Authors: Katelyn Talbott, Olivia Miller, & Laura Kuizin
The history of primary graduate and professional student academic advisors is lesser known and documented as compared with the history of faculty advisors and primary undergraduate student academic advisors. This also holds true when looking at literature and resources for supporting those that primarily advise graduate and professional students. Faculty advising has been commonplace since the creation of colleges in the United States (Gillispie, 2003). As time passed and faculty responsibilities increased, faculty advisors began being replaced with “vocational guidance centers,” particularly after World War I (Gillispie, 2003). Fast forward to today and primary undergraduate academic advisors have an infrastructure of resources, support programs, and best practices to help provide student support.
This is not the case for those supporting graduate and professional students. It is only recently that this population of students has been recognized as needing and wanting the same support and services they were afforded as undergraduate students.
The purpose of this article is meant to help academic advisors who have transitioned from advising undergraduate students to advising graduate and professional students. What follows is a summary of a conversation had by three NACADA members of the Graduate and Professional Student (GPS) Advising Community. During a breakout session, members began talking about their history of getting into graduate advising. It was found that all three came from undergraduate advising and wanted to share their stories and experiences with others to see if their observations and challenges were in line with others with this same background.
With the amount of information college students are expected to know, academic advising is crucial to the success of each student. Furthermore, it is important to understand the differences in the needs of each student population. However, very little recent literature has been published concerning the role and significance of graduate advising. Additionally, we three advisors have come to understand that undergraduate student needs are vastly different than graduate or professional student needs. For example, the resources and technology available to graduate advisors, at least in the experience of the authors, is limited. No longer is there access to degree audits or scheduling systems. With less centralized resources and services, we feel graduate and professional students receive many more emails and communications—the advisor is the hub of connection between the student and the campus at large. While most undergraduate students are entering college for the first time with little to no professional experience, many graduate and professional students have moderate to significant workforce experience and are returning to academia to strengthen or enhance their professional knowledge.
In our conversation, it was discovered that caseloads still vary based on unit and institution, but often the ratio of student to advisor is high. Additionally, as traditionally understood in the undergraduate realm, those that serve professional and graduate students can have a myriad of job titles. With all things considered, most graduate advisors are left to their own devices and have fewer opportunities to learn about best practices, overcome challenges, and benchmark successes as compared to their undergraduate counterparts. However, all this newness and uncertainty provides a great opportunity for graduate and professional student academic advisors to start to write the books, support one another, and expand the literature on supporting graduate and professional students.
The Graduate Student
After reflecting on our experiences in working with both undergraduate and graduate students, we found working with graduate students to be extremely rewarding. At the graduate and professional level, students are continuing or returning to school for a specific program because they have a specific interest in deepening or expanding their knowledge in one area. They no longer have general education requirements nor explore all possible options; they are returning with a singular goal in mind—to earn a specific graduate or professional degree. Upon their return, graduate students have more life experience and general knowledge of the world that they are bringing with them to the educational table. Andragogy, or the teaching of adults, tells us that adult students know what they want, and they want the knowledge they learn to be immediately applicable (Knowles, 1975).
Compared to undergraduate students who may still be exploring career opportunities and being away from home for the first time, we have found that our graduate students are focused on their specific degree to promote to the next level, reskill, or are returning because they are now able to fulfill their passions. With this more focused roadmap of their college plan, we have seen speedbumps happen between the student and academic policies or deadlines—and thus the graduate advisor is again that connector more than ever.
Academic advisors must be cognizant of the following potential differences when supporting undergraduate versus graduate students. The list below consists of differences we have experienced when advising undergraduate versus graduate and professional students:
- Graduate and professional students are more likely to enroll part-time and be 25+ years old (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2022)
- Graduate and professional students may have other responsibilities outside of academia—leaving the identity of “student” to no longer be their primary focus as seen with traditional undergraduate students
- Graduate and professional students are more likely to be balancing a career and/or family responsibilities
- Graduate and professional students may be more focused on getting through their academics and how their coursework applies to their career
- Graduate and professional students may be returning to school after a break from academics (and need more time to transition back to taking courses, homework, writing papers, and taking exams)
- Graduate and professional students may need to utilize a different toolbox of resources
- Graduate and professional students may require later office hours and /or more flexibility in the range of office hours offered
- Graduate and professional students may find online advising options more desirable as they balance other priorities
- Advisors are less likely to be contacted by parents when working with graduate and professional students
Advising the Graduate Student
During our conversation, we discussed how there is a shift in the role and responsibility of an academic advisor, if that is even the title one has. At the heart of the role, graduate and professional academic advisors are still assisting students in their course selection, outlining remaining graduation requirements, and discussing career options. However, the way the job is done can be vastly different. More often than not, we found ourselves doing more than traditional advising: admissions, record keeping, finances, policy creation, and more.
From our small group discussion, here are our top ten tips and ideas for advising graduate and professional students:
- Provide passive resources that students can access 24/7: websites, auto-replies, videos, recordings, newsletters, etc. Despite the communication preferences, what is most important is that graduate and professional student advisors are accessible and available in order to provide and maintain regular contact (Cross, 2015; Talbott, 2021).
- Be mindful that they may have competing priorities, such as family and work obligations
- Know that they may have significantly different life experiences prior to pursuing a graduate degree
- Provide options to meet outside of the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. window to better accommodate working professionals
- Assist students with the transition back into academics for those who have been away from academics for awhile
- Help students set realistic expectations as they enter a graduate or professional program, specifically in terms of academic expectations
- Provide options for communicating remotely (e.g., phone calls, video conferencing)
- Send policy and program updates and reminders on a timely basis, as non-traditional students may experience distractions outside of academics
- Encourage them to find a mentor; with competing priorities, some graduate students may not make time to do this
- Encourage them to build a solid support system with their cohort and work to create a sense of community
Call to Action
The goal of this article is to increase the literature on advising graduate and professional students. By sharing the experiences of three advisors as we transitioned from working with traditional undergraduate students to working with graduate and professional students, we are starting the conversation. We hope that sharing our insights from transitioning will help the person that is currently experiencing this same transition to have a reference point.
We ask those reading this article to document their institution’s history of advising graduate and professional students and to continue to call for more literature, resources, and support for those supporting graduate and professional students. And, to not just call for these supports, but to be a part of the movement that creates these needed resources for supporting graduate and professional students.
Dr. Katelyn Talbott, Coordinator of IS PhD Student and Academic Affairs, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, email@example.com
Olivia Miller, MS, Senior Academic Advisor, Henry W. Bloch School of Management, University of Missouri-Kansas City, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Laura Kuizin, Director of Master of Applied Professional Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, email@example.com
Cross, L. (2015, September). Professional staff as graduate student academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 38(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Professional-Staff-as-Graduate-Student-Academic-Advisors.aspx
Gillispie, B. (2003, November 5). History of academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/History-of-academic-advising.aspx
Knowles, M. S. (1975). Adult education: New dimensions. Educational Leadership, 33(2), 85–88. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ137019
National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). College enrollment rates. The Condition of Education 2022. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cpb.
Talbott, K. (2021). Exploring retention of career changers in an online library and information science professional master’s program: An exploratory case study (Publication No. 118265) [Doctoral dissertation; University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign]. IDEALS.