DURHAM, N.C. – Graduate school is challenging enough that students shouldn’t have to contend with harassment, discrimination or bullying on the way to completing their PhDs.

That’s the rationale behind an innovative new project being launched this year at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The project, which was developed with support from the Dean’s Office and the Duke-wide Re-imagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) initiative, aims to empower and protect students by establishing standards for productive and respectful relationships between students and their faculty advisors, mentors and co-workers.

It provides students with clearly delineated avenues for reporting their concerns if they feel they are the subject of harassment or other negative power dynamics.

It’s also spurring the development of new anti-harassment training materials and resources that specifically address issues and situations unique to the doctoral student experience.

“For graduate students, harassment often manifests itself as a workplace issue in addition to a social issue, so questions about our legal protections or the best way to report a problem can be a little unclear,” said Kirsten Overdahl, a doctoral student in the University Program in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health, who, as a RiDE Fellow this summer, led efforts to research the issue and recommend how the school can address it.

“The proactive measures we recommend in our report directly support the guiding principles of the Nicholas School’s 2017-2022 Strategic Plan and are offered in the spirit of actively striving to dismantle negative power dynamics and build inclusive, equity-driven, antiracist infrastructure for our learning and working environment,” she said.

The measures, which reflect input from faculty, staff and students, include:

  • Providing all doctoral students with annual training on three core issues – anti-harassment and discrimination; anti-racism; and power dynamics – using materials and modules tailored to the specific workplace concerns of doctoral students at the Nicholas School.
  • Requiring faculty, postdocs and staff to receive targeted training on the same three topics by Fall 2023 and renew their training in each topic every three years.
  • Developing an interactive flow chart that helps students understand their legal rights and identify their best options for responding to or reporting problems they may be experiencing with advisors, mentors or co-workers, including which university or school offices they should contact. This document would be distributed to all faculty, post-docs, staff and students in a format that could be downloaded and saved as a personal resource on an individual computer.
  • Encouraging faculty to create mentorship agreements with their doctoral students that spell out expectations and establish a protocol for frank but respectful communications if problems arise. At the same time, students should be trained how to maximize their relationships with mentors.

“These actions will enhance the productivity of our students, improve our research and advance the climate and culture of respect and inclusivity at our school, so we all will benefit,” said Nicolas Cassar, senior associate dean for research and doctoral programs.

“Graduate students expect to be challenged intellectually and held to exceptionally high standards, but they also deserve to be respected and treated equitably,” said Overdahl. “These recommended measures can help ensure that we’re striving for a graduate environment at the Nicholas School that is challenging without being toxic.”

Overdahl was one of two Nicholas School PhD students selected this year to take part in the university-wide RiDE fellowship program, which is funded by the Provost’s Office.

Joel Meyer, Truman and Nellie Semans/Alex Brown and Sons Associate Professor of Molecular Environmental Toxicology, served as Overdahl’s RiDE mentor and co-authored the new report with her.