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Orientation Day - Student Paperwork

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

Oh, boy! You just finished all of that wonderful paperwork from HR, and now you're ready to start an exciting new graduate school adventure, right?

Hold on, there. As you may have gleaned in the previous article, institutions of higher learning depend on forming cut-throat contracts with their employees, as well as their students. This ensures the institution and your graduate advisor has the legal authority to all but own you. One of the major goals of orientation is to overwhelm you with a sheer volume of paperwork, and to rush you into signing a bulk of it. Don't relax just yet. Anything that you sign puts you "on the hook". Although it is exhausting, I cannot stress it enough --- read the fine print! You'll be surprised what employers (including your new graduate school home) will try to slip past you.

Now that I've beaten the dead horse on that subject, let's get down to business. The following items are pretty standard in a typical graduate school student file tucked away in the Office of the Registrar:

  1. Statement of Purpose You can basically expect all most, if not all of your PhD and/or Master's student paperwork to be included in your file, including your statement of purpose. There shouldn't be anything too menacing in here, after all, you wrote it, and you got accepted into the program. However, you might want to take a look at this from time to time and ask yourself, "Is what I'm doing in-line with what I wanted to do, originally? Am I willing to keep an open mind or lower my expectations?" Just remind yourself of these things from time to time, in case you feel like you're drifting.

  2. Personal Information Form All pretty standard stuff here. You're basically going to have your full name, address (at the time of your application), emergency contact information, US citizenship status, program information, institutional information, and whether you have any institutional relationships (do you personally know any of the other employees/faculty?) and personal e-mail address.

  3. Educational History Again, pretty standard stuff. Every graduate school application will require you to list all of the other institutions (graduate or undergraduate) that you have attended. You might even have to include things like letter grades and cumulative GPA. Or, you might just have to show you have taken specific pre-requisites in your undergraduate career.

  4. Standardized Testing Depending on the program, this may or may not be optional. Several highly specialized programs such as medical school or law school will require you to take a special graduate school test, such as the MCAT or LCAT, respectively. For more generic programs, the GRE is generally accepted. If you are a foreign national, you may have been required to complete additional standardized tests such as the TOEFL. In any case, you have been accepted into grad school, which also means these scores were also accepted.

  5. Military Information More standard stuff. Basically, are you a veteran, or currently serving in the military? Make sure this is accurate though, as I will discuss later, under the Civil Rights Act, being a veteran gives you protections against discrimination.

  6. Required Supporting Materials Most graduate programs require letters of recommendation. Generally, it is preferred to get these from faculty mentors during your undergraduate studies. In any case, these will be kept as part of your student file.

  7. Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) It is federal law to be informed of your rights under FERPA. Basically, some things in your file will remain confidential and accessible only to you or the registrar. However, certain other things will be made available for public use. We will discuss more in a later article.

  8. Admission Verification This basically contains a checklist to confirm you have satisfied all pre-matriculation requirements. Again, verify that this is accurate and correct. Generally, it is easy enough to make corrections, but it could be problematic later, if you encounter some of the ethical issues we will later discuss.

  9. Confirmation E-mail Basically, this is kept in your records as proof that you have been accepted into your program.

  10. Offer Details Proof that you have accepted the program offer, its terms and conditions for acceptance, and the required technical standards. If you are not familiar with these policies/agreements, make sure you review them, especially the required technical standards. If you need to request accommodations later through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), this could potentially be used against you, even if it is your right to seek these accommodations. Review these contracts! You agreed to them!

  11. Institutional Transcripts Again, pretty standard stuff as part of your pre-matriculation package. There's nothing to worry about here. It's all matter of fact. Just ensure all of your transcripts are actually on file.

  12. Resume/CV Yes, even your resume/CV will be included in your student file. Even though you are a student, many institutions of higher learning consider graduate studies a job/occupation.

  13. IT Policy Called "BioSig" at my institution, this agreement basically tells you that any and all personal information needed throughout your graduate studies will be secure and protected. However, you may be charged fees, as applicable for any changes to your personal information.

  14. Student Honor Code As a student, you will be required to follow a "Code of Honor". Essentially, as long as you do not do anything dishonest, such as plagiarize material, or cheat in academic coursework, you should be fine. Do be advised however, that graduate student advisors can be unpredictable, and may not necessarily abide by the same standards. In some toxic mentor relationships I have witnessed, I have seen students being accused by their mentors of violating the honor code, as a means to "throw them under the bus". Be mindful of this. Also, make sure you review your school's honor code from time to time.

  15. Technical Standards Again, review these requirements. As mentioned before, this can be potentially used against you, especially if you are seeking student and/or workplace accommodations. Know your rights, but be prepared for potential toxicity.

  16. Student Accounts Receivable Policy This is the other piece to the puzzle that HR needs to ensure you are "on the hook" as an employee-student. Basically, by signing this form, you agree to receive payment in exchange for signing away your intellectual and compete rights. Again, ask yourself carefully if you're willing to do this.

  17. Student Health Insurance Check to make sure this is correct. Did you accept the school's graduate student health insurance? If not, make sure that a health insurance waiver is on file. If not, your PhD stipend will automatically be garnished to pay for the student health insurance plan. If you have adequate health insurance elsewhere, you DO NOT want this! Either way, check!

  18. Occupational Health and Safety Requirements Ensure this is in your student file, especially if you are going to be working a lab or other type of potentially hazardous environment. Review these occupational health and safety requirements from time to time - do not expect the school and/or your supervisor to be up to OSHA standards. You could receive a surprise state or federal inspection when you least expect it. To protect yourself, your lab mates, and your mentor's reputation, make sure you are well-prepared for any "surprises". Ultimately, ensure that you and the rest of your lab members are being safe! Life-threatening accidents usually happen as a result of poor or insufficient training. Protect yourself and those around you.

Phew! Your writing hand must be cramping up by now, and your eyes bleeding, and brain throbbing. But don't relax just yet. Always remain vigilant. There will be plenty of more forms to sign throughout your academic career, and plenty of more opportunities to be contractually ensnared.

You are soon about to embark on a journey that will push your mind, soul and body to the limit. Keep your wits about you, keep track of your mental health (don't count on the school or your advisor to do this for you), and try your best to save any documents and notes from hereon out. By now, your student accounts should be all active and ready to go. SAVE EVERYTHING.

In our next article, we will start our next module that will teach you the basics of record keeping, including meetings, phone conversations, e-mails, and everything in between.

When in doubt, save it. Hope for the best, but don't shoot yourself in the foot.

In closing, I know these last couple of articles have not been very "exciting", but we will soon get to the good stuff. Stay tuned, and hope you won't have to use any of the information you learn in the upcoming articles. If you do have to use it though, you will at least know how to protect yourself, and perhaps teach others how to protect themselves.

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