More than teaching assistants

By Advaith Narayan and Neha Keshan October 28, 2020

Many undergraduate students perhaps only know our graduate counterparts as teaching assistants. However, the graduate students are far more than just teaching assistants. Graduate Council President Neha Keshan joins me this week to shed some light on the graduate student experience, a part of Rensselaer which many undergraduate students may not know too much about.

Most undergraduates have a balanced life at RPI, with involvement in many areas of our campus community outside of just our academics. If you observe Greek Life, clubs, or athletics, you will find that most of the students who participate are undergraduates. An undergraduate student schedule lies in stark contrast to that of a graduate student. The balanced life is consumed by the harsh demands of managing research, coursework, and interpersonal relationships. A schedule which includes coursework, family time, activities, etc. gets taken over by research, coursework, meetings, powerpoint slides, writing papers and the stress of not meeting multiple deadlines. A graduate degree is generally not linear; there is no check-list of things to finish in order to get a degree. Graduate students formulate their path to finishing on their own while performing other duties which might be necessary to support their education and/or research. The stipend they receive is nothing to brag about, so what motivates them to live frugally years after they’ve finished their Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees? The love for research.  

You may be wondering, then, how graduate students manage all of their responsibilities. It is definitely stressful, so graduate students are highly susceptible to mental health concerns. These issues are very well understood by institutes worldwide, but were aggravated when the pandemic hit, during which many students could not continue their research. Like many universities, RPI also tried to get back some semblance of continuity in the academic life of the campus, and held multiple town halls addressing the issues. Even when the university held detailed Town Halls discussing how classes would resume, information about return-to-research plans was limited to a broad overview without specifics for the diverse research conducted on campus. The Institute has been working day and night to get graduate students back to campus and started with research, but after almost a semester and a half, uncertainty still persists, adding to the stress of finishing their research degree on time.

Though the sources of mental health concerns for graduate students may differ from undergraduate students, we all need additional support—counseling, academic support, or social resources. The Graduate Council, which exists to advocate for the concerns of the graduate student community, hold events to get graduate students out of their labs, and provide a way to socialize and create a sense of community. This year has been challenging for all of us, and has pushed the graduate students to a different level of loneliness and isolation, as it has for everyone else.

To help students communicate, share their concerns and connect with other graduate students, the Graduate Council started hosting “Grad Hour,” a weekly event fulfilling multiple purposes, acting as a platform for graduate students to vent, connect with each other, talk to the Graduate Council members, build a sense of community, have fun, discuss graduate-related issues, and get connected directly with someone from the Institute who could help with graduate students’ concerns. Every week, there is a different theme for the Grad Hour such as discussing mental health and Public Safety, getting together to play the popular game, Among Us, or the Pre Halloween event (which started last week). The success of the Grad Hour is playing an important role in improving the community and connectivity of the graduate students. Keep an eye out for future articles coming out soon to learn more about graduate life.