Complete coverage of Commencement Day at Johns Hopkins University

New PhD student advisory committee to guide student experience

15 students from JHU's seven PhD-granting schools met for first time in November

An essential part of Nancy Kass' role as vice provost for graduate and professional education is talking to graduate students to find out what they think the university is doing well and what they think could be done to improve their experience here.

"We get these amazing students, and we want them to be productive, and happy, and feel good about what they're doing, and then be prepared to do really wonderful things afterwards," Kass says.

To that end, Kass recently launched the PhD Student Advisory Committee, a group of 15 students from the seven Johns Hopkins University schools with PhD programs: Arts and Sciences, Education, Engineering, Medicine, Nursing, Public Health, and SAIS. The group met for the first time Nov. 28 and will establish monthly meetings in the new year, Kass says.

"We get these amazing students, and we want them to be productive, and happy, and feel good about what they're doing, and then be prepared to do really wonderful things afterwards."
Nancy Kass
Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education

Reaching out to students to gather feedback is nothing new to Kass: Since joining the Provost's Office in July 2017, she has routinely met with student groups and caught up with individual students over coffee.

"But I really felt like I needed an ongoing group of students to be a sounding board for me," she says. "As I start to work on initiatives, I want to be able to share drafts of things with a group of students and say, 'Does this seem like we're going in the right direction? Can you tell me if this would be realistic in your own program? Do you have thoughts of other people I should be talking to?'"

Committee member Mary Langan represents SAIS, where she earned her master's degree in international economics and development studies in 2011. She is currently a second-year PhD student in the African studies program who plans to conduct her dissertation research on administrative redistricting and its impact on intercommunal conflict in South Sudan.

Langan has worked as a humanitarian aid worker in South Sudan, Iraq, and Syria, and as a development aid worker in Uganda, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Nicaragua. By working with Kass and the committee, she says she hopes to help SAIS students be better connected to their peers across the university.

"My primary goal on this committee is to continue to promote the goals of 'One Hopkins' by serving as a voice for SAIS' perspectives and finding ways to integrate SAIS' perspective into universitywide initiatives," Langan says. "There are an incredible number of exciting programs and academic pursuits happening on the main campus, and I would like SAIS students to be as well positioned as possible to take advantage of these opportunities and to contribute our own research to the larger campus."

Kass sees the new student committee as a complement to the Doctor of Philosophy Board, which is made up of faculty from JHU's PhD-granting schools and has three student representatives. One of the board's responsibilities is to deeply review each PhD program at Hopkins on a six-year cycle. Learning what works for one program informs recommendations for other programs, and the same synergy could apply to the student advisory committee's endeavors.

"Because we do such a deep dive into each program, we can get pretty granular about some best practices, as well as concerns," Kass says. "It's a wonderful opportunity to hear about something innovative that a program is doing, or quite honestly, just something they seem to be doing better than average. It allows us to, when we review subsequent programs, say, 'Hey how about this? Have you thought about this? We reviewed another program that does this, and we thought it was a really cool idea.'"

Kass says she was pleased with the students' candor and constructiveness at the first meeting, when the students spent time getting to know one another and began to talk about issues and concerns they might address. Mentoring was a recurring topic among students, Kass says.

"I want to highlight voices of students at the school, particularly students who are underrepresented in academic settings and may not have access to decision-makers within the school."
Yousra Yusuf
PhD student, School of Public Health

She adds that the committee will discuss global issues that affect all Hopkins PhD students, but it won't take away any program's autonomy.

"I told the students that I certainly wanted them to feel like this is a place and space where they can raise things that they want to be on the university's radar," Kass says. "But most decisions about degree programs in the university are made very locally. Whether you're getting a PhD in English, or a PhD in Biochemistry at the School of Public Health, or a PhD at SAIS, the decision about your curriculum, the decision about how mentors are assigned, the decision about funding, all that happens at the level of your school, not at the level of the university."

Promoting an inclusive environment and equipping the schools to enhance diversity are key aims for committee member Yousra Yusuf, a PhD student in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the School of Public Health.

"I want to highlight voices of students at the school, particularly students who are underrepresented in academic settings and may not have access to decision-makers within the school," Yusuf says. "A key area I hope to influence is to improve the mentorship climate provided to students at the school through the creation of clear guidelines and strategies for faculty and students."

David Ottenheimer, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of Neuroscience at the School of Medicine, says his program is based on the medical campus, but his lab is on the Homewood campus, giving him a sense of the variety of experiences PhD students can have and the inconsistencies from school to school, including stipends, health insurance, and opportunities for professional development and social engagement.

"I want to get involved with the committee both to give a voice to students like me who need to juggle multiple campuses and also to lend my uniquely broad perspective on what doing a PhD at Hopkins can be like," Ottenheimer says. "Generally I hope we can find a way to harness the unique strengths and resources in some programs and schools to help address or find solutions for issues in other PhD programs. I also hope we can find issues that are common across schools and make sure we tackle those together with an institutional approach."