A lot of spontaneous and responsive conversation has taken a backseat during the pandemic, and yet, much of our checking in with one another begins this way. When we are reliant on Zoom, it is not so easy to casually start up a conversation to connect and spontaneously share concerns or feelings that we may not have otherwise articulated. The mere act of scheduling a meeting seems so formal and serious that we might be inclined to save it for the big stuff and not impose even more Zoom fatigue on one another. Likewise, it is easy to assume everything is as well as it can be during a crisis. These are sensible assumptions, but ones we must counter when it comes to mentoring graduate students.
Being deliberate about scheduling meetings to create structure with advisees is important. Students report how much they need these opportunities to discuss what they are going through and give voice to unarticulated concerns and ideas they may have, especially those not quite formulated. Having an open-door policy or open office hours may not be enough. Some students shy away from taking up an adviser's time as we all try to balance the demands of working and living through a pandemic. Likewise, students from different cultural backgrounds may not be accustomed to reaching out to professors.
Providing a structured schedule of meetings with advisees will create space for them to connect and create accountability even in the most difficult situations.
Use Annual Reviews Proactively
Annual reviews are one opportunity to have productive conversations with students. In such an unusual year, it may be tempting to sidestep this process, but it is just as vital now, if not more so. The academic review process allows for timely feedback on a student's progress and for discussing their next steps in reaching degree milestones. While this is a challenging time for students, faculty, and staff —and progress will likely look different now than in previous years—the annual review can help students strategize how to move forward in the best way possible. In preparing for annual reviews, we encourage programs to consider appropriate modifications and flexibility, so the process will be helpful and productive under the current circumstances.
Be Flexible in Progress Assessment and Planning for Completion of Milestones
The annual review process can help students map out a plan for degree completion, in light of pandemic-related modifications or delays. We know that even within the same program there are variations in terms of how the pandemic has impacted students’ academic studies and research. You may wish to provide students an opportunity to share information (if they wish) about how their academic work has been affected by the pandemic. It is important for students who may need to discuss new strategies for pivoting or modifying their research.
Research and work might take longer, and that should be taken into consideration when evaluating progress. Can you look back at the previous semester and see progress? That's a good thing, even if it is not as much progress as anticipated. Look holistically at their academic record and help them develop a plan for their degree. Based on their research and career interests, are there courses they should be thinking about? What steps are necessary to meet the degree requirements? These conversations help all students—not just those students who may need to address a deficiency—plan for successful graduate work.
If your program has deadlines for the completion of particular degree milestones, such as qualifying or preliminary examinations, your program may consider if an extension to these deadlines would be appropriate based on the pandemic. Additionally, with the increase in courses without traditional letter grades, students’ grades and GPAs may require more review than in the past in order to develop an advising plan. Expanded options for CR/NC or PZ/NZ grading have been established to help students navigate the impacts of the pandemic while progressing with their degrees, and no student should be penalized for using these options.
Remember to Communicate Results Back to Students
The review process looks different across programs based on the size and structure of the program. No matter what system works best in your program, take the time to relay results back to the student. While the review process may culminate in a departmental letter or other form of communication to the student, faculty are in a good position to have individual conversations with their students to provide feedback, not only on areas for improvement but also on areas of strength. Faculty mentors are especially well-positioned to help in a more personalized way and provide this level of feedback so that students understand their work is noticed and recognized.
Annual reviews can provide an opportunity for a holistic review of a student’s academic history and help in developing a plan for their degree progress. Most of all, we hope that these annual review conversations can help support students as they navigate their degree progress.
Work with your Director of Graduate Study to find out more about the annual review process for your unit. Additional information about the academic review process, including examples, is also available on the Graduate College website.