Conflict Resolution

Graduate students have many jobs over the course of their career -- student, teacher, research scientist, etc. Navigating these tasks can occasionally be difficult, so we have compiled a list of advice. If you aren't sure who to talk to, you can always contact Jennifer Ferrar, the Staff Graduate Advisor, or the Faculty Graduate Advisor Dirk Bouwmeester.

Regarding Faculty Mentors

New graduate students are assigned a graduate mentor to help them choose appropriate coursework, to consult on various issues, and to allow them to form a personal relationship with one of the faculty. The mentor will follow the student's progress and assist if difficulties arise. If you feel that you are not comfortable with/ not getting the help you need from your graduate mentor, or if you simply would like a mentor with different expertise, you should request to switch mentors. Contact the Faculty Graduate Liason Dirk Bouwmeester to make the request.

Regarding your TA responsibilities

If you have a concern about a class you are TA-ing, for example, you think you are working too many hours as a TA (more than 20 hours for a 50% TA or more than 10 hours for a 25% TA) , here is a list of steps to follow:

Figure out what the department norm is for your class

  1. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk with the professor for the class to see if the problem can be solved simply by bringing it to their attention.
  2. Talk to the head TA, Dan Balick. He's been a TA for a few classes himself and knows what you should be doing. Part of the role of head TA is to offer advice and to mediate conflicts.
  3. Contact one of the TA mentors (Ken Henisey and Laura Melling). They are both experienced TAs, and they are here to give you advice!
  4. Chat with Jennifer Ferrar the graduate advisor. She also knows the departmental rules, and can be an advocate for you.
  5. Contact one of the members of the GradLife committee.
  6. For students taking the TA training class, talk about the issue during class.

Make the department/ the professor aware of your complaint

  1. Contact the department chair or vice-chair. Part of the job for Mark Srednicki and Beth Gwinn is to make sure that department policies are followed by grads and faculty. They can approach a professor about your concerns if that becomes necessary.
  2. If you do not wish to speak with them directly, ask the head TA to inform the department chair or vice-chair on your behalf.
  3. If you do not feel comfortable talking first to someone in the department, you can also contact the ombuds office. They specialize in mediation services, and are completely confidential.

Regarding your graduate research advisor

Your research advisor is critical to your success as a graduate student. You have a responsibility to work diligently and communicate with your advisor, while your advisor has a responsibility to help you along the path to completing your Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Because this relationship is so important, it is hard to know what do when something goes wrong, or what to do if you just want to switch research advisors. Here are some points of contact and tips for what to do next (the earlier, the better.)

  1. If you are comfortable doing so, talk to your advisor about your concerns. (In some cases, this is too intimidating or simply impossible.)
  2. Find a neutral physics faculty member. One suggestion is the Faculty Graduate Advisor, Dirk Bouwmeester, or your faculty mentor. We have also compiled a list of professors who have volunteered to be informal mediators for conflict, or you could talk to a faculty mentor. The faculty member you choose should be open minded and willing to be neutral - listening to your issues, not necessarily taking your side, but understanding your points. Before you begin, you may wish to request that he/she please ask for your permission before discussing these issues with your advisor. That way, you can say "no" to retain privacy, or say "yes" in order to try to resolve the issue with your advisor. It's a good idea to solicit the opinion of this professor as to whether your concern is something that most grads deal with, or a more substantial problem that needs to be resolved. You can ask the neutral third party to mediate a meeting between you and your advisor, too.
  3. Meet with the department chair or vice-chair. Again, the goal is to find a neutral third party who can help mediate. As chair and vice-chair, Mark Srednicki and Beth Gwinn know that you have an expectation of privacy - they will not share your concerns with anyone else without your permission , and only then with the goal of resolving conflict.
  4. If you don 't know who to talk to, Kerri O'Connor is a great resource for helping you find a neutral faculty member.
  5. A completely different option is the ombuds office They specialize in mediation services, and are completely confidential.

    The folks in the ombuds office are trained in conflict resolution and have had a great deal of experience in working with people who are very upset. Very few (none?) of our faculty have had such training, and while a few are experienced in dealing with graduate students who are in truly distressing circumstances, most are not. And most faculty, like most people, find conflict and dealing with distressed people to be quite upsetting.

    Going to the ombuds office for early advice can be an excellent option. All other issues aside, such a consultation provides people with an opportunity to vent and to hear themselves as they do so, in the presence of someone who is sympathetic and completely dissociated from future professional interactions. That opportunity to hear oneself can be very useful in the process of formulating rational thoughts about difficult situations, which could then lead to better and faster resolutions of issues with faculty. In some circumstances, it might be useful for a student to go to the ombuds with a faculty member they have enlisted for support, to get ideas about how to approach problems (or, of course, to go with a faculty member with whom they are having a conflict).

    One potential drawback to the ombuds office is that they are not involved with physics as a culture, and therefore might not be as familiar with the professor-student relationship in the department.

  6. You may wish to discuss your issues with other graduate students or postdocs in your group, to determine if they are having similar issues or if they have suggestions. Or, you can always contact a member of the Grad Life committee.

Regarding student life

If you have a suggestion to improve graduate student life, please share it with the graduate student life committee, or post a comment on the graduate student forum.