Book by Kenneth A. Tokuno 
Review by: Lucas G. Rubin 
Director, Master of Science Program Director
School of Continuing Education, Columbia University

While much attention has been paid to undergraduate attrition, far less has concerned that of graduate students – particularly in their first, and perhaps most critical year (p. 27). Given the variety and complexity of graduate education, this is understandable – but lamentable, given the increasing importance which graduate education plays both for the professional workplace and in academic programming. Graduate Students in Transition is an admirable effort to bridge this gap through a bifurcated structure that surveys the relevant theories and current issues before turning to detail a number of possible retention strategies. 

To begin, the challenges facing stop-loss initiatives in graduate education are significant; on average, graduate student attrition rates range from a low of 2% in medical schools to as high as 50% for PhD programs (p. 10). Further, the myriad of graduate education types (which at the master’s level alone includes a bewildering array of degrees – MA; MPA; MBA; MPA; MLA; MPH, etc…), the different types of institutions (public or private, etc), and the diversity of student demographics, obviate any simple, or one-size-fits-all solution. Accordingly, Graduate Students in Transition enters the fray by identifying points of commonality through a systematic and comprehensive review of the relevant theories (Chapter 2). These include theories of developmental change (e.g. Erikson’s seminal work on the stage theory of development), college impact models (sociological in perspective), and combined theories (which integrate the two). By approaching the issue in theoretical terms, several points of commonality are deduced, most significantly that there is a need for graduate students to feel that they are part of a larger community (p. 44; “community of scholars” as the author specifically notes, which should perhaps be extended to also include “professionals” or “practitioners” as the case might be).  

The processes of transition, socialization, and integration remain the central themes throughout Graduate Students in Transition. In this regard, subsequent chapters consider the specific challenges faced by master’s students (Chapter 3), students of color (Chapter 4), and international students (Chapter 5). The second part of the book (“Strategies, Initiative, and Innovations”) focuses on four specific strategies for maintaining graduate student persistence: orientation programs; transition courses; mentoring; and graduate student centers. For each, ample discussion of the various forms that these might take and suggestions for best practices are offered; there are some real gems to be found throughout, such as the diagram that outlines an eight year academic and professional plan for PhD students (p. 112). 

Graduate Students in Transition is an ambitious book that has much to offer the administrator charged with insuring student persistence and degree completion. It is especially helpful in regards to master’s level students – particularly in the professional fields – where the classic systems of mentoring and apprenticeship are not long-standing. Although master’s students account for the vast majority of graduate students (more than 90%), less research has been undertaken in regards to their persistence and attrition than PhD students (p. 47). Although this is, by and large, a reflection of their second-class status within the academy, master’s level degrees play an increasingly important role in many professions (p.13)   as well as to many an institution’s bottom line: as most master’s degree students self-finance, they provide an increasingly important revenue stream. Accordingly, insuring graduate student persistence can also critically boost the bottom line; after all, it is not just the numbers, but the total credit hours that are the important metric.

  N.b. The percentage of U.S. adults with a master’s degree increased from 3% in 1984 to 6% in 2001. What it’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2001. US Census Bureau. September 2005. http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p70-98.pdf. Retrieved on May 26, 2009.

Graduate students in transition: Assisting students through the first year (2008). Book by Kenneth A. Tokuno (Ed.). Review by: Lucas G. Rubin. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 170 pp. Price: $40.00 ISBN 1545-5742
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