For many students, entering graduate school presents a world of new adjustments. Some grapple with conducting research on their own for the first time, while others struggle with the lack of unity they once felt in their undergraduate program. Some even do this all while raising a family. McGill Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) serves to ease the hardships that McGill graduate students face in the day-to-day triumphs and trials on the road to completing their degrees.
“We really want to make sure that students feel well-represented and a part of the community,” said Sahil Kumar, PGSS internal affairs coordinator and MSc candidate, said. “[We] connect graduate students to each other, and connect them to opportunities and funding, and provide a really welcoming and pleasant atmosphere.”
The role of PGSS in the lives of McGill graduate students is similar that of a student society at the undergraduate level.
“I think the needs of students are generally the same,” said Devin Mills, PGSS academic affairs coordinator and doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology. "[We] want quality educational experiences; [we] want hands on experience. We want affordable education. We want opportunities to socialize and get involved [….] These aren’t dissimilar from undergraduates.”
However, the inherent differences in the structure of graduate school make PGSS’ duties unique. Unlike undergraduate programs, where most students spend a majority of their time on one of McGill’s campuses, graduate students are separated based on where their research is located. Here, campus is no longer the hub of student life.
“Students are […] spread out a lot more,” Kumar explained. “There are students at The Douglas [Mental Health University Institute], there are students at the [Lady Davis Institute research arm of the] Jewish General [Hospital], there are students at the Montreal General [Hospital], there are students everywhere doing graduate studies, and so no one is really on campus all the time.”
Kumar notes the struggle that this can impose on students who spend most of their time away from McGill’s campus.
“For me, it’s very difficult because now I’m not on campus anymore, and now I kind of see the struggle that Mac campus always had as an undergrad,” Kumar said. “Being like, ‘We’re so far away, we don’t have access to the same events to the same events or services,’ or whatever is going on on campus.”
Unlike most of McGill’s undergraduate student societies, PGSS can’t base all of their events on the downtown campus if they want to make them accessible to their entire student body.
“A lot of our scheduled events need to be over longer periods of time or need to be evening, or need to be when they’re accessible, so that kind of limits the amount of stuff we can do,” Kumar said.
Another unique element of graduate student life that the PGSS has to account for is the relationship each student holds with their advising professor. While course-based graduate programs are available, the majority of students earn their degrees solely by conducting research under a McGill professor, which can be a point of anxiety.
Through its programming, PGSS aims to address the need students have for guidance in developing a positive relationship with their research advisor.
“The division between student and professor—that relationship really changes,” said Katherine Hales, a second year MA student who sits on the PGSS internal affairs committee. “There’s a whole bunch of initiatives that are being taken […] called Grad Connect Cafe [that] happen once a month. [Students] talk about things, so students get to hear answers from other students, and then everyone gets to talk about these things like ‘How do you talk to your supervisor?’”
After getting over any these initial anxieties, however, a lot of students find comfort in the close relationship they establish with a professor.
“[My supervisor] really took the time to listen to my concerns and support me,” Lerona Lewis, PhD Candidate in Educational Studies, said. “I think as a student if your supervisor shows concern for other areas of your life, even if there are minor setbacks, you know that this person really cares about your overall success as a student [….] I would say that this sense of caring is a key component of a good student- advisor relationship.”
A key difference between graduate and undergraduate programs at McGill is the composition of the student body. While most undergraduate students are within several years of age of one another, the age range of graduate students is much wider, and includes some students who are also parents.
“Being a parent and also a student can be challenging for many reasons,” Laura Risk, doctoral candidate in Musicology, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “There is also a lot of stress around time management. It’s hard to find the time to do everything, especially when your kids are not yet in daycare or school.”
PGSS tailors a lot of its programming to meet the needs of students who have to balance their research with raising a child.
“Student parents are a big part of the graduate postdoctoral community,” Kumar said. “[PGSS] hosts a lot of family-friendly events, because a lot of our students and our membership are a lot older, and maybe have kids who are dependent; so we try to cater to a family-friendly atmosphere when we do these excursions.”
Additionally, PGSS offers a service to student parents called “Study Sundays.” Once a month, on a Sunday, student parents are invited to drop their children off at Thomson House for an afternoon of free babysitting, giving them space to study and research on campus while their children are being cared for. PGSS events and services catered toward student parents also allow them to network with other parents who understand the challenges of balancing graduate school with having a family.
“When my kids were very young, I went to Study Saturday [as they were previously called] almost every month,” Risk wrote. “It was wonderful—my kids usually loved the activities and I had 3 solid hours of study time.”
The physical separation and the vast diversity of student lifestyles at the graduate level can make developing relationships with other students a challenge. This year, PGSS began doing more to address this lack of cohesiveness in the student body.
“You can meet people in your department, but it’s not like in undergrad where everyone’s around the same age and everyone’s like, ‘This is brand new to everybody,’” Hales said. “In grad school, if you want to find those opportunities, you have to seek them out a little bit more [….] It’s kind of more like “Here are these things, and you’re all adults, and you can figure it out.’”
Mills also noted how this lack of unity results in a disconnect between students and the school community.
“There’s not necessarily the sense of belonging towards McGill that would require them to only socialize at McGill,” Mills said. “Graduate students are more associated with their program […] their socialization does tend to be within their program.”
To garner new students’ sense of camaraderie and affinity for the university, PGSS planned its first ever two-week graduate orientation this year. Noticing the previously poorlstructure of graduate orientation, Kumar intended to change this upon arriving in office.
“The platform I ran on for this position was that I wanted to make an orientation week for students, [to offer] social interaction [and] networking opportunities,” Kumar said. “We basically created these two weeks of orientation that never really existed before. We offered social events and we offered chances for students to interact and that was a big thing.”
Despite all of these efforts, many graduate students still struggle with getting involved, because they find it difficult to take a break from their research.
“I think a lot of times people in grad school feel like they can’t do things outside of school,” Hales said. “They feel like they should be researching, or they should be reading—and everyone kind of falls in the cycle of ‘I don’t have any time.’”
With its accessible events, PGSS hopes to give students services that will facilitate their research, rather than distract from it. Other programming gives students a venue through which they can momentarily take breaks from their work, knowing that occasionally, stopping to relax boosts productivity and is essential to overall success.
“Grad school does become more of a full-time job requirement, so you don’t have as much flexibility,” Mills said. “I would stress that there’s an important balance between work and play [….] Just like you need to have it in undergrad, you need to have it in grad school.”