advocating change at their own institutions, as well as to institutional leadership for creating immediate policy changes to support better graduate learning environments.