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Kelli Moore, James Madison University


A good advisor is essential when “real life” gets in the way. In graduate school, it is very possible for students to fall through the cracks. As a “recovering” graduate student and now an academic advisor, I have found some keys that can help students manage a graduate program, especially when students must navigate through a host of “real life” issues.

For me, real life got in the way several years ago. For many years, my elderly father took care of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. About halfway through my doctoral program, my father became severely ill and debilitated. I had many of the problems faced by those in midlife, but no infrastructure to ameliorate the problems. I was a thousand miles away, no house, no job, no money, and had yet to finish my educational investment.

It seemed that I could no longer afford the indulgence of a graduate degree, but neither could I afford to stop. Half of a degree is simply not marketable, and I was not one for quitting. After all, I was passionate about my field and I wanted it to pay off. As my parents’ condition deteriorated, I needed it to pay off. I was determined to finish.

I finished my doctoral degree and hit the job market. As I made plans to move closer to my parents, the reality of today’s academic job market sank in. The academic lifestyle that requires moving to the job was unsustainable while caring for an elderly parent.

Since completing my program, I have thought a great deal about the kind of support universities can offer their graduate students. Now as an academic advisor, I understand even more fully how important the partnership of academic and career advisors is to graduate students. What can make this process easier? Graduate departments vary greatly in their willingness and ability to provide support. The university, however, should anticipate problems that graduate students might have before challenges arise and make students aware of resources and options.

One good option, typically free for students, is a university’s counseling center. Counseling center personnel must be aware of the graduate population. Graduate students are older and may not only have elderly parents, but also marriages, children, and real life experiences that affect them. Graduate students also can use not just general counseling, but career counseling. A good career counselor or advisor should discuss a back up plan with graduate students. If students must leave their program, a shorter back up plan is a great alternative to the 10-year plan often needed to finish a doctoral degree. Graduate school is a lifestyle choice and academic life may or may not mesh well with personal situations.

Graduate students also may need to know the procedures for taking a leave of absence from the university, the policies concerning completion of the comprehensive exam in another place, and the options and consequences for changing an academic program midstream. Getting definitive answers to questions is essential.

Most importantly, graduate students should anticipate potential problems as they make their choice of graduate schools. More specifically, the following advice is useful for graduate students who might be faced with family emergencies, especially those occurring at a distance.


  • Plan your research. Make a research plan that is compatible with your caregiving responsibilities (although you study Parliament, a trip to Europe may not be practical). You might not be able to study exactly what you want, but you will have a clear path to a finished dissertation.
  • Consider location. Doctoral programs are long and, although coursework can be finished often in a couple of years, there may be other compelling reasons to continue to stay at your university, e.g. teaching opportunities or access to professors/resources. Set up a research plan that will allow you to work remotely should the best university for your discipline be a few hundred miles away.
  • Have a back up plan. Be prepared to graduate with a master’s degree in case real life gets in the way. There is nothing worse than having little to show for the effort that you have put into your educational investment.
  • Tell someone. Even if you don’t have an advisor, there may be professors and other graduate students going through similar issues. Those who have gone through a similar experience are supportive, even if just with a knowing nod. More importantly, tell someone in your hometown so that they can be supportive in your absence.
  • Lifestyle. Committing to a doctoral program and choosing to be a full-time student for an average of six years is a lifestyle choice. Consider how this lifestyle will fit into life’s responsibilities and consider a worse case scenario before getting in too deep.
  • Good choices. If you are a first generation graduate student your family and friends may not understand why you are still “in college” and not tending to your more tangible caregiving responsibilities. Explain your program responsibilities and outline what you are able and unable to do for your family.
  • Flexibility. Graduate school can have responsibilities that exceed a full-time job, but can also provide the flexibility needed to deal with personal issues. In this sense, time and technology are great benefits.

Graduate school can be tough. The biggest challenge is finishing; students’ best ally is a flexible schedule. Discipline and working with others can help graduate students see the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be done. Parents, professors, and society encourage education, yet at the highest echelons of education, some students may find that there is not enough support. Advisors can help students strategize and find the inner strength and the discipline needed to complete what they began.

Kelli Moore
Academic Adviser/Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
James Madison University

Cite this article using APA style as: Moore, K. (2008, June). Graduate advisors are essential when 'real life' gets in the way. Academic Advising Today, 31(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2008 June 31:2


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