Doctoral Student Agency

Organizational Influences

These papers examine the specific ways in which departments influence graduate student agency in career advancement. In order to deepen understanding of the kinds of agency departments might influence, we also examine the agentic perspectives and actions exhibited by graduate students. We utilized quantitative (survey) data from two research institutions to understand the extent of graduate student agentic perspectives and actions but then emphasized qualitative data (in the form of interviews) to understand how departments enhanced graduate student agency in career advancement. We also considered the role of gender and race and ethnicity in graduate student experiences of agency and support for it.


Published Studies

Doing, caring, and being: "Good" mentoring and its role in the socialization of graduate students of color in STEM.

In J. Weidman & L. DeAngelo, Socialization in higher education and the early career - theory, research and application. Springer

Disrupting ruling relations: The role of the PROMISE program as a third space

Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

Supporting scientists from underrepresented minority backgrounds: Mapping developmental networks.

Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 9(1), 19-37.

Purpose – The purpose of this study is to explore the developmental networks of graduate students of color participating in PROMISE, Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded graduate retention and support program. The authors specifically examine how underrepresented minority students gain access to needed supports through building individual mentoring relationships and broader networks of support.

Design/methodology/approach – The authors rely on a case study approach to explore developmental networks and support accessed by students participating in the PROMISE program. A total of 16 students of color in STEM fields from three institutions in the University of Maryland System have participated.

Findings – Study findings reveal that scientists from underrepresented backgrounds construct and draw from diverse developmental networks that include individuals from within and outside of the academic community. Key relationships include advisors; faculty with whom they share identities, peers in and outside of their programs; and administrators. Developers play distinct roles within the networks including shaping students’ emerging professional identities as scientists and providing psychosocial support. Student agency and initiative as well as faculty engagement and programs like PROMISE further enhanced student access to mentorship.

Research limitations/implications – This study offers unique insights into the nature, cultivation and resources gained from the relationships that make up the developmental networks of science graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Originality/value – Traditional notions of mentoring and support, particularly in graduate education, highlight the role and importance of the student’s advisor in their growth and development. This study is unique in its focus on the multiple relationships students of color in science form. This study offers specific insight into the nature, construction and resources gained from developmental networks formed by a group of underrepresented minority students in STEM graduate education.

Sense of belonging and its contributing factors in graduate education.

International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 12, 251-263.

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.

Push and Pull: The Influence of Race/Ethnicity on Agency in Doctoral Student Career Advancement.

Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 10(3), 232–252.

This study examined and enriched our understanding of the career choice process for doctoral students of color in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In addition, it explored the challenges facing all doctoral students in STEM in understanding and making meaning of diversity as it relates to individual perspectives and actions. We used an agency theoretical framework to explore career-related decisions of doctoral students. This framework captured how students “navigate, negotiate, reframe, and act” during the career decision-making process of a doctoral program.

By Design: How departments influence graduate student agency in career advancement.

International Journal of Doctoral Studies. 9, 155-179.

This mixed methods study explored how departments enhanced graduate student agency in career advancement for doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Departments positively influenced graduate student agency by (1) encouraging and legitimizing multiple career paths, (2) providing structured opportunities for students to practice skills and experience different work environments, (3) providing resources (financial support and information), (4) facilitating networking, and (5) offering mentoring and guidance. Because agency in career advancement is important to students’ motivation, completion, and career placement, departments should consider implementing concrete strategies to support graduate student agency.

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