Grad Student Leaders, Learning, & Life

sogs logo

Having been acclaimed as VP Student Services for the Society of Graduate Students back in May, 2015 (and then again in September), I’ve found myself wondering if I might not be better suited for a career in Student Affairs than as an English professor. I am hesitant to admit to how many hours I’ve devoted to my work with SOGS (as opposed to writing my dissertation), but I have to say that I take pride in all my efforts. Until recently, I wasn’t able to tangibly depict the work that I’ve done, but I can now thankfully categorize my accomplishments into three project areas: Graduate Student Orientation, Graduate Student Experience, and Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness.

Graduate Student Orientation: Transitioning to #GradLife

Between May and September 2015, I spent the majority of my summer planning for Fall Graduate Orientation. In August, we began working with SGPS in order to run some informal programming on September 8, after the formal Fall Orientation. In late September, SOGS ran its usual 3-day Orientation, but thanks to the Orientation & Social Committee (one out of three I oversee), we had one of the most successful Orientations in years. For example, there were over 70 graduate students at Board Game Night, five teams for our first-time ever Grad Club Olympics, and the Grad Club made an extra $2000 on account of our BonFire Night.


Graduate Orientation Committee

Due to my involvement with a number of committees in the last few months, I have been encouraging administration to consider implementing a Graduate Orientation committee in order to better help navigate incoming students. After a number of carefully situated nudges, I am pleased to say that there will now be a Graduate Orientation Committee made up of a number of stakeholders including SGPS, IESC, TSC, as well as the Office of Student Experience and its subsequent portfolios (SSC, SDC, Wellness, etc). My particular reason for suggesting this committee was the result of learning that Western – on top of its overarching Strategic Plan “Achieving Excellence on the World Stage” – developed a Strategic Plan for its undergraduate Orientation. Although orienting graduate students is certainly different than orientating “Frosh”, it was disappointing to learn that Graduate administration (SGPS) and SOGS were not consulted, or even offered the opportunity to outline their own Strategic Plan. Moreover, in the introduction of Western’s Strategic Plan, it states that Western welcomes “approximately 5,000 first year undergraduate students each year to our extraordinarily beautiful campus” (2).

Based on numbers from SGPS, Western also welcomes roughly 1200 new graduate students every year. In fact, between 700 and 900 graduate students attend the SGPS Fall Orientation. Besides the Handbook/Dayplanner that SOGS printed every year, however, there is no standardized/official Graduate Orientation Handbook.

Graduate Orientation Handbook

It was actually through the SOGS Handbook/Dayplanner that I first became involved with SOGS back in 2013. After two years as the Handbook Editor, and one summer term as the VP Student Services overseeing the Handbook, I realized that SOGS could put the ~$18,0000 (allocated for the Handbook printing and Editor honorarium) to better use. A few months ago, SOGS Council voted to eradicate the Handbook, which allowed us to increase departmental grants and various other funding for graduate students.

Upon discovering Queen’s University’s Graduate Orientation Handbook, I recently set out to ensure that SOGS could replace the general Handbook with something even more targeted to graduate students. The Office of Student Experience has graciously offered to help SOGS design our Graduate Orientation Handbook, so along with planning for next September’s Orientation, I will be spending part of my summer making SOGS more visible and accessible to incoming graduate students.

Like me, SGPS is working towards this goal, though their aim is to more effectively help graduate students transition into graduate studies. One of the ways they have proposed to do this is by incorporating “transition” into the recently proposed Graduate Student Professional Development program.

Graduate Student Experience: Professional Development and Programming

Last week, SOGS and SGPS had a half day Retreat, and one of the items on the agenda was Graduate Student Professional Development. Since September, I have been conducting various research on graduate student programming, which began as a result of my involvement with Western’s Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee (which I will elaborate further on in the next section of this post). After becoming Chair of the Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness, I began conducting my own audits of student programming under the Student Experience portfolio (for example, the Student Success Centre and the Student Development Centre). Thankfully I had help from the Acting Director of the Student Success Centre and Student Experience’s Director of Research, Innovation and Evaluation.

The following is a small part the 2014-2015 data we retrieved:

  • Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars made up 21% of all career counselling (SSC) appointments (accessed more than undergraduates);
  • Graduate students made up 12.4% of all individual learning skills counselling appointments (SDC);
  • Graduate students made up 17% of counselling appointment hours (Psychological Services).

Note: Health Services does not track undergraduate/graduate student numbers.

According to the Office of Student Experience, “…graduate students tend to access many service areas at a level that is disproportionately hire than their representation on campus (relative to undergraduate students)” (2015). With this in mind, I began delving deeper into graduate student programming, trying to figure out what was available to them.

