Getting your master’s degree is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should lead to amazing memories and even better job prospects. Yet, experiencing sexual harassment from a classmate in a private message during a Zoom class or being the victim of a cyberattack taints a student’s experience. As a master’s student, you shouldn’t live in fear of physical assault, being the victim of a phishing scam, or experiencing a depressive episode, yet these safety concerns do exist. Online master’s students face additional safety challenges, such as the mental health effects of learning in isolation and an increased risk of being a victim of a cybersecurity breach.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to free yourself from these safety fears and to prepare for unforeseen emergencies. In this guide, we’ll review the most common safety concerns for master’s students and the four-step process to choose a student-safe graduate program. Whether you’re an online, in-person, or hybrid graduate student, you should experience a safe graduate school experience—and you’ll want to choose a university with ample support resources, should you experience safety concerns.
Common Safety Concerns for Master’s Students
Safety means something different to everyone. Some students might feel safe walking home alone at night while others would be on edge. No matter what your definition of safety is, you deserve a master’s program that ensures it’s being met. To get you started on finding that program, we researched common safety concerns experienced by master’s students and free resources to address each.
According to a recent study from EDUCAUSE, higher education institutions face six times as many malware attacks as organizations in other industries. Colleges also face a high number of phishing attacks and scams sent to student email addresses. Whether an institution experiences a malware attack, security breach, or phishing scam, students are at risk of identity theft online. To mitigate this risk, be wary before clicking on any links or emails sent from outside your organization. If someone emails you and claims to be your professor but is using a non-university email, delete the email instead of replying or clicking on any links. Along with staying vigilant when online, you can also download malware-detection software to protect your personal devices.
- Student Cybersecurity Guide: This guide outlines everything graduate students need to know about understanding cybersecurity, including the most up-to-date threats and prevention methods. It outlines concerns for students attending in-person and/or online classes.
- Getting a VPN as a Student: If you attend classes or complete homework from public Wi-Fi networks, such as those in cafes or libraries, you might want to consider getting a VPN to protect your data. PC Mag has an in-depth guide for students selecting a VPN.
Harassment and Discrimination
67% of students have experienced harassment and discrimination at college. These harmful acts can be inspired by many factors, including but not limited to gender, race, religion, and mental or physical abilities. While most antiharassment and diversity trainings focus on in-person cases, cyber harassment and discrimination is on the rise. In fact, over 22% of college students have experienced instances of harassment or discrimination online. If you experience online or in-person harassment, report the instance to the right office at your school. This varies from school to school and is based on the type of harassment. For example, gender-based harassment would be reported to the Title IX office while discrimination based on skin color would be reported to the diversity center on your campus.
- Cyberbullying on College Campuses: This guide from the University of California San Diego outlines the most common instances of cyberbullying, frequently asked questions, and ways to address online harassment when it happens.
- Prevent Discrimination and Racism in Graduate Schools: The Crisis Prevention Institute outlines ways individuals and departments can create an antidiscrimination and anti-racism environment in graduate programs.
Break-ins, thefts, and unsafe living conditions are becoming more common, especially in college towns. The Brown Daily Herald, for example, recently reported an increased number of break-ins near Brown’s main campus. When a break-in or theft happens, report the incident to either the university or town police, depending on whether you live on or off campus. You can also take steps to protect yourself, including buying renter’s insurance and investing in an alarm system. Before renting an apartment, graduate students can also assess the safety of the neighborhood by researching if a registered sex offender lives nearby and by reviewing local police records.
- Renter’s Insurance for Graduate Students: If you’re living off campus, you’ll most likely want to invest in renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance covers the financial burden of having to replace items after a break-in or natural disaster. This guide breaks down what to look for in a policy, with recommendations specific to graduate students.
- Housing for Low-Income Students: If you’re experiencing housing insecurity due to low income, check out our guide for low-income students. The housing section provides tips and free resources to help you find affordable, safe housing options.
Emergencies can be a hurricane in Florida to a tornado in Nebraska to an active shooter on virtually any campus in America. Your school may provide training on facing natural disasters or protocol on what to do if an active shooter is on campus. If not, you might be able to partner with a local organization to provide training for your school. It’s also important for online students to consider emergencies in their area that might not be a concern where the university is located. A California-based student who virtually attends a college in Pennsylvania may want to research earthquake preparation, even though a Pennsylvania school probably won’t cover that in a safety briefing.
- March for Our Lives: This nationwide nonprofit provides training and free online resources about how to address gun violence on college campuses. It also organizes activism events if you want to get involved in ending gun violence at schools and universities.
- Emergency Preparedness: This guide from the Red Cross goes over steps to prepare for a variety of emergencies. You can easily skim through to review the emergencies that your area is most susceptible to.
