Graduate Student Advising | Roth-Saks


As higher education professionals and professors, we often supervise graduate students and new professionals and teach in student affairs programs. Yet, how often do we think about advising graduate students? In the wake of the pandemic, we all had to adjust to online engagement for at least a semester if not more. While we may all feel like experts in using Zoom with colleagues and students now, we don’t know what the impact of the pandemic will be long term. Given these considerations, how often do we think about how to successfully advise online? Considering the increasing number of online graduate students, advisors and faculty need to think about how they are advising graduate students online whether their students are online or on-campus. While the pandemic has obviously impacted higher education as much as the rest of society, it also offers opportunities to connect with students in new ways that may have started as necessities but can now lead to greater student success and engagement.

Relevant Literature

Although graduate students are not homogenous, they do exhibit characteristics that help define them as a student population for academic advising purposes. An estimated one million graduate students took at least one distance or online course in the 2015-16 academic year (Seaman et al., 2018). In fall 2018, that number was about 1.2 million and over 900,000 of those students took only online courses (NCES, 2020). Given this growth, it is essential that faculty and advisors not only consider how to advise students online, but how to do it well.

Online Learning and Graduate Students

Online students have lower retention rates than face-to-face students, so academic advising is especially important to mitigate that attrition (Kimball & Campbell, 2013; Varney, 2009; Waldner et al., 2011). Since lower retention rates are connected to online students’ feelings of isolation (Ohrablo, 2016) sense of belonging and socialization are two student development theories that can help academic advisors address those feelings to better serve their students and prevent withdrawals.

Graduate students who take some or all their courses online are a growing population among higher education institutions (Seaman et al., 2018). They are generally adult learners often with full-time jobs and families and are returning to school after a pause in higher education—sometimes for several years (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2019). Given their non-traditional characteristics and the increasing likelihood they may be studying at a distance from their institutions, faculty and staff teaching and advising need to consider socialization and sense of belonging as important student development theories for their professional and personal growth (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Strayhorn, 2016). Depending on the flexibility of their institutions and their own preferred schedules, faculty and advisors may consider adjusting working hours to meet with students who may be online in different time zones or who may not keep to traditional schedules.

Faculty and advisors might also consider proactive advising and self-directed advising. These approaches connect socialization and sense of belonging theories to strategies around communication and technology for helping graduate students succeed whether they are on-campus or online. In considering these theories and approaches to advising, faculty and advisors should ask themselves how they are connecting to their students, how are they helping their students connect to each other and their institution, and what approaches work best for their students.

Despite the growing number of online graduate students, there is a dearth of advising research focused on graduate learners and distance learners, let alone research on the two populations combined (Gupta, 2018). While research is lacking, the characteristics of who is studying online in graduate programs can provide a sense of appropriate theories and approaches to support student success. In the 2015-16 academic year, about 52% of online graduate students were married, almost 53% had dependents, just under 53% owned a home or paid a mortgage, almost 83% held a job while studying, and almost 80% attended school part-time (NCES, 2019). Although the majority of students taking only online graduate courses were White (55%) and female (63%), almost 24% were Black, 11% were Hispanic, almost six percent were Asian, and almost four percent indicated they were other or two or more races (NCES, 2019). The average age for online graduate students was about 37 years old and on average it had been almost eight years between when they earned their bachelor’s degree and started graduate school (NCES, 2019). Of course, no student is a collection of statistics, but the fact that online graduate students are often working professionals who have families and outside commitments as compared to direct-from-undergrad students impacts to their participation in education and their advising needs.

Graduate Student Development Theories

Student development theories often focus on traditional, on-campus, undergraduate students, but they can be applicable to non-traditional, online, graduate students (Gupta, 2018). Sense of belonging is one theoretical concept to consider in advising online graduate students. The theory asserts that students need to feel part of and cared for by an institution, a program, and their fellow students (Strayhorn, 2016), which is especially important to consider for online graduate students who may feel a greater physical disconnect from an institution. Strayhorn (2016) also argued that belonging is not static and changes for students based on what they are going through. Changes in connection and belonging may be true for graduate students whose outside lives often take priority over their education.