Thesis Retreat and Thesis Weekly Writing

Currently, SDC offers a handful of workshops entitled “How to Write Your Thesis/Dissertation”. A one hour session really isn’t going to cut it, especially when every student who attends the workshop is at different points in their degree. In the summer, I was part of the “Thesis Bootcamp” committee (myself, SGPS, and the Writing Support Centre), which eventually launched the Thesis Writing Retreat program. This three-day Retreat was extremely successful (I participated in it and got a great deal of writing done), and many students stated in their written feedback that they would like the opportunity to write on a regular basis, particularly in the Chu Centre (which possesses one of the best views on campus). I pushed this idea at our monthly SGPS meetings, and a few months later we launched the Thesis Writing Pilot Project. We offered five 3-hour writing blocks in the Chu Centre for graduate students to sign up for in order to work on their thesis. Having attended the majority of these blocks, I know first hand that students are extremely grateful for the program. I am now delighted to say that not only are we set to have another Writing Retreat (scheduled for the end of April) but that another set of 3-hour blocks have been scheduled for April as well. I feel that both of these programs are extremely valuable, and I hope that they continue after I am gone. That being said, there are a number of other programs that could potentially be relevant to graduate students, but they are currently not (explicitly) marketed as such.

Co-Curricular Record and “GradPath”

For months, SGPS and SSC kept going back and forth regarding the Co-Curricular Record wondering whether or not graduate students are eligible for the program. Until recently, we thought we had settled the matter (that they could, and roughly 108 are currently enrolled), but discovered that Senate never actually approved it. This week, we’ll be finalizing the matter, and most likely moving towards the discussion of Graduate Professional Development, which is what SGPS and other stakeholders have been working on since September.

In September, the 2014-2015 SOGS Executive were invited by SGPS and the “Re-dreaming Graduate Professional Development” Committee to attend a full day Retreat on the subject. Here we learned that Western, at one point, led the way in graduate professional development (with its initial launch of “360” which is now more commonly known as “GradPath“) and that graduate students are now accessing professional development services at 4.5 times (as of 2013-2014) the rate that they were in 2005. The committee has since requested a Graduate Professional Coordinator and a Graduate Career Counsellor in order to meet this demand. However, a great deal more work in terms of the programming itself needs to be done.

At the Retreat, I submitted my “Info-Posal” to both members from SGPS and Jana Luker, the AVP Student Experience. Having researched nine different versions of “GradPath” at different universities, I came up with six “pillars” that I felt embodied overall graduate professional development (visually depicted below):


My “vision” includes “Wellness” as a core component in both “versions” of GradPath. Moreover, the “Wheel” is more in line with the initial idea of GradPath (“360”), and visually more in line with the current version of GradPath. It was also an attempt to visualize the idea of the “well-rounded” graduate student, since SGPS is now working towards a graduate-focused wellness “Hub” that is similar to the Queen’s Habitat. Essentially, the theme of “Thriving” in Graduate School.

Both Lorraine Davies (SGPS) and Jana Luker were impressed by my work, and I have now since been invited to be part of the Re-Dreaming Graduate Professional Development  Committee and have been asked to review their proposal. One striking aspect of the program is the proposed one week camp for “Grad School Training”. I was particularly pleased to see it being incorporated into the program’s core, especially after PSAC 610’s recent victory with the bargaining agreement and paid TA training. I was also pleased to see that the committee’s proposed “pillars” are quite similar to my own (and even more pleased to see that they appear to have removed the secondary “competencies” of the current GradPath model). My current plan is to combine my ideas with theirs and “pitch” the model (and suggested programming) to the committee. But one thing is for certain: the program will not be called “GradPath”. There was talk at the Retreat to have a name competition, which I am all for, truth be told. As long as “Mustangs” aren’t involved. The program, I am thrilled to say, is set to launch in August, 2017. I will (hopefully) be finished my degree by then, but I’m still disappointed I won’t be here to enjoy the new program.

What is currently missing from their proposal, however, is the “Wellness” aspect in my own model. Given Western’s recent push towards Wellness, I consider it an integral part of any kind of academic programming. After all, Western’s Human Resources currently offers Mental Health/Wellness training. It only makes sense to incorporate it into graduate professional development.

Graduate Student Mental Health and Wellness: Thriving in Graduate School

The start of my term as VP Student Services hit a bit of a snag when I learned in September that Western was to open the Wellness Education Centre and Western’s Mental Health and Wellness Advisory Committee hadn’t consulted with either SGPS or SOGS. I was particularly concerned because the WEC is housed in the basement of the UCC – a building that is primarily owned and run by undergraduate students. At first, most of the Committee didn’t understand my concern until I explained that graduate students, who teach undergraduate students, might be averse to entering the WEC looking for help when they might potentially run into their own undergraduate students there (since the majority of volunteers there are also undergraduates). After all, there is a reason Faculty members have their own separate entrance to Health Services, as many of them would not want to run into their own students.

Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness

At the September meeting (the first meeting SOGS had been invited to), I made my sentiments known, and struck – with the help of Lorraine Davies (SGPS) – the Graduate Sub-Committee on Mental Health and Wellness. With Lorraine, I chair the committee. We first met in October, when we discussed the possibility of a graduate student mental health survey, and looking into graduate student programming. This resulted in my own additional research, along with Student Experience’s attempt to pull Western graduate-specific data from the 2013 National College Health Assessment survey. Currently, we’ve launched the 2016 survey, and my hope is to have additional, and more extensive data on graduate students for the Working Group on Graduate Mental Health and Wellness (that has now been recently re-launched by Lorraine Davies) to use in future years.

From the 2013 data, I visualized some important aspects (and included the graphic in the SOGS March Council package):

grad-wellness-snapshot (1)

Many people are probably already aware of the fact that graduate students are continuously stressed and anxious, and experience severe sleep difficulties, but perhaps most people (especially those who are not graduate students) don’t realize how much it affects us. It certainly is interesting to note that graduate students reported “tremendous stress” at a higher rate than undergraduate students–especially when graduate students only made up 20% of the overall demographics of the survey.

Due to my position on the Graduate Sub-Committee, Lorraine Davies forwarded me the SGPS graduate student Focus Group data conducted this past year. Graduate students were asked the following questions:

  • What does health mean to you?
  • What helps you make/prevents you from making healthy lifestyle choices?
  • What does Western do well to support health and well-being?
  • What could Western improve to support health and well-being?
  • What does a healthy campus look like?

A formal report has yet to be written on the Focus Group data, but overall, the 32 graduate students reported that there was a particular need for graduate-specific mental health resources, and that they wanted Western to do more for recognizing its student diversity (particularly, that graduate students are distinct within their own demographic on top of being distinct from undergraduate students).

Graduate Peer Support (GPS)

One initiative that clearly addresses the above desires is Graduate Peer Support (GPS), an initiative proposed by a current graduate student and SOGS Equity Committee member. My involvement with this project has been mostly as a mediator, as I have been working more on the administrative aspect (funding, organization, facilitation) rather than the program’s content. I have played a fairly integral role in two main respects: firstly, by suggesting that GPS eventually become a standing committee under SOGS so that it is a sustainable and consistently funded project; and secondly (particularly in response to my fellow Executive’s concern that SOGS might end up taking on the full burden of dealing with graduate mental health) by proposing the creation of the GPS Joint Fund. In the GPS Proposal to SGPS and Student Experience, I stressed the need for a joint “promise” from SOGS, SGPS, and Student Experience to sustain, support, and promote overall Graduate student mental health and wellness at Western. I asserted that the Joint Fund would function like the SOGS Student Research and Scholarship Joint Fund, though for now would be solely for the financing of the GPS Summer Pilot Project, which will focus on themes including the Imposter Syndrome, living well on a tight budget, and the unrealistic expectations of Graduate school.

For those of you interested (and around this summer), GPS will be (temporarily) housed in the Wellness Education Centre (due to the lack of alternative space) every Wednesday from 10:30-12:30 beginning in May. After formal assessment at the end of September, all stakeholders will then discuss GPS’ future and potential re-location should alternative space be found.

My hope for the GPS Joint Fund would be for it to one day function exactly like the Academic Joint Fund, which would enable graduate student associations/councils to apply for funding in order to run their own wellness initiatives within their individual departments.

Currently, I am trying to launch a kind of Wellness “Habitat” within my own department (English), as I am particularly invested in the well-being of English graduate students. I have pitched this to SGPS as a kind of “micro” project in the hope that one day all graduate student associations/councils will be able to do similar wellness projects themselves.


The SOGS Executive actually met with Provost Janice Deakin and President Chakma (along with Linda Miller and Jana Luker) at the end of February in order to present the above (and other information relevant to each Executive’s portfolio) as a means of getting graduate students on Western’s “agenda”, so to speak.

Below is my part of the slideshow that we presented:

grad life

My “ask” to Dr. Chakma was simply this:

“Recognize the diversity of graduate students and their needs, and acknowledge their distinction from undergraduate students.”

Thankfully, nothing that was said was met with a flat “no”. In fact, on the whole, they were all extremely impressed with the information we presented, and recognized that they have a long way to go before they are ready to take Western’s Graduate Student Experience “to the next level”.

As I wait for Western to catch up to me in terms of proposed programming for Orientation, Student Experience, and Wellness, I will entertain the possibility of re-positioning myself as a “Student Affairs” expert in the English academic classroom.




About Madison Bettle

English PhD Candidate working towards a career in the academic world. I love Austen, Rand, and Meatloaf (the band).
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