Aim/Purpose: The purpose of our study was to gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to graduate student sense of belonging and gain insights into differences in sense of belonging for different groups of students.
Background: Sense of belonging, or the feeling that a person is connected to and matters to others in an organization, has been found to influence college student retention and success. Literature on sense of belonging has, however, focused primarily on undergraduate students and little is known about graduate students’ sense of belonging.
Methodology: We conducted an exploratory, cross-sectional survey study of graduate students at four public doctoral and comprehensive universities in Maryland, USA. All four institutions were participating in the NSF-funded PROMISE program, which strives to support the retention and academic success of women and underrepresented minority (URM) graduate students. A total of 1,533 graduate students from these four institutions completed the survey. To analyze our data, we used Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) to test direct and indirect effects of multiple latent variables (i.e., gender, race/ethnicity, STEM affiliation, critical mass of women, participation in the PROMISE program, sense of belonging) on each other.
Contribution: Research found that sense of belonging influences graduate student retention and success. Thus, gaining a better understanding of the factors that influence graduate student sense of belonging can help improve retention and completion rates, an important issue as national seven-year completion rates have hovered around 44% in the United States. Completion rates have been even lower for women and URM students (i.e., African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders) compared to White students, making sense of belonging an important topic to study for these populations.
Findings: We found that professional relationships matter most to graduate student sense of belonging. Professional relationships influenced graduate student sense of belonging more than reported microaggressions and microaffirmations, though they also played a role. We also found differences based on students’ identity or group membership. Overall, microaffirmations played a bigger role in female graduate student sense of belonging and the ecosystem of non-STEM programs seemed to have more facilitators of sense of belonging than the ecosystem of STEM programs.
Recommendations for Practitioners: We recommend that graduate programs think strategically about enhancing sense of belonging in ways appropriate to the distinct culture and nature of graduate education. For example, departments can make efforts to support sense of belonging through creating community-oriented peer networks of students, transparent policies, and access to information about resources and opportunities. Programs such as PROMISE can support the retention and success of women and URM graduate students, but aspects of these programs also need to be incorporated into graduate programs and departments.
Impact on Society: Because graduate student sense of belonging has been found to impact students’ interest in careers in academia, fostering graduate student sense of belonging could be a tool for improving pathways to the professoriate for groups that are typically underrepresented in academia such as women and racial or ethnic minorities. Increasing the number of women and URM faculty could, in turn, positively impact the support available to future URM students, which could positively influence future URM students’ sense of belonging.
Future Research: Sense of belonging is an important area for future graduate education research and should be studied through survey research with a larger sample of U.S. students than the current study. Sense of belonging is relevant to graduate education worldwide. Future studies might explore graduate student sense of belonging in different national contexts and the role culture plays in shaping it. Moreover, changes in graduate student sense of belonging over the course of their program should be assessed.