Mental Health and Stress Management
The U.S. Surgeon General has issued a warning about a mental health crisis for Americans under the age of 25. No matter what age you are, it’s no secret that mental health concerns and stress are increasing, not decreasing. In fact, some studies predict 43%-46% of graduate students experience anxiety or depression while getting their degree.
To stay mentally safe, consider adopting a self-care routine. Yoga, drawing, and journaling are three therapeutic activities that decrease stress and negative feelings for many master’s students, though your specific self-care routine should be personalized to your interests and hobbies. If issues persist, consider seeing a therapist or other mental health professional. Your university might even provide mental health counseling, either in-person or online, for free.
- BetterHelp: This organization is a leader in online therapy and a great option for anyone interested in teletherapy. Thanks to the reduced graduate student cost and partnerships with universities to provide their services for free, they’re an especially affordable therapy option for graduate students.
- Meditation for Students: While any type of meditation can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, you can supercharge your self-care routine with this meditation designed specifically for students. In 10 minutes, this free meditation helps you feel calm, centered, and at peace.
Whether you’re an online or on-campus student, you’re susceptible to theft, robbery, assault, and harassment. In fact, the United States as a whole has a violent crime rate that’s five to 10 times higher than European countries. These crimes come in many forms, ranging from online identity theft to in-person sexual assault. No matter what crime a student experiences, they are not at fault and should not be alone in dealing with the financial, physical, and mental health consequences. Your university’s police, mental health center, and other on-campus offices are a great resource in the event of a violent crime and to prevent future incidents in your community. For sexual assault, consult with the Title IX office at your university.
- Prevent Theft on Campus: If you attend classes in-person or in a hybrid format, check out this guide from Consumer Reports. It details different ways to prevent theft and what to do if you’re a victim of robbery or theft.
- Staying Safe Online: This free guide from Times Higher Education touches on personal security online. Whether your master’s program is online, in-person, or hybrid, these tips can keep you safe from identity theft, computer hacks, and more.
Drug and alcohol abuse on college campuses is about as common as late night study sessions in the library. In fact, one 2019 study suggests almost half of all graduate students have dealt with alcohol or drug abuse. That number would greatly increase if it included graduate students who had friends or loved ones who have experienced substance abuse, too. Whether you’re looking for recovery options for yourself or a loved one, your university should be able to help. Most universities have online resources too, such as alcohol abuse prevention courses and emergency hotlines for students struggling with abuse. If you need additional support, free online resources can help regardless of where you’re enrolled in school.
- American Addiction Centers: This organization is not only the largest chain of recovery centers in the United States, but it’s also one of the most affordable. In fact, these centers offer free or reduced price addiction recovery for graduate students.
- Alcoholics Anonymous: If you or a loved one is grappling with alcohol addiction, this free nonprofit is here to help. The structured group therapy program has helped thousands of Americans say no to alcohol abuse.
Whether you’re traveling to work, class, or a study session in the library, your safety is important. Transportation safety is a concern for students using public transport or ride-sharing apps, such as Uber or Lyft. To make sure you’re safe, always pay attention to your surroundings when on public transport. When using a ride-share app, check to make sure the license plate matches what it says it should be on the app. It’s also a good idea to share your location with a friend whenever you’re traveling late at night.
- Uber Safety Guidelines: To help keep passengers safe, Uber has issued a number of different safety guidelines. You can find them in the Uber app or website. If you’re an Uber driver, the company has safety guidelines for you too.
- Public Transportation Safety: Eastern Kentucky University has created a series of guidelines for students to stay safe while using public transport. The guide covers transport on campus and across the nation on public buses and railroads.
Essential Safety Strategies for Master’s Students
Prevention measures and responses to online identity theft and sexual assault are very different. Yet there are some strategies you can use to prepare and protect yourself from a variety of threats. In any situation where you feel your safety is at risk, be proactive, maintain situational awareness, and plan and prepare ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to practice self-care, stay informed, and establish emergency contacts.
Whether you’re facing a mental health crisis or a public transportation issue, it’s important to think ahead. Being proactive will look different from situation to situation but generally consists of studying a situation and possible outcomes and preparing for each.
Let’s look at a few ways to be proactive for the top three issues graduate students face:
- Stress: Have a self-care routine you repeat each week and talk to a therapist if your stress starts piling up.
- Substance Abuse: Stay within the U.S. healthy drinking guidelines and avoid illegal substances.
- Cybersecurity: Follow your school’s cybersecurity guidelines and consider malware protection and anti-virus software for your personal device.