Belonging also plays a role in how students’ identities intersect with their lived experiences (Strayhorn, 2016). Intersectionality is important to consider for online graduate students who are majority women and/or from diverse backgrounds economically and ethnically (NCES, 2019).  Intersectionality posits that individual experiences interact in more complicated ways than just a person being the sum of their identities (Strayhorn, 2013; 2016).

Socialization theory is another important student development consideration for online graduate students. Socialization theory asserts that graduate students move through a process to learn, grow, and develop values through graduate education to enter their intended profession (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Preisman, 2019). The stages of socialization (anticipatory, formal, informal, and personal) connect to belonging as well and should be carefully considered for online graduate students.

The anticipatory stage happens while students are applying to programs and often comes with preconceived notions of a profession and specific programs; it is also the most hierarchical stage, happening almost exclusively before the others. The formal stage happens when students are accepted, enroll in courses, and interact with faculty and students. It is especially important in building connections to professors to develop specialized skills and knowledge in a field (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Preisman, 2019).

In the informal stage, students build connections with their fellow students outside of class especially in social settings. It happens throughout a program and contributes to a sense of belonging. Making these connections can be especially challenging for online students who may not meet their fellow students in traditional social settings. During the personal stage students establish or reestablish an identity in their personal and professional lives (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Preisman, 2019). Interacting with faculty, building informal connections with peers, and reevaluating an identity based on educational experiences can be especially challenging for online students who do not feel as connected to an institution and may not interact with fellow students as often outside the classroom (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Ohrablo, 2016). Considering the importance of connection for sense of belonging and in socialization theory, proactive and self-directed advising approaches are useful to help students feel connected to their institutions.

Graduate Student Advising Strategies

Proactive advising, although usually associated with supporting at-risk students, can be used in graduate programs to help an institution intentionally reach out to online and on-campus students to show students that faculty, staff, and the institution care about them even if they do not see them on-campus (Cross, 2018; Varney, 2009, 2013). Specific approaches of proactive graduate student advising  both online and on-campus include identifying strategies and skills to support them, ensuring a feeling of belonging, using direct contact to identify challenges they are facing, and communicating resources to help them be successful (Varney, 2013). Elements of proactive advising to support these approaches include relationship building similar to counseling while acknowledging advisors are not counselors; crafting not just professional, but personal advising to show care; and reaching out to students often by phone, e-mail, video, and social media to demonstrate accessibility (Ohrablo, 2016; Varney, 2009, 2013).

In addition to proactive approaches, self-directed advising is an approach that can be designed specifically for online graduate students to support connections to fellow students, faculty, and the institution (Gupta, 2018). Gupta (2018) found that online advising at the master’s level runs the risk of becoming transactional instead of holistic due to the amount of information available through technology, however the self-directed approach when implemented successfully can use technology to create a greater connection to advisors. Although self-advising can lead to problems for online graduate students not meeting requirements, self-directed advising does not mean advisors are disengaged from their students (Cross, 2018; Gupta, 2018).

Self-directed advising is a self-determined approach to allow for student autonomy while also building professional competencies for career development (Gupta, 2018). The approach requires advisors to build learning with students, support them throughout their program, and especially to be available to students. Students develop their own goals, evaluate the progress they are making towards those goals, and develop competencies they have identified as important in their careers (Gupta, 2018). Students are empowered by advisors to direct their own learning, plan their own path, support their fellow students, and complete regular self-assessments (Gupta, 2018). The support of fellow students and the accessibility of advisors connect to theories of belonging and socialization among graduate students studying online and on-campus while still providing self-sufficiency for adult learners (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Strayhorn, 2016).

Considering student belonging and socialization theories and proactive and self-directed advising approaches, there are three strategies that advisors can use to help online graduate students succeed. The first strategy is early, often, and consistent communication by an advisor across multiple platforms (Cross, 2018; Ohrablo, 2016; Varney, 2009; Waldner et al., 2011). The second is the creation and use of a robust Learning Management System (LMS) to connect students to the university as well as provide resources and tools (Gansemer-Topf, 2006; Gupta, 2018; Preisman, 2019; Waldner et al., 2011). The final strategy is the use of predictive analytics to identify students before they feel disconnected from the institution (Burke et al., 2017; Varney, 2009).


A strong advisor communication strategy for online graduate students should start early, be advisor-initiated, and meet the students where they are. It can start as early as the admissions process to give even prospective students a connection to the institution and program (Varney, 2009). In addition to happening early, the advisor may have to reach out to the student first, as proactive advising recommends (Varney, 2013).

Even with students that were not at-risk, Cross (2018) found that they preferred proactive communication by advisors especially in regard to students adjusting to online learning for the first time. Communication should also be available and timely across multiple platforms including email, phone, social media apps, and video conferencing (Cross, 2018; Ohrablo, 2016). Ohrablo (2016) recommends considering email communication for online students not as an administrative task, but as a chance to offer comprehensive advising including open-ended questions and warm greetings. Phone calls, whether scheduled or impromptu, should also mirror advising in a face-to-face meeting (Ohrablo, 2016). Video conferencing presents a tool that can be as effective as in-person advising, although as with any technology advisors need to be well-trained to use it (Waldner et al., 2011).

Learning Management Systems

As with communication, a strong LMS can be used in online graduate programs even before students start classes as an orientation tool (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Preisman, 2019; Varney, 2009; Waldner et al., 2011). Online graduate orientations should follow the same best practices as they do for on-campus undergraduates but should also consider adult student needs like childcare resources, a transition back to school after time away, and technology training (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Waldner et al., 2011). The LMS can also include pre-recorded orientation videos from resource centers on-campus; links to forms, tools, and resources; and active discussion boards where students can connect with each other and faculty for socialization (Preisman, 2019; Waldner et al., 2011).

The LMS can be used beyond orientation as a continued space for students to connect, self-assess, and adjust their plans and goals similar to academic coursework (Gansemer-Topf et al., 2006; Gupta, 2018; Preisman, 2019). In order for it to be successful, it has to be well-organized and accessible so that students can navigate to sections long after orientation is over; find resources when they need them; and easily connect with students, staff, and faculty throughout their programs (Gupta, 2018; Preisman, 2019; Waldner et al., 2011). A robust LMS also offers an opportunity in the final strategy for advising online graduate students through predictive analytics (Burke et al., 2017).

Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics can be used in advising to collect and understand data to proactively reach out to online graduate students who may not be engaging fully with the institution (Burke et al., 2017; Varney, 2013). Because engagement and connection to the institution is so important for graduate students online and on-campus, data available in the LMS including activity not just in classes, but also in a non-academic online space during a program can help advisors know which students need outreach (Cross, 2018; Ohrablo, 2016). Currently, higher education predictive analytics are mostly focused on academic data, but in a graduate program, it could also focus on student engagement with resources centers, participation in non-academic discussion boards, or internal social media platforms; however any expansion of data usage, must come with careful considerations of data privacy (Burke et al., 2017).


Comprehensive communication, deliberate use of an LMS, and predictive analytics are three strategies to better engage online graduate students before and during their programs. These strategies fit well with a modified proactive advising approach that focuses on all students and the self-directed advising approach that creates a partnership between students and advisors to allow for autonomy and connection. That connection is so important for online graduate students who balance multiple priorities in life and may never set foot on campus. Strategies and approaches to create connections should be informed by sense of belonging and socialization student development theories to ensure student success in graduate school and beyond.

Case Studies

Kira Jones

As an advisor and administrator for an online graduate program, Dr. Matthew Smith (he/him) emails you to let you know that Kira Jones (she/her) has been attending the synchronous sessions of their class, but her video is always off, she almost never speaks during the class, and she often signs on late and leaves early. She has been submitting assignments on time and is getting good grades on them, but the professor is concerned about her participation as that is an important component of the class grade. You know Kira has two young children that she watches at the same time as the class, has a full-time job, and has been out of school for almost a decade. In reviewing her activity in the learning management system, you notice that she watches all of the asynchronous videos, often more than once, responds to discussion posts, and sometimes rewatches the synchronous sessions when they are recorded. How would you respond to Professor Smith? What would you say to Kira?

Franklin Thompson

Franklin Thompson (they/them) is one of your advisees in an on-campus graduate program. They work full-time, are married, and care for their aging father. They have said that they are completing the program to advance their career and earn more money so that they can pay for additional support for their father and have children. They live about an hour from campus and often drive to campus to attend class. They have struggled to find classes that fit their schedule and have missed some class sessions due to personal commitments. Your program also offers an online format, but Franklin has said they do not