MIT Offers Financial Lifeline to Graduate Students Seeking Escape From Toxic Advisers

Full vitae zahneis transitionalfunds 0302 clift0016

Nicholas Selby, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, helped campaign for guaranteed transitional funding for graduate students who want to get out of an unhealthy advising relationship.
Image: Bradley E. Clift for The Chronicle

By Megan Zahneis

One adviser expected that a graduate student would always be “on call,” and “knew how to keep us close by threatening our futures.” Another grad student left her program after her adviser told her she didn’t “think correctly"; for a time, she found herself waiting tables instead of studying engineering. A third student’s abusive adviser wrote a negative reference letter, thwarting the student’s efforts to find a better fit in another program.

All three students offered their testimony as part of a campaign by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students to secure transitional funding for those trying to leave an abusive advising relationship. The campaign succeeded: L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, recently announced a new program that students and administrators alike hope will put an end to stories like those.

Under the program, which opens on March 9, students in doctoral and combined master’s and doctoral programs at MIT will be guaranteed one semester of adviser-independent funding, which could come in the form of a fellowship, teaching assistantship, or research assistantship. That one-semester period is designed to give students time to secure long-term arrangements with a new adviser or lab, while ensuring they don’t miss a paycheck.

But the program is, more broadly, about redressing a power imbalance between graduate students and their advisers, said Kara Rodby, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering and a co-convener of the graduate-student coalition behind the campaign. “There is such a refusal to validate students’ experiences as abuse, and instead this behavior — isolating students from other resources, threatening students, having absurd expectations of their time, expectations for falsification of data, horrible safety conditions, et cetera — gets chalked up as ‘advising style,’” she said.

That’s why Rodby and Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment — or RISE, as the campaign is known — decided to include transitional funding in a broader list of demands the group issued to MIT administrators last summer.

The idea wasn’t new to the administrators, either. A working group that studied power dynamics at the institute — which Reif commissioned in response to a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on sexual harassment in academe — had in February 2020 recommended transitional funding “for graduate students changing research groups and to postdocs who must transition to new positions due to harassment-related complaints.”

And while individual departments and programs had long made a habit of offering transitional funding on a case-by-case basis, the need for a more-centralized process had become clear. Administrators welcomed students’ help in creating one, said Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering.

“This is almost a perfect template for how the students and administration could work together in order to accelerate and achieve our broad goals,” said Chandrakasan, who with Cynthia Barnhart, MIT’s chancellor, led a working group on the subject, composed of RISE representatives, administrators, and faculty members.

RISE members were responsible for devising the proposal, which Barnhart said went through 26 drafts based on feedback from deans, department heads, and administrators. “The students felt a real need to be members at the table in helping to shape this,” Barnhart said.

‘I Wasn’t Their Reponsibility’

As part of the process of writing the proposal, the working group heard from Nicholas S. Selby. In the fall of 2017, 13 months into his graduate study in MIT’s mechanical-engineering department, Selby’s principal investigator fired him without warning during a regular meeting. The environment in the faculty member’s lab, Selby said, was “unhealthy,” and his working relationship with his supervisor was equally negative.

Selby had a research grant that would continue to pay him for the rest of that semester, but he found himself without funding for the five months he’d need to complete his master’s degree. His initial attempts to get help were fruitless.

“My adviser’s department told me basically that I wasn’t their responsibility, and that I just had to kind of figure it out on my own,” Selby recalled. A representative of MIT’s Office of Graduate Education told Selby it would try to help, but couldn’t offer any certainties.

“It felt like I was asking folks to do me a favor to help me finish my graduate program,” Selby said. “No one that I was talking to all over campus could give me a guarantee that I was going to land on my feet.”

Eventually, an administrative assistant in the mechanical-engineering department took Selby under her wing, finding a faculty member who hired Selby as a teaching assistant for a semester so he could finish the degree. Selby then transferred to a different department at MIT to work under a new principal investigator for his doctoral studies.

But, Selby said, his story is unusual. He credits much of his recovery as a grad student to the administrative assistant who went out of her way to help him. “This was an exception to the rule,” Selby said, “and the reason you’re talking to me, as opposed to somebody who was not as lucky, is because those folks who are not as lucky end up just basically getting kicked out of MIT and finding their own way and trying to get a job somewhere else.”

The campaign’s success meant a lot to Selby, who said he no longer worries that other students will face a crisis like his own.

“Folks who are in these really traumatic and awful situations are going to have at least a little bit of an easier time pulling themselves out of those situations,” he said, “because … at least they’ll be financially able to stand on their feet for a semester while they try to put their life back together.”

Offering Other Protections

One priority for RISE, Rodby said, was ensuring that students could seek transitional funding through several avenues, not just in their own program, where departmental politics or a student’s distrust could present “soft barriers.” Graduate students will be able to request transitional funding through a coordinator in their own department or through the institute’s Office of Graduate Education. Students also won’t be required to present proof of an unhealthy advising relationship to obtain transitional funding.

The policy also prevents a lengthy separation process with a student’s original adviser. While a principal investigator might ask a student to train successors or to finalize data before departing, those obligations will be limited to 15 hours a week of a student’s time for up to four weeks. And if a student isn’t comfortable with handling that wrap-up work, other arrangements can be made.

Students who make use of transitional funding will be offered other safeguards, too, including flexibility around degree milestones and protection from retaliation. For instance, if a student is concerned about asking for a letter of recommendation from the original adviser, transitional-support coordinators will help find other faculty members who can serve as references.

RISE hopes to extend guaranteed funding, in a second phase of the campaign, to students who switch advisers for other, more innocuous reasons — for example, as their research interests change. The second phase will also see the development of a mechanism for tracking adviser switches and of “appropriate responses for troubling patterns and behaviors made evident by” that data.

MIT doesn’t keep detailed records right now of how often and for what reasons students switch advisers. By ensuring support is available for students considering a switch, Barnhart hopes, MIT leaders will gain a better understanding of how common advising problems are.

“One of the things we don’t know is how many students are not telling us that they’re in that situation,” she said. “A big motivation here is to empower them to make a change if they feel they need one.”

Megan Zahneis, a staff reporter for The Chronicle, writes about graduate-student issues and the future of the faculty. Follow her on Twitter at @meganzahneis, or email her at megan.zahneis@chronicle.com.

Join the Conversation

0 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.