Establish Emergency Contacts
If you’re in an emergency, it’s helpful to have a few people on speed dial who you can call. For a violent emergency, this could be your campus or local police. However, emergency contacts aren’t only for crimes and natural disasters. You may also have a couple of friends who act as mental health emergency contacts if stress or negative feelings overwhelm you.
Maintain Situational Awareness
Whether you’re in a risky situation in person or online, it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings. This means watching your drink at a party to make sure no one slips anything in it or being wary of phishing before opening a link in a suspicious email. While a bad situation is never your fault, there are steps you can take to be aware of your surroundings and avoid dangerous situations online and offline.
Plan and Prepare
Planning is an amazing first step to avoid or be prepared for a variety of emergencies. This can look like compiling a mental health toolkit if you’ve experienced anxiety in the past or creating an earthquake preparedness kit if you live in a state where earthquakes are common, like California. It’s important to note some emergencies are harder to plan for, such as sexual harassment or cyberbullying. For these emergencies, your campus should have a response plan in place if students need it.
Practice Good Digital Hygiene
To avoid cybercrimes and cyberbullying, practice good digital hygiene. This might mean backing up your files every week, deleting phishing emails, and only saying things online that you’d want everyone and anyone to read. For a better idea on what good digital hygiene looks like, check out Vodafone’s digital hygiene checklist. Along with preventing cybercrime, many of these practices free space on your computer and ensure important files are not lost if your electronics crash.
Self-care is never a bad idea, especially since students who practice self-care report lower levels of stress and higher levels of academic engagement. If you’re an online student, research from the University of Louisville suggests a self-care routine may be even more important, since online students face higher levels of stress and loneliness. Self-care will look different for everyone, but some actions, such as meditation or yoga, have significant research to support their effectiveness.
It’s always best to stay informed, whether you’re researching new stress reduction strategies or attending a virtual seminar about how to stop home theft from your local police department. When researching prevention and response strategies, make sure the information you get is from credible sources, including:
- Speakers and events sponsored by your university.
- Seminars and workshops put on by reputable local organizations, such as your town’s police department.
- Seminars and workshops hosted by reputable national organizations such as RAINN, which operates the national sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-4673.
- Government or university resources that include peer-reviewed research.
Take Advantage of School Resources
On most college campuses, abundant safety resources are available, yet students fail to utilize them. Often this is because students don’t know they exist. While your university should take steps to educate you on safety resources, you can also do some digging yourself. If you prefer to research safety resources virtually, check out the student life section of your university’s website. You can also attend an in-person campus organization fair to learn more.
Trust Your Instincts
At the end of the day, you should listen to your intuition. If you’ve been studying for hours and a small voice says to take a 15-minute break to avoid burnout, take it. If you’re walking alone at night and something seems off, choose the well-lit path instead of the dark side street. The cliche that you are your own worst critic may be true, but in dangerous situations it’s more likely that you are your own best protection.
How to Find and Choose a Student-Safe Master’s Program
After reading through all the online and in-person threats, it might seem like attending graduate school is always a risk! Luckily, there are some signs of a student-safe master’s program that are easy to spot, if you know what you’re looking for. If safety is a main concern, take these four steps to find a student-safe graduate degree.
Connect with Current Students and Alumni
Before enrolling in a school, reach out to current students or alumni. You can find them through your personal network or on LinkedIn or Instagram. When you’ve found a student or alumnus in your program, review their social media to see if they’re discussing anything related to safety while getting their degree. You can also ask them for a 20-minute informational interview to better understand their master’s experience.
Familiarize Yourself with School Policies and Programs
Any reputable school should have their policies on harassment, discrimination, and other safety concerns listed on their website or available for the public. If you can’t find the policies, don’t be afraid to ask an admissions representative. When looking at these policies, make sure they cover preventing instances of harm on campus, not just punishment if a crime or instance of discrimination or harassment takes place. It’s also smart to see if they have any policies to protect students while they are online.
Look for Institutional Safety Programs, Initiatives, and Support Services
Along with safety policies, most institutions invest significant money into programs, initiatives, and services to keep students safe. While the available resources differ from university to university, common offerings include:
- Transportation programs that promote student safety.
- A robust campus police department.
- Crisis hotlines for physical and mental health problems.
- Counseling and other mental health resources.
- Prevention programming related to mitigating discrimination and sexual assault.
If there’s a specific program you’d like to see offered in your master’s program, don’t be afraid to ask a campus representative or a current student about it.
Research School Safety Statistics
Each year, campuses are required to report crime and safety statistics. Since these numbers are public records, you can research the crime rates—and what types of crimes are occurring—on a campus before you enroll. To access these statistics, visit the Campus Safety and Security database run by the U.S. Department of Education. Keep in mind, however, that these numbers only reflect reported crimes and might not give the full picture of what’s happening at a school.