Friday, May 12th, 2017...6:14 pm

When it feels like “Me vs. U of T”: Navigating Institutional Structures

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 Guest Blog


Manaal F., G2G Peer Advisor: PhD student in the Faculty of Social Work. 

Whenever someone asks me to describe U of T, the first thing that rolls off my tongue is: “Well, it’s big. Really big.” Sounds simplistic, but think about it–The university is kind of like a deep sea—underneath the surface-level life of classes, papers and exams, there’s a whole world of departments, divisions, centres, policies, regulations, norms, services and so on.



For many of us graduate students, it can be a daunting task to take in all the information, events, services, activities and resources available to us in our home faculty or department. Now magnify that to the array of happenings across campus(es). In the end, graduate students might feel like they either have too little information about the services and resources available to them or they might feel like they’re always playing catch up and trying to manage an information overload. As a student, being in this environment can feel like you are a little fish in a big pond.


Needless to say, navigating the maze of the university’s institutional structures can be a steep learning curve.


I would suggest that avoiding this learning curve is probably not the best strategy. Learning how to navigate institutions is not only a skill necessary for surviving grad school, it’s also a great career skill in our future workplaces beyond graduation.

So how does a little fish go about swimming in a big pond (be it the university environment or any institution) without getting lost? Or in other words, how can students learn how to navigate the structured university environment to meet their needs and move forward in their academic journeys. I want to highlight two strategies that have helped me in my grad life:

Institutional culture (and me!):

Take a moment to ponder over the “culture” of the university as an institution and the culture of our faculty/department and how we situate ourselves within these cultures. Bennett (2013) provides the following useful definition of “culture”:


“…culture is not a “thing”; it is the process whereby groups of people coordinate meaning and action, yielding both institutional artifacts and patterns of behavior.

An institution’s culture could be its norms and values, or simply: ‘the way things are done around here’. But keep in mind that an institution’s culture is not tangible and can be quite fluid. For example, your department might have a different culture than the department next door or even compared to the larger university environment.

Institutional power (and my power!):

Along with culture, it’s also worthwhile exploring the role of ‘power’ when navigating various institutional structures as grad students. Adler & Silverstein (2000), in their article “When David meets Goliath: Dealing with power differentials in negotiations” discuss the various types of power and acknowledge that organizations hold great power because they are hierarchical, layered and magnanimous in nature. Navigating any institution requires us to acknowledge that depending on how structured or expansive it is, its norms and values can become its source of power.

As a grad student, this can make us feel really small or even that we have very little power. Often, we might feel like institutional power restricts us in successfully meet our own needs within the university culture. But acknowledging the role of power as we navigate the university environment can be very worthwhile. And the best news is: as students, we can actually foster our own unique forms of power! Adler & Silverstein (2000) suggest gaining “information power”. This is quite simply the idea that the more information we have, the more likely we’ll be successful in interacting with the various layers of an institution.

So what can you do?

Talk to your peers – upper-year graduate students, peer advisors on campus, administrators, staff and professors to learn from their knowledge of the institutional culture and their experiences of navigating the university.

Spend a bit of time going over the university’s guidelines, policies and forms related to various aspects of graduate life that may be relevant to you including student expectations, supervisory-student relationships, funding, awards/scholarships, leaves of absences, program completion to name just a few. Many of these policies are readily available online such as through the School of Graduate Studies website.

Also check out the Gradlife Guide and the Essential Guide for Grad Students, two excellent resource guides for graduate students. Both have a really useful directory of all the programs and services exclusively offered to grad students looking to gain skills, meet new people, get support or simply navigate grad life on campus.

And to my earlier point about reaching out to fellow graduate students for gathering information about how to navigate institutional structures, remember that you can connect with one of the G2G Peer Advisors at the Graduate Conflict Resolution Centre (CRC). G2Gs are grad students just like you! No issue is too big or too small to talk about. Simply put: talking to a G2G could help you feel more confident about swimming in the big pond.

Manaal F., G2G Peer Advisor: PhD student in the Faculty of Social Work. In my spare time (when is that?), I try to catch an event or two on-campus or squeeze in a bit of travel.


Works cited list

Adler, R. S., & Silverstein, E. M. (2000). When David meets Goliath: Dealing with power differentials in negotiations. Harv. Negot. L. Rev., 5, 1.

Bennett, M. (2013). Culture is not like an iceberg. IDR Institute blog, 6. Retrieved from



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