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Building Graduate Student Communities

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Mentoring Graduate Students

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.295.1 - 14.295.7

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Paper Authors


Audeen Fentiman Purdue University

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Audeen Fentiman is Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Interdisciplinary Programs in the College of Engineering at Purdue University.

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Susan Fisher Purdue University

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Susan Fisher is Director of Graduate Programs in the College of Engineering at Purdue University.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Building Graduate Student Communities Introduction

The issue of attrition at the Ph.D. level continues to be frequently discussed on college campuses but few formal reports have been published on the topic. Students give a variety of reasons for ending their graduate programs prior to graduation. Whatever the reason for quitting the program, the results have a negative effect on all involved. Students choosing to begin a Ph.D. program are usually unaccustomed to failure. Leaving the program without completing the degree remains a difficult memory for most throughout their lives. Faculty members, who have invested money and time in the graduate student, also feel a distinct sense of loss when a student leaves without a degree. Not only have they lost an investment, they often feel the loss of a friend, a sense of guilt that they could not do more for the student, and a sense of loss of potential future collaborations. Then there are the costs and time involved in beginning the training of a new graduate student to replace the one who left. Scott Smallwood points out that attrition rates do not appear to change. “What is changing is the university administrators’ willingness to do something about the problem.”1 Most would agree that actions should be taken to promote positive experiences for the student while at the university and to reduce attrition of Ph.D. students. One of those positive experiences is social and collegial interaction – being part of a group.

Because so much of graduate life revolves around research, isolation for hours or days is not an uncommon experience for a Ph.D. student. Although students interact with others, it is often with a small, select group of lab mates or one faculty advisor. Time on task is crucial for successful research. Leonard Baird associates student attrition in part “with poor social and academic relationships with professors and fellow students…” 2 In Three Magic Letters, Nettles and Millett (2006) devote an entire chapter to socialization as a contributing factor in warding off loneliness resulting in greater motivation and persistence to complete the degree program.3 At the National Conference on Graduate Student Leadership 2003, the report on “Bringing a Sense of Community to Grad Student Life” stressed the necessity of purposeful activities. “Without meaningful interpersonal and community relationships, the graduate experience may spawn mental and emotional hardship.” 4 This report concluded with several activities which could be developed to encourage graduate student involvement at various levels within the program, the department, or the college, or university-wide.

In one effort to understand and address some of these issues facing graduate students, the College of Engineering at Purdue University formed a Graduate Student Advisory Committee (GSAC) three years ago to provide the Associate Dean for Graduate Education with advice on ways to improve the quality of the graduate experience. The GSAC meets with the Associate Dean monthly. It consists of a representative from each engineering graduate program and an alternate who attends if the representative cannot, thus insuring that each program has a voice. Each year, the GSAC meetings have a theme. For example, in its first year, 2006-07, the GSAC’s theme was identifying, and recommending ways to address, issues of greatest concern to the graduate students. In 2007-08, the theme was building graduate student communities. The goal in 2007-08 was to explore the types of communities in which graduate students function (e.g. disciplinary, interdisciplinary, social), determine what communities are of greatest value to

Fentiman, A., & Fisher, S. (2009, June), Building Graduate Student Communities Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas.

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