Guaranteed Transitional Support

Written and supported by:

  • The RISE campaign
  • GSC Executive Committee
  • Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart
  • Dean Anantha Chandrakasan
  • Anne White, Department Head, Nuclear Science and Engineering
  • Marc Jones, Assistant Dean for Finance and Administration
  • Doreen Morris, Assistant Provost
  • Pierre Lermusiaux, Associate Department Head, Mechanical Engineering
  • Troy Van Voorhis, Department Head, Chemistry
  • Asu Ozdaglar, Department Head, EECS and Deputy Dean of Academics, MIT Schwarzman College of Computing
  • Michael Cusumano, Deputy Dean of Sloan School
  • Blanche Staton, Senior Associate Dean and Director for Graduate Education
  • Suraiya Baluch, Associate Dean, Graduate Student Support & Advising

The following was developed through a partnership with the working group members listed above, and is effective as of Spring 2021.

Holding true to MIT’s deep commitment to supporting graduate students through the entirety of their academic development and degree, and in response to recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, MIT’s NASEM Academic and Organizational Relationship (AOR) working group report, and concerns raised by the Graduate Student Council and the RISE campaign, we will create a transitional support program for graduate students at MIT who wish to change research advisors or groups.

The work to develop the transitional support program will occur in two steps, Phase I and Phase II. In Phase I, the focus is on unhealthy advising situations in which students experience bias, harassment, or discrimination. We want students in unhealthy research situations to know that they can freely switch research supervisors without worry of financial burden or fear of retaliation. The guarantee of transitional support will empower students to more freely exercise autonomy over decisions that will deeply impact their health and wellbeing, research progress and productivity, and future career after leaving MIT.

The Institute is also dedicated to helping students transition research groups for other reasons, such as an evolution in research interest, changing research approaches, or a mismatch in early group choice (though, in these cases, this should ideally align with the beginning of the semester). We encourage students interested in changing research supervisors (for any reason) to meet with their Transition Support Coordinator (TSC), a new resource described below, to discuss their options. It is important to acknowledge that several academic programs already support students in transitioning groups when their research interests change. Hence, even today, a student can transition from a group for multiple reasons and be supported by the department. Thus, receiving transitional funding to switch groups should not be interpreted as the student or the advisor being at fault. Complaints will be taken seriously and will be reviewed by the academic program head using a fair process (more details will be available in Phase II).

View the full proposal, including a description of Phase II.

Phase I: Transition Support for Unhealthy Advising Situations

  1. Guarantee advisor-independent transitional funding for one full semester for PhD and SM/PhD students in unhealthy situations (e.g., the student is experiencing bias, discrimination, harassment, other violations of MIT policies, or other aggressive behavior from their advisor or colleagues in the unit they are wishing to transfer from).
    • Each department may provide advisor-independent funding in the form of a fellowship, a TA, an RA, or other sources of funding. When possible, the department will try to give the most flexible funding (i.e., a fellowship).
    • As the Department is the administrator of the degree program, it is expected that they should maintain sufficient reserves to accommodate the typical demands for transitional support. Should there be a period of time when an unusually high need for transitional support is needed, the Department will work with the Dean and, as needed, the Provost, to secure the needed resources.
    • Additional funding beyond the semester may be needed and will be determined on a case-by-case basis by mutual agreement between the degree administering department head and both the departmental and OGE TSCs (see point 3 below).
    • Students can opt into this program at any time by meeting with a Transition Support Coordinator (TSC). The TSC (see point 3 below) should perform an initial intake assessment with students seeking transitional support to learn more about their situation and educate them about other options that may be applicable in some circumstances (e.g., medical leave, moving beyond MIT, etc.). The TSC will review the student’s unhealthy situation, though no proof of the student’s unhealthy advising situation is required for transitional support to be granted. As noted earlier, students may still receive transitional funding for healthy situations, and as such a student receiving transitional funding should not be interpreted as the student or the advisor being at fault.
    • The student’s original PI may ask the student to wrap-up/hand-off their duties (i.e., train new students, finalize/compile data and other materials, etc.). This should take no more than 15 hours per week of the students’ time, for up to 4 weeks. In cases where the student does not agree to the terms of the requested wrap-up/hand-off duties, the departmental and the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) TSC (see point 3 below) will work with the student and advisor (separately, if the student wishes) to facilitate an equitable agreement.
    • If a student finds a new research advisor, prior to the end of the semester, and support is not immediately available from the new advisor, the student should continue to be funded by the transitional funding through the remainder of the semester.
    • If the transitional funding begins in the middle of the semester, the unutilized remainder of the semester’s funding should be carried over into the following term. When appropriate, the student should receive support for the complete second term (e.g., it is not easy to end a TA in the middle of the term).
    • A student seeking this funding should receive it within two weeks so they do not miss a pay period.
    • If a student transitions groups between programs, the two academic units should collaborate to ensure a smooth transition for the student (i.e., the two DLC heads will decide among themselves). The heads can seek the help of the appropriate Dean(s) if there is a need for financial support (who may seek support from the Provost). The home department may have additional rules in terms of student supervision and guaranteed funding.
  2. A TSC will be appointed in each DLC and in the OGE.
    • TSCs are advocates for the student, helping them navigate the transitional support structure.
    • The departmental TSC will be chosen by the unit head, and may be the faculty graduate ambassador, or the graduate administrator, graduate officer, some other faculty or staff member so designated. It is important that the departmental TSC act as an approachable and strong advocate for the students and have enough authority in the department to be able to help the student. For this reason, it is recommended that students in the DLC provide input (e.g., qualities desired or concerns) to the academic head in the selection of the departmental TSC.
    • The OGE TSC is someone whom students can reach out to if they feel they may have a conflict within or distrust of the department in handling this particular situation. The OGE TSC will be able to act as a mediator if needed to help the student discuss their situation with the departmental TSC and departmental leadership. If there is a conflict in the recommendation for funding, the departmental and OGE TSCs shall reach out to the Dean and the School.
  3. Students utilizing this program should receive reasonable academic accommodations, including flexibility around degree requirements and milestones, to minimize the amount of time their degree is ultimately set back (e.g., allowing flexibility around the timeline for executing incomplete degree requirements and not asking students to re-execute previously completed degree requirements).

  4. The Institute is committed to leveraging insight from Phase I of this program to help address problematic advising. By the end of 2021 (via Phase II of this proposal), the goal is to come up with a collective plan for tracking research advisor switches and developing appropriate responses for troubling patterns and behaviors made evident by this program. A working group will convene in Spring/Summer of 2021, with the goal of solidifying a document of guidance for how DLCs should approach these processes. Inputs will be integrated from the School/College councils (which include department/unit heads), OGE, HR, Deans, graduate students (RISE/GSC), IDHR, Chancellor, Provost, and others. The proposed approach will be completed by the beginning of the Fall semester of 2021, with the goal of implementing the recommendations starting Spring 2022.

  5. Provide protection from retaliation for students transitioning research advisors.
    • The departmental and OGE TSCs should work with department leadership to provide avenues for the student to find alternative letter writers and references, if desired.
    • The TSCs should inform all students utilizing this program of MIT’s retaliation policies and proactively and periodically reach out to these students throughout and following the lab transition. If retaliation is occurring, TSCs should provide students support in reporting any misconduct.