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Brittany Sheehy, University of South Florida

Brittany Sheehy One of the ten recommendations given in the National Academies report (2012) was the need to reform graduate education and address issues such as high attrition rates, long time-to degree lengths, and career placement.  The Council of Graduate Schools (2010) has made an effort to impart the message that if the United States wants to be competitive among the world’s innovators and leaders, it starts with a strong graduate education system (Barnes & Randall, 2012).  Practitioners have also made pleas for more institutional efforts to be made to understand and support graduate student success with the same attention and focus that is provided to undergraduates (Hardré & Hackett, 2015). What research has come to find is that the ball starts and stops at the  department of the program for initiating and implementing change in the graduate student experience.  The attrition rate has been spotlighted as high as 33 percent in some disciplines with no explanation provided from the departments (Gardner & Gopaul, 2012; Ivankova & Stick, 2007; Kim & Otts, 2010).  Several studies have shown that attrition results from poor academic support, mentoring, lack of integration, and lack of socialization with the student's home department (Solem, Lee, & Schlemper, 2009).  Times are changing though: the federal government and national organizations are starting to take notice and ask questions regarding attrition rates, graduation rates, publication rates, and employment rates after investing large dollars into graduate education (Golde, 2005).

The purpose of this article is to present ten activities that one college at a large Southeastern University has done to maintain an attrition rate between five and seven percent and a time-to-degree of 6.5 years for doctoral students and 3.5 years for master’s students over the past three years.  USF’s College of Marine Science (CMS) offers only master’s and doctoral degrees in the following disciplines: biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and marine resource assessment.  The 10 activities have been implemented based on the research that presents strong student persistence and outcomes.

Recruitment Weekend.  Recruitment weekend happens every spring and is a three-day long event where faculty advisors invite prospective students to come to the College for a meet and greet with themselves and their laboratory group, other students in the College, College faculty, and administrators and staff. This gives the advisor an opportunity to see if the student would be a good fit for the program and the college.  It also allows the student to assess the program for fit, making the overall decision to enter the program a mutual one.  Lott, Gardner, and Powers (2009) state that one reason for such high attrition rates in graduate programs is because there is a mismatch between the student and the type of program he or she enrolls in to study.  They suggest better recruitment strategies like CMS’s Recruitment Weekend to ensure a closer line between experiences and expectations.

New Student Orientation.  The research is clear that when students are initially immersed into a department’s academic and social community, they are much more likely to succeed than if they are left to navigate graduate school alone (Lovitts & Nelson, 2001).  The College of Marine Science hosts a specific orientation for its new students in addition to the university graduate general orientation.  This allows the new students to be academically and socially integrated into the college and program from the start.  The academic administrator meets with each student one-on-one during orientation week to ensure each one understands the college policies, college processes, and to make sure each student’s individual academic questions are answered (i.e., funding situations, class registration, and office space).  Included in the orientation are lectures from the college dean, the director of academic affairs, and several other faculty and staff that will be resourceful for students to interact with during the program.  The college also provides a formal Presentation Bootcamp workshop presented by NSF Program Director, Richard Tankersley, to set the new students up for success in creating and presenting posters and their graduate work.  The workshop also makes for an excellent ice breaker for the new cohort as it consists of several group activities where the new students collaborate with one another.

Student Group.  The College of Marine Science has a student group that does education outreach as well as Friday gatherings in the student lounge with food and drink provided.  This is an opportunity for students to come together and establish a social network.  Faculty attend these gatherings as well, making the setting more causal and family-like.

Lunch with the Dean.  Every month the dean of the college meets with the students for a pizza lunch.  Students are able to submit an anonymous survey with their concerns, be it faculty relationships, no parking spaces, or lack of resources in their laboratory.  The dean answers all questions and works to ensure the students have the resources they need to be successful in their graduate program.

Spring Fling.  The Spring Fling is an event where the college administration partners with the student group to create a large event and social.  The dean gives an Annual Report to all faculty, staff, and students.  This presentation is followed by an event for all faculty, staff, students, and their families to gather for food, drink, music, and fun activities.

Annual Student Workshop.  This workshop is hosted by the Academic Affairs office where speakers are invited to present on topics that are most desired by the current students at the time.  Topics include applying for academic and non-academic jobs, tax preparation, and networking. It is a full-day event and is always reviewed highly by the students.

Student Participation on College Committees.  Student participation is included on all of the college committees, including the Dean’s Advisory Committee, the Curriculum Committee, and the Honors and Awards Committee, along with others.  This integrates students directly into the administration of the college as colleagues and voices the concerns of students, making them feel like a significant piece in decision-making.

Graduate Student Symposium.  The College organizes its own research symposium each year, allowing each student the chance to present their research to other students and all the faculty in the college.  Faculty also serve as judges of the presentations and provide feedback.  These opportunities help prepare the students professionally and instill a sense of connection among the faculty and the disciplines within the College.

Weekly Seminars.  The College of Marine Science holds weekly seminars hosted by marine scientists from across the globe to come and give a seminar to students, faculty, and staff.  As part of the first year at CMS, students take four core courses in Marine Science: one in each of the four disciplines.  A requirement in each core course is that the students attend ten of the seminars a semester.  This practice unites socialization with academics, allowing maximum integration of the students.  Research has confirmed the importance of this action, especially in the first year when attrition is at its highest (Golde, 1998; Lovitts, 2001; Tinto, 1993). 

Progress Reports.  Progress reports are required by every student each October.  The progress report tracks and holds the student accountable for academic benchmarks, deadlines, awards, and publications.  It also requires that the major advisor for the student provide a written statement on their student’s academic progress for the year that is reviewed by the Dean as part of their annual review.  This process holds both the student and the advisor equally accountable to the student’s academic success.

In summary, research has clarified that it is not what the students bring with them into the graduate program that causes them to depart, but what happens to them after they begin the experience (Nelson & Lovitts, 2001).  Administrators and advisors of graduate programs should recognize and acknowledge the significance of academic and social integration and work to implement some of the programming above that have contributed to the success of the USF’s College of Marine Science.

Brittany Sheehy
Assistant Director
College of Marine Science
University of South Florida
[email protected]


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Solem, M., Lee, J., & Schlemper, B. (2009). Departmental climate and student experiences in graduate geography programs. Research in Higher Education, 50(3), 268-292. doi:10.1007/s11162-008-9117-4

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Sheehy, B. (2016, December). Graduate student success: A model that works. Academic Advising Today, 39(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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