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Graduate Rights

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Protecting the rights of our members is our top priority at the Graduate Union. As part of the Graduate Rights campaign we've be working with people from across the University to stand up for postgraduate and mature students by raising awareness of our issues and pushing for change. 

 

Supervisor Training

One of the biggest areas of concern for postgraduate students is their supervisor relationship. Bad supervision leads to mental health concerns, career hurdles and general obstacles to student well-being. We believe many of these problems can be addressed by better training of supervisors, with a clear and communicated basic standard for good supervision. We feel that the University must implement mandatory supervisor training for all research supervisors of postgraduate research students. That’s why we are launching a petition on Mandatory Supervisor Training for supervisors of all postgraduate research students.

We would envision this as an introductory online course developed by the Education Services, in collaboration with the Graduate Union,Departments, Faculties and Schools, and the Researcher Development Programme (RDP). The focus of the course would be on building positive working relationships between research students and supervisors. It can for instance be an hour-long course, on completion of which, the supervisor will be able to download a certificate of completion, and be eligible to join a face-to-face session if they so wish to. Experienced Cambridge supervisors could also be encouraged to work through the course as a refresher-course and a central resource containing information, guidance and links to relevant materials and policies.

You can read in more detail about the case for mandatory supervisor training here.

 

Departmental Welfare

Postgraduate and mature undergraduate students are often more closely associated with their departments than their colleges. As a result, the lack of welfare provisions and support in departments as against colleges is a matter of grave concern. We may have counsellors, tutors and nurses in colleges, along with MCR Welfare Officers, but there are often no such provisions for the students in their respective departments. To this end, the Graduate Union has passed a policy recently (in the GU Council on 6 June 2019) to make the topic of increasing welfare and wellbeing support systems in departments a priority, besides encouraging Faculty representatives to lobby for better welfare signposting in their respective departments and faculties.

As part of the GU Departmental Welfare campaign, we are campaigning for the one dedicated staff in each department, Faculty and school who would undertake welfare signposting, on top of their academic and other administrative activities, who shall be accessible to all students in the department. Due to the work of our GU VP Mrittunjoy, we have already achieved this in Cavendish Laboratory, Clinical Neurosciences (Addenbrookes) as well as the Mitochondrial Biological Unit of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, while others such as the Institute of Astronomy, Department of Engineering and Department of Public Health and Primary Care that have expressed interest in moving in this direction.

We would like to work with Departmental, Faculty and School Reps to table this in other Faculty Boards.

 

Changing the Culture of Ph.D. Supervisions

According to a Nature survey in 2017, 47 % of Ph.D. students have been through depression and anxiety due to the bullying and harassment faced during their Ph.D. studies. For 67%, the highly competitive research work surrounded by toxic and abusive supervision culture turned their research life into a nightmare, leading to loss of faith in academia and mental health problems, from chronic anxiety to clinical depression.

 

This year, of the 174 postgraduates availing our Students' Unions' Advice Service (SUAS) services, 100 of them were Ph.D. students with mostly academic related difficulties. One of the most alarming issue Ph.D. student’s grapple with is the 'supervisor-student' relationship dynamics and related side effects stemming from it like the mental well-being and financial instabilities. Addressing the Ph.D. supervisor-student issue by improving the ‘code of practice (CoP) for research students' and changing the existing toxic 'Ph.D. supervision culture' is a key priority for the Vice-President this year. 

 

Other areas of work

The GU has been lobbying for introducing a contract system for PhDs with the PVC, BGS & Education policy office and have been successful in including a signature page in the Code of Practice for Oct 2018 Ph.D. batch. It is expected that this CoP will be read and expectations set out at the start of every year and will be signed by the Ph.D. student, supervisor, and advisor. 

We’ve been able to secure three major wins in the past year: 

  • helping set clear expectations for a postgraduate research project (with the official 'Research and Resources Overview' form of the University), 

  • improving training modules for students in research courses and making it more accessible to students 

  • the establishment of an anonymous student feedback system on supervisors and supervisions, which enables postgraduate students to provide anonymous feedback, through their College Graduate Tutors or the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints & Appeals (OSCCA), which will then be shared with the Department or Faculty. 

 

We’ve also been working on the GU-UCU ‘Raise the Bar’ initiative on anti-casualisation, as well on welfare with the release of the GU Personal Welfare Handbook. You can read more about the Graduate Rights Campaign here

Now, we are lobbying on revising info on working hours, conflict resolution, intermission & extension, maternity and paternity leave, data ethics, fieldwork practices, vacation, and sick leave. We are also developing a flowchart of the Ph.D. journey with appropriate service provider links and conflict navigation chart to help students have a productive and enjoyable time here at the University. As a start, we hope this will ensure good working practices, accountability from supervisors and the departments in ensuring a fair and healthy working environment.

If you any questions or would like to be involved in the Graduate Rights Campaign, please contact Mrittunjoy on vice-president@gradunion.cam.ac.uk.