MPA self-help guide to problem resolution

By Jenny Reeder, MPA Executive Officer

Many students come to MPA with problems concerning their courses, departments or supervisors. MPA staff most often work behind the scenes, assisting students with strategies to enable them to solve their own problems. Here are some suggestions MPA staff have found useful in assisting postgraduates to work through problems they may encounter. 

1. Identify the problem 


This may sound obvious but sometimes it’s the most difficult part. Postgrads can arrive at the office with a long list of woes. Can one primary problem be identified? Additional problems may be secondary and will disappear when the primary problem is sorted out. If there are a number of separate problems, start to work on the one that is causing you the most grief.

2. Establish the norm 

Is the complaint reasonable? Talk to other postgrads about their experiences. You might find out that what you thought was a problem, is generally accepted around the university (eg you’ve had a room to yourself for a year and now the department has moved in two other students!). On the other hand, you might find out that what you’ve been accepting as normal, is totally outrageous. If you need to get a university-wide perspective on things, ask the MPA staff.

3. Know you’re not alone 

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you must be the only postgrad with such a difficult and complicated problem. Everyone else you know seems to be breezing along, right? Wrong. Postgrads with difficulties are often reluctant to discuss their problems with anyone else because they fear there may be repercussions. Many postgrads arriving at the MPA office feel a sense of relief to learn that MPA deals with these situations all the time. No, it’s not just you!

4. Decide on a satisfactory outcome

What would you like to achieve? Think about possible and realistic solutions. It’s always more productive to be able to offer a solution along with the complaint. Write down the main points so that it is clear in your mind what the issues are. Depending on the nature of the problem, you may have to decide whether the consequences of raising it within your department will be worse than just putting up with it for the remainder of your candidature. Sad, but true. Sometimes just talking about your problem can be therapeutic - choose a sympathetic ear. Think seriously before you proceed if the problem occurred some time ago and now no longer exists - seeking revenge or apologies can cause you stress and waste your precious time and energy.

5. Go to the source 

In most instances, it is best to go directly to the source of the problem before trying anything else. If you have a problem with the quality of your course, speak directly to the course coordinator in the first instance.  Most departments will want to know if there is a level of dissatisfaction among their postgraduates - sometimes the solution is simple and the problem easily addressed. 

If you have a problem with your supervisor, go and talk to him/her about it. This can be really difficult and stressful, because the last thing you want to do is to get your supervisor offside. Don’t raise the issue with your supervisor as he/she is hurrying past in the corridor: make an appointment to see your supervisor so that you have an allocated time to talk privately. Try to stay cool and calm and raise the issue in a professional manner. You will get a lot further by being firm rather than aggressive. Assume that he/she will respond in a professional and sensitive manner. Give your supervisor the opportunity  to work with you to find a solution. You may be surprised to discover that what seems to be an enormous and obvious problem for you is something of which your supervisor is not even aware. The solution may be as simple as telling your supervisor what’s bothering you.

6. Work your way up the chain of command 

There’s no point launching into full-scale formal grievance procedures if you haven’t given your department ample opportunity to respond. Apart from being the right thing to do, problems are much more likely to be resolved while they’re being dealt with informally. If you don’t get any satisfaction from your first point of contact, try speaking with the next person in line. That could be a Graduate Coordinator, Head of Department, Associate Dean, Dean and all the way to the top. Remember that the University, 
along with you, want you to complete your degree successfully; although the reasons for wanting that success may differ, the goal is the same.

7. MPA advice and advocacy 

Don’t forget to take advantage of the fact that staff at MPA are experienced in dealing with postgraduate issues and are familiar with the way the University system works. MPA staff can provide you with an objective opinion, useful advice and strategies, and guaranteed confidentiality. At your request a staff member can attend meetings either as an impartial observer or to speak on your behalf. Advice can be given by phone to postgrads who do not wish to identify themselves.

Back to top

Don't let your problems mount up...