The relationship between graduate students and their advisers can be pivotal to the trainees’ success, but there can be many reasons a pairing doesn’t work out. As of today (March 9), MIT has in place new policies that make it easier for students to swap advisers without damaging their graduation prospects in the process. The terms of the program were developed at the recommendation of several graduate student advocacy groups to protect students from the retaliation and financial hardship that can occur if an adviser/advisee relationship goes sour.
Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) aims to give graduate students a safety net to get out of a lab that isn’t good for them by helping the student secure transitional funding, limiting the transition period in between advisers, implementing degree progress protections, and protecting the student from being unable to get a letter of recommendation.
If the relationship between a graduate student and their adviser is dissolved, the student can be put in a precarious situation, needing funding and guidance to complete the degree. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that because of these obstacles, students subjected to highly abusive behavior of their advisor, such as racism or sexual harassment, don’t have a secure way to get out of a harmful environment without sacrificing a lot of time and money or even having to redo aspects of their degree that have already been completed. The Chronicle also states that some advisers can become spiteful, retaliating against students asking for letters of recommendation or having unreasonable expectations of students while they pass their duties off.
The need for a proactive approach in getting students a new adviser is evidenced by stories from MIT students themselves. The Chronicle reports that a few years ago, mechanical engineering student Nicholas Selby was unexpectedly fired by his adviser, with a semester and a half to go in finishing his degree and with no certainty of how to get there.
“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,” Selby tells the Chronicle, “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.”
The origins of the program go back to 2015, when the Black Students’ Union and Black Graduate Student Association met with administrators—including MIT President L. Rafael Reif—to address racial inequality. In the February 23 statement, Reif recalled being “moved” by the conversations and inviting suggestions of how the school could remedy the problems. This led to the creation of multiple working groups, a years-long analysis of current university policies, and the ultimate development of RISE.
The onus isn’t solely on the student to adapt and react to an adviser’s bad behavior. Faculty will also undergo more training about topics such as sexual harassment and racial injustice, to stop problems before they start. MIT has also clarified standards for how tenure is awarded and updated how discrimination complaints are handled.
The second phase of the program, which is scheduled to launch in the spring semester of 2022, aims to assist students who need a new adviser because of diverging research interests and not because of a harmful situation.