The attrition rate of doctoral students is approximately 50% and many doctoral students leave during the first year of their program. The Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) has supported numerous initiatives to increase communication avenues between first-year doctoral students and department faculty and staff so that our students do not follow this statistic. Overall, the goal is to aid students’ transitions to graduate school by providing a more supportive environment with clear expectations and improved communication avenues. Many of the initiatives have been outcomes of our department’s Lead Teaching Assistant (Lead TA) role. Our department partners with our University’s Center for Teaching and Learning to elect a more senior graduate student within our department as the Lead TA. In addition to supporting the first-year students (both first-year TAs and first-year students that are not TAs) in their development of teaching and professional skills, our Lead TAs take the time to listen to and address feedback from the first-year students to support their strong initial trajectory into their doctoral study.
Common issues that arise during graduate school include, advisor-advisee disagreements, time management of research and teaching, social isolation, and academic challenges. Several Lead TAs noticed that students did not seek help immediately when these issues developed leading to frustration or increased stress. In response, the Lead TAs organized mandatory 20-minute meetings between each first-year student, the Lead TA, and the graduate advisor. These conversations allowed the team to identify areas where support or intervention was needed. Many first-year students have shared their appreciation for these check-in meetings and have remarked on the department’s commitment to help each student succeed.
Additionally, other methods for increasing communication were identified. For example, several students found that there was a lack of conversation establishing clear expectations with their PhD advisor. In fact, a study of the graduate school revealed that 26% of mechanical engineering PhD students were dissatisfied with the clarity of expectations about academic requirements and expected progress. To address this problem, the Lead TA created a one-page document that listed suggested topics (e.g. vacation time, research hours, academic progress) for students to discuss with their research advisors. Teaching assistants (TAs) also found the expectations of their TA positions were unclear and varied greatly depending on the class. Similarly, a one-page expectations document was developed for TAs to review with the professor or instructor responsible for the class to help establish the scope of their responsibilities. Finally, the Lead TA distributed surveys to collect data on how TAs allocate their time for different teaching related activities (e.g. grading, office hours) so that the expectations and variations for each class can be shared with incoming TAs.
This paper explores the impact of these different initiatives to increase communication between first-year doctorate students, faculty and the department administration in the Paul M. Rady Mechanical Engineering Department at CU Boulder. We are using surveys to evaluate the effect of these changes on student satisfaction levels. We also are gathering feedback from professors about the implementation of these tools. The changes described and analyzed in this paper have been made organically; initiatives have been developed and implemented over time as different needs and potential solutions have been identified. This approach increases the complexity of analysis, so we have presented the data that has been collected to date, but also recognize there are many contributing variables. We will continue to collect and analyze data to assess the impact of the various initiatives of the Lead TA more concretely.
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