REFS stands for Resources for Easing Friction and Stress.

Do you feel stressed out? Do you think you don’t have enough time to finish everything? Are you wondering how to choose the right lab and PI or how to prep for quals?

If you’re struggling with one of these challenges or need peer support for something else on your mind, graduate student REFS are here to help and support you!  

For questions on the REFS program, please email Feel free to reach out to your department REFS at any time, and they would be happy to meet with you to hear what’s going on in your life.

What do REFS members do?

The REFS programs are for peer support within the Institute. REFS members are trained by the OGE, as well as community experts in mediation and conflict resolution. REFS provide low-barrier, confidential services to their peers through coaching, listening, de-escalation, and informal mentoring and mediation.

REFS share information about additional resources on campus, and can make informed referrals. There are department-specific REFS programs (dREFS), as well as institute-wide REFS (iREFS) who are available to help students in any department. 

dREFS program

Below, you can find all the departments that offer a REFS program.

Course 2 – Mechanical Engineering

Course 3 – Material Science and Engineering

Course 4 – Architecture

Course 5 – Chemistry

Course 6 – Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Course 7 – Biology

Course 8 – Physics

Course 9 – Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Course 10 – Chemical Engineering

Course 12 – Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

Course 16 – Aeronautics and Astronautics

Course 20 – Biological Engineering

Institute for Data, Systems and Society

Operations Research Center

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Program history 

In response to concerns about graduate student mental health in the 1990s, the MIT Chemistry Department sought to augment its support system for graduate students. They designated two faculty members as mediators, who were trained to address the concerns of undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. The success of this pilot program highlighted the potential for a graduate student-run mediation program to work alongside the faculty mediators. Peter Rye spearheaded this project in the department, and the Chemistry Graduate Student Mediation Program (CGSMP) was founded in 2001. The founding four members were trained by Mediation@MIT and began working with students in the department. The program was well received by students, and the number of mediators grew over its first year. In 2002, the program name was changed to Chemistry REFS (Resources for Easing Friction and Stress), due to the finding that most meetings were only with a single student, making the term “mediator” inaccurate. 

In 2003, the Biological Engineering Division founded its own REFS group, the BE REFS. The Physics and EECS Departments followed, creating their REFS programs in 2006 and 2007. In the 21 years since its origination, the number of REFS programs has grown to sixteen, including iREFS (Institute REFS) who do not belong to a specific department but can support students across the institution. Today, departmental REFS programs operate independently, but are backed by institutional support from the Office of Graduate Education (OGE). The OGE organizes institute-wide training and also serves as a support network and resource for REFS from all departments. 

Since the early days of the REFS programs, several aspects of this mission have been constant. For example, the REFS keep conversations confidential, focus on active listening and asking questions (as opposed to providing answers), and receive dedicated training in mediation and other relevant topics. REFS remain an important source of peer support and are equipped to help their peers through challenges that arise during graduate school. 

A graphic timeline of when new REFS programs were added. In 2001, ChemREFS. In 2003, B.E. REFS. In 2006, PhysREFS. 2007 added BioREFS, E.E.C.S. REFS, and MechE REFS. In 2012, iREFS was created. In 2013, O.R.C. REFS; in 2015, REFS-X. In 2017, AeroAstro REFS, B.C.S. REFS, and E.A.P.S. REFS were all created. 2018 saw J.P. REFS and 2019 D.M.S.E. REFS and EconREFS. Lastly, C.E.E. REFS were added in 2020.
Graph showing the number of REFS programs over the years. The graph captures that there has been a slow but steady increase from 2001 to 2016, with several years remaining stable including 2008-2011. Between 2017-2020, there were consistent increases.