Section Editor: Alison Cox
CREATING A DOCTORAL ASSOCIATION WITHIN YOUR GRADAUTE PROGRAM
Having a formally recognized Doctoral Student Association within your graduate program has many benefits. Beyond providing a space where doctoral students can support one another and create fruitful social networks among the faculty, the overall purpose of our Doctoral Student Association (DSA) here at the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Criminal Justice (SCJ) is to support the teaching, research, and service missions of the school and enhance the professional development and collegiality of graduate students at the doctoral level. Originally created by PhD student Brandon Sullivan, our DSA has been running for a full three years now and continues to maintain a strong presence within the MSU School of Criminal Justice.
My intentions in sharing who we are, what we do, and some of the additional benefits of our group is in hopes that other graduates will feel inspired to create a doctoral student association within their own academic program. Of course, with any student organization, challenges and frustrations can also arise. Thus, I also intended to discuss some of the challenges we have faced in the three years of our existence and how we have at least attempted to overcome them.
While we are not a formally recognized student organization with MSU, we are formally recognized within our department, the School of Criminal Justice. Formal recognition as a student organization with the university requires a financial account be made, though this account only has to retain a minimum balance of $5.00. Instead, we opted to keep our group within our department, as it is exclusively for SCJ doctoral students, and created an official set of by-laws that we abide by. Meetings are held once a month during the academic year and are run by members of the Executive Committee (EC), which is made up of doctoral students who are elected to these positions.
Executive Committee positions include President; Vice President – Student Affairs; Vice President – International Students; Vice President – Media; and Secretary. While each position requires a certain set of responsibilities, each can be summed up briefly.
The President presides over all meetings and has the authority to call special meetings; keeps members informed of all relevant memos, letters, reports, and current events; work closely with faculty members, staff, and doctoral students to promote the interests of doctoral students and enhance the SCJ PhD program. More importantly, the President serves as the PhD student representative on the SCJ School Advisory Council (SAC) and attends each of those meetings.
The Vice President of Student Affairs is responsible for organizing social and professional events for doctoral students; ensure that elected officers, advisors, and members carry out the Constitution of the DSA; take over the functions of the President in the event of permanent absence of the President; and work closely with doctoral students to promote collegiality, address concerns, and inform the chair on issues relevant to doctoral students.
As our program hosts a number of international students, the Vice President of International Students is responsible for attending to issues relevant to the international students within the SCJ doctoral program; participant in the organization of international colloquium events; keep members informed of relevant information and current events, as well as similar roles to other EC positions. More importantly, this position must be held by an International student.
The Vice President of Media is primarily responsible for managing and updating content to the DSA online community, which is an extensive resource. Here is where we store “living” documents and resources related to the organization, writing, teaching, research, professional development, job applications, and information related to local events, housing options, and things to do in and around the city.
Finally, the Secretary is responsible for recording and maintaining minutes of each meeting, retaining copies of prior meetings, recording attendance, and to maintain the organization of files and various correspondence between the EC and other members of the association.
All positions of the Executive Committee require that doctoral students have been a student for no less than two years and no more than five years (or in the case of the VP of International Students, no more than six years). In addition to EC positions, all DSA members are encouraged to actively participate in SCJ governing committees which include the School Advisory Council (SAC), Academic Policy, Awards, By-laws, Curriculum, International, and the Hearing Board Committee. This is to ensure student representation across each committee within the School of Criminal Justice, but also so that members can stay better informed as to the comings and goings of the program.
During its tenure thus far, there have been several benefits to having a Doctoral Student Association. First, there is student representation among the faculty. This aids in forming a channel of communication between faculty members and the Director of the school, as well as overall support. This has led to increased knowledge of issues going on within the school including faculty positions, new hires, updated curriculum and coursework being offered. There has also been increased levels of support and social capital among doctoral students as having this association has helped us get through completing our coursework, writing manuscripts for journal submission, performing various types of research – both quantitative and qualitative, identify teaching resources, prepare for the job market, and support each other through our dissertation proposals and defenses. We have also sponsored annual events within our school such as Professional Development Day and ASC practice sessions. Each require cooperation and support from faculty members, which in turn facilitates further recognition and support.
However, like all organization, we have been met with some challenges. There have been misconceptions of time commitment from other graduate students or the perception that holding an Executive Committee position within the DSA, or simply being a member, will take up a lot time. From time to time, we believe this has led to low attendance of meetings from other doctoral students. This is a difficult issue to address as we know time is a precious commodity within graduate student life. Low attendance can also directly lead to another issue we have had since its inception – the longevity of the Executive Board and which students hold these positions. We have recognized that the EC tends to be made up of the same doctoral students holding the same position until their tenure runs out, or they graduate from the program and move on. One of our major concerns is that once current members of the EC graduate, the association may not continue under the direction of future cohorts. We have also experienced a lack of funding due to restrictive university policies for on-campus and internal events related to the department. This issue could perhaps be addressed if members were required to pay dues or engage in various fundraising efforts, but that would not help address the misconceptions and perceptions of time commitment. While funding isn’t completely necessary to create or maintain a doctoral student association, it would be nice to have and utilize funds to benefit the association.
Regardless of these challenges, members of the current Executive Committee, including myself, believe in the mission of our Doctoral Student Association and stand by the benefits that we have retained over the years. If you are interested in starting your own version within your academic program, I hope this brief introduction and discussion has provided the foundation to do so. Should you have any questions, or would like a copy of our by-laws to review, I am happy to answer them and pass along this helpful information.