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Shannon Lynn Burton, NACADA Board of Directors

Shannon Burton.jpgResearch . . . qualitative . . . quantitative . . . these words can strike fear, or at least spark some anxiety, in practitioners as they begin their journeys of inquiry.  As faculty for the NACADA Research Symposium, my goal is to make the inquiry process less daunting.  Over the course of two days in April 2015, I was able to witness advisors (and budding scholar-practitioners) from across the world formulate and refine their questions, engage in critical reflection on methods, and map out a plan to answer those very questions.  As they worked, I was astounded at their insights and their revelations into the research process and excited to see so many viewing themselves differently in terms of their own professional identity: that of shifting from practitioner to scholar-practitioner.  One often sees the term “scholar-practitioner” used, but what do I mean?  What do I mean when I say that my identity on the practitioner to scholar spectrum shifted?  A scholar-practitioner defines themselves as someone

grounded in theory and research, informed by experiential knowledge, and motivated by personal values, political commitments, and ethical conduct.  Scholar practitioners are committed to the well-being of clients and colleagues, to learning new ways of being effective, and to conceptualizing their work in relation to broader organizational, community, political, and cultural contexts.  Scholar practitioners explicitly reflect on and assess the impact of their work.  Their professional activities and the knowledge they develop are based on collaborative and relational learning through active exchange within communities of practice and scholarship. (McClintock, 2004)

As a scholar now interested in the evolution and history of academic advising, I am eager to see a scholar-practitioner community emerge in this field, and I am spurred by the growth in interest around scholarly inquiry and its rise, particularly among practitioners.  I relate to these individuals as my own scholarly journey mirrors theirs in many ways.  When I finished undergrad, I thought I was going to be a lifelong researcher pursuing an agenda centering on Russian intellectual history.  However, I had to work for a few years before pursuing my graduate school dreams.  In that first job I realized that I really enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with students that student affairs provided.  At that stage in my career, I felt that I had to forsake my dreams of historiography and intellectual pursuits for my love of student success.  This path led me to my master’s degree in student affairs administration, where I could get a grounding in theory for the work I did with students as I continued to work full-time as a professional academic advisor.  However, despite my academic interest in student affairs, research no longer appealed to me.  I described myself as a practitioner and a practitioner only.

As I moved further into my identity as an academic advisor to that of a scholar-practitioner, I found myself drawn to the big questions and the intellectual pursuits I had found engaging as an undergraduate; I thirsted for more knowledge on the ways I could improve my practice.  As a result, I pursued my second master’s degree, while still working full-time in academic advising.  Despite taking inquiry and research courses in both of my master’s degrees, I still had not written a thesis or done any type of rigorous academic inquiry by the time I finished.  I knew of research and theoretically how to do research, but never had actually done it.  However, I felt it necessary at that time to pursue my doctorate for the next step on the career ladder, whatever that might be.

During this decade (yes, I said decade), I found my identity as a scholar-practitioner of academic advising and beyond, again while working full-time.  The road to the elusive Ph.D. was definitely a long one for both personal and academic reasons.  In relation to the academic reasons, I struggled to find a topic to study.  At first I thought I had to go back to those Russian history roots and began looking at how institutions of higher education differed before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  However, I could not sink my teeth into the topic.  Then I shifted my topic to look at something related to study abroad.  Again, my passion for doing research waned.  Finally, my graduate academic advisor suggested pulling the conversations that I was most passionate about together, and a light went off.  The topics in classes of campus internationalization, organizational theory, and academic advising excited me most.  It was an eureka moment and the moment that my first true scholarly inquiry (aka my dissertation) was born: Building the Bridge: A Phenomenological Examination of Academic Advising’s Role in Campus Internationalization.  Through this exercise I learned that I could do research, albeit not easily.

In the course of writing my dissertation, I attended the NACADA Research Symposium as a participant, not in an effort to clarify the questions of my dissertation, but to connect with other advising scholars and to create my next project.  This way I had something in the chute to work on.  Additionally, this served as an excellent exercise in thinking about research outside the dissertation and on how to structure the next big thing.  However, one of the greatest benefits of participating included connecting with others pursuing their scholarly interests.  Many of the individuals in this symposium cohort and I still look to one another for support as we write and seek out the next big idea.  This cohort consisted of people at varied stages in their scholar identity: those working on a thesis, working on dissertations, wanting to answer bigger questions about their practice, or wanting a space just to think if they were more experienced.  NACADA’s Research Symposium clearly created a support system not only for how to set up a research project, but also provided a built-in network of encouragement and constructive criticism.

I am now nearly four years out from finishing my dissertation and four years out from the research symposium.  While I still struggle to find time to write in the way that I would like to for my interests, I steal time.  I still define myself as a scholar-practitioner.  Through this time my roles at the university have shifted, from that of a frontline professional academic advisor to the Assistant University Ombudsperson.  In this position I work with students who are facing conflicts in their university experience that often impede their academic success.  Yet, scholarly inquiry is still central to my practice, and that ever elusive cohesion in a research agenda no longer evades me.

Now I seek to examine the interpretation, implementation, and impact of policies, procedures, and plans vital to higher education as new professions like academic advisors, research integrity officers, and ombuds emerge.  These professions allow individuals to look for a means to navigate often complicated university structure in terms of academic requirements, faculty/student conflict, as well as university policy to prevent a larger problem for the institution.  As a piece of the exploration into policy and procedure impact, I also examine the emergence and growth of these fields in relation to policy changes and cultural shifts.  How do these fields emerge?  How do they define themselves?  Finally, as these areas begin to grow nationally and internationally, I would like to examine how cross-cultural differences impact their development and what culturally and historically spurs other cultures to create similar structures.

While I still falter in my research agenda from time to time, if it were not for the community of scholars that I connected with in NACADA through the research symposium and other venues, as well as the resources available through NACADA to support my goals, I probably would not identify myself as a scholar at all.  So, for those afraid of terms like “research,” “qualitative,” and “quantitative,” there is hope and a place to which you can turn.  I hope that those who attended the 2015 Research Symposium where I had the honor of serving as one of their faculty members know that their scholarly journey is only beginning and that NACADA is here to support them as they determine their relationship with research.  I also urge those wanting to frame and ask questions to attend the 2016 Research Symposium and to connect with others doing research.  Please do not be shy about asking those of us who define ourselves as scholars or scholar-practitioners for insight and mentoring.  It is through these big questions that the field of academic advising continues to be defined and explained.  What we ask now sets the foundation for what others will examine in the future.

Shannon Lynn Burton, Ph.D.
Assistant University Ombudsperson, Office of the University Ombudsperson
Research Integrity Coordinator, Office of the President
Michigan State University
sburton@msu.edu | @msuburton

Editor’s Note: Unable to travel to attend the Research Symposium?  To learn about Demystifying Research in Academic Advising, join Shannon, current NACADA Research Committee Chair Ryan Tomasiewicz, and Past Research Committee Chair Wendy Troxel for their May 18th webinar!


Burton, S.L. (2012). Building the Bridge: A Phenomenological Examination of Academic Advising’s Role in Campus Internationalization (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest.

McClintock, C. (2004). Scholar Practitioner Model. In Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/distributedlearning/n134.xml

Cite this article using APA style as: Burton, S. (2015, December). Evolution of a scholar. Academic Advising Today, 38(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.

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