UC Survey Illuminates the Graduate Student Experience
As the graduate student population at the University of California, Davis, expands and becomes increasingly diverse, the University is committed to ensuring that its services and support strategies meet graduate students’ unique needs and goals. However, the graduate student experience is complex. In addition to managing their academic progress, graduate students often face challenges in balancing competing teaching, research, service, and family obligations.
After gathering information about undergraduate student behaviors and attitudes for nearly a decade, the University of California (UC) set its sights on lifting the shroud of mystery from the graduate school experience. An inaugural UC Graduate Student Experience Survey (UCGSES) was distributed throughout the UC system in spring 2021 and solicited graduate and professional students’ opinions on a broad range of academic and co-curricular experiences, including instruction and training, advising, basic needs, and student services.
“Graduate and professional students are about a quarter of campus enrollment, but sometimes their contributions to the University of California can be overlooked,” said John King, Executive Director of Analysis and Policy for Graduate Studies. “The UCGSES is an important way to understand the successes, challenges, and distinct needs of these students, who contribute to the mission of the University of California at every level.”
The survey was administered by the University of California Office of Institutional Research and Academic Planning in partnership with UC Davis Graduate Studies and will be repeated every two years.
Shedding light on strengths, needs, and challenges
Of the 7,806 graduate and professional students enrolled at UC Davis at the time the survey was conducted, 2,025 (approximately 26%) participated in the 83-question survey. UCGSES completers were automatically entered into drawings for gift cards ranging in value from $25 to $200 as an incentive for high response rates. As of June 2021, more than $2,000 in prizes were awarded to graduate and professional students. In addition, Graduate Studies made a donation to the Graduate Student Association (GSA) Pantry for each survey submitted near the deadline.
“A virtue of the UCGSES is that it covers such a wide range of the student experience -- qualitative information we can’t get from student records alone,” said King, “Student records can tell us a lot about time to degree and completion rates, but this survey tells us what it feels like to students as they progress through their programs.”
Summaries and analysis of UGCSES data are available to the public on the Information Center on the University of California website.
Schools and colleges with research-related needs for UCGSES data are encouraged to contact the Analysis and Policy team in Graduate Studies. The Institutional Review Board must approve or determine the project to be exempt prior to the start of any research activities, and groups requesting data will be required to complete a data use agreement.
To schedule a meeting with the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to providing campuses with data on graduate student needs, the survey also lends insight into the unique challenges that students face during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Students who took this survey during an epochal period of pandemic and political unrest still had largely positive things to say about their educational experience at UC Davis. That shows remarkable resilience on their part, as well as from the faculty and staff in their programs,” added King.
Data allows for comparison across campuses, topics
Earlier this month, the University of California released data tables summarizing the results of student responses to UCGSES by topic and demographics. The longitudinal dashboard compares responses to the same questions across all the participating UC campuses. The data tables are available for review on the University of California UCGSES webpage.
After analyzing the campus-level data, the Analysis and Policy team in Graduate Studies has identified some of the relevant highlights, learning opportunities, and resources, which are detailed below.
UC Davis Result Highlights
Inclusion and Program Climate
UC Davis offers more than 100 graduate and professional programs, and the climate and inclusiveness of each graduate program play an important role in shaping the experience of their respective students. UCGSES respondents felt that students (95%) and faculty (89%) in their graduate program make thoughtful efforts to understand racial injustice. Respondents also reported that students (94%) and faculty (88%) made thoughtful efforts to advance inclusion in their graduate programs.
UC Davis Graduate Studies is actively addressing racial bias in graduate education and training with the Graduate Anti-Racism Initiative. Launched in 2020, the initiative engages graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, faculty and staff in re-envisioning graduate education and training that actively rejects racist assumptions and structures. To learn more about the initiative, visit the Graduate Anti-Racism Initiative webpage.
In response to the UCGSES survey, UC Davis and UC students alike noted that their respective campuses could benefit from increased community-building efforts, with 32% of UC Davis students and 38% of all UC graduate students disagreeing with the statement “there is a strong sense of community among the graduate students in the university."
One way Graduate Studies is supporting communities is the Graduate Diversity Community Dinners. Organized by the Graduate Diversity Officers in Graduate Studies, the monthly events aim to foster social interactions in an effort to make UC Davis feel more like home. The environment is relaxed and inviting and meant to be an opportunity for students to rejuvenate and build lasting connections. To learn more about the community dinners, visit the Graduate Diversity Community Dinners webpage.
Program Quality, Advising, and Mentorship
Much of a student’s success in graduate school is dependent on the quality of their chosen program, its curriculum, and the mentoring and advising relationships that are built throughout their academic experience. At UC Davis, graduate advisors, major professors, graduate program coordinators, and Graduate Studies senior academic advisors all comprise a network designed to support graduate students.
87% of UC Davis UCGSES respondents expressed satisfaction with the quality of the curriculum in their graduate program. Similarly, 87% of respondents rated the quality of teaching in their program as excellent (30%), very good (34%) or good (23%). UC Davis graduate students also reported high levels of satisfaction with primary academic advisors, general mentorship and advising (82%), and support with thesis/dissertation research (86%),
Faculty-graduate student mentoring is one of the Graduate Studies’ top priorities, and the division has developed several new mentorship programs over the past several years. Earlier this year, Graduate Studies formally launched the Graduate Mentoring Initiative (GMI), a new mentoring program designed to foster an engaged culture of faculty-graduate student mentoring across all academic disciplines. Over the summer, GMI faculty reviewed their UCGSES results from their programs and explored ways to enhance inclusive mentoring. Graduate Studies also introduced the Faculty Academy of Graduate Student Well-Being, a new initiative focused on training faculty to deliver graduate student seminars on mental health and well-being within graduate programs. For more information on Graduate Studies’ mentoring programs and initiatives, visit the Mentoring webpage.
Academic Progress and Academic Development
At UC Davis, programs play an active role in monitoring student academic progress. Advisors, major professors, and graduate program coordinators help ensure that students are meeting degree milestones, like passing required coursework, exams, and advancing to candidacy. Faculty advisors help each student make a plan for success and assist with documenting student progress by completing annual Student Progress Assessments.
Overall, UC Davis graduate students report feeling positive about their academic progress. 88% of UCGSES respondents from UC Davis reported feeling “on track to complete my degree program on time,” and 91% noted that they felt “well-prepared for the work required to complete'' their graduate programs.
However, 26% of UC Davis graduate students rated their preparation for grant writing as poor or very poor. In response to this known preparation gap, Graduate Studies has partnered with the Interdisciplinary Research Support team in the Office of Research to develop training materials for the graduate student and postdoc community, and are collaborating on a Grant Writing 101 workshop on December 14, 2021. The Graduate Studies GradPathways Institute also has a long-standing partnership with the University Writing Program on grant writing, with another workshop planned for spring quarter.
Mental Health and Life-Work Balance
Most survey respondents report that they have been able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, with 73% of students agreeing with the statement “I am able to balance my work and family commitments.” UC Davis has continued to invest in resources for graduate students and their families, ramping up programs over the course of the pandemic. Last year, UC Berkeley and UCSF's CareBubbles platform, which is a parent-to-parent resource to help the UC community members meet their child care needs. The WorkLife office, in coordination with Graduate Studies and the Financial Aid office, also continues to offer grants and loans to students with dependent children to assist with child care expenses.
The rigors of graduate school can take a psychological toll on students. Graduate students often report struggling to manage school, finances, and self-care. Across the University of California campuses, 38% of UCGSES respondents show depressive symptoms, while 36% of UC Davis graduate students who took the UCGSES met the threshold for depressive symptoms. This is slightly higher than 35% of UC graduate and professional students reporting depressive symptoms in the 2016 Graduate Well-Being Survey.
Counseling Services (part of Student Health and Counseling Services) provides student-centered mental health services, advocacy, outreach, and consultation to promote psychological well-being and academic success. Meeting with a counselor can help students clarify issues, explore options, and cope more effectively. Counseling services are offered via secure video conferencing or by telephone consultation. Graduate students needing support are encouraged to schedule an appointment via the Health-e-Messaging secure portal.
Most UC Davis graduate students receive some form of financial support, ranging from competitive fellowships that pay tuition and stipends, to targeted grants that assist with foreign language study, dissertation research, and conference travel, to emergency grants and awards designed to help students manage student loan debt.
Although many professional students rely on loans to pay for their education, students in academic programs frequently receive full tuition and earnings from academic employment as teaching assistants or researchers. Most students rely on multiple sources of support, with a majority of UCGSES respondents receiving both fellowship support and income from academic employment.
Graduate Studies awards more than $40 million in internal and external fellowships annually. Each fall, Graduate Studies conducts an Internal Fellowship competition for continuing academic graduate students. The application for 2022-23 Continuing Academic Graduate Student Internal Fellowships will be open until January 15, 2022.
Though many graduate students receive fellowship and employment funding, 39% of academic doctoral students and 61% of academic master’s students reported personal savings as their main source of financial support. More concerningly, 34% of respondents reported that financial hardship had impeded their success in their graduate program. UC Davis has been making progress in addressing basic needs through Aggie Compass, a resource center that opened in 2018. Aggie Compass provides financial support resources for students, including immediate financial assistance, social service resources, budgeting information, and other financial resources. Graduate students can also inquire about support resources by emailing email@example.com.
Post-Graduation Career Preparation
In graduate education, professional development typically refers to training and development of employment-related skills outside the curriculum of a graduate program. Professional development training bridges the gap between graduate education and the post-graduation academic, industry, government, and non-profit job markets
At UC Davis, graduate students may receive professional preparation from within their programs, from campus resources, or a combination of both. Most (85%) UC Davis respondents felt that their graduate program has been supportive of their desired post-graduation career, and 76% felt upbeat about their post-graduation career prospects.
UC Davis graduate students have more professional development resources than ever. The GradPathways Institute for Professional Development recently launched a new badging-based tracking system that will help graduate students further enhance and communicate the skills they acquire in graduate school. By acquiring digital badges connected to activities and assessments, users can monitor their progress through a variety of micro-credentials, share achievements and progress with mentors and potential employers, and develop the vocabulary to transparently communicate the skills they develop in graduate school. Graduate students can learn more about the new Pathways micro-credentials on the GradPathways Institute website.
Only 64% of UC Davis respondents felt prepared for the process of actually searching for a job post-graduation. The Internship and Career Center at UC Davis had dedicated career advisors who specialize in helping graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in their career search. Through one-on-one advising, graduate students can get support with career exploration, application document review, job searching, interview preparation, and negotiation. To learn more or to schedule advising, please visit the ICC website.
- John King, Executive Director of Analysis and Policy for Graduate Studies, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Elizabeth Lambert, Senior Director of External Relations and Strategic Communications, email@example.com
- University of California Institutional Research and Academic Planning, firstname.lastname@example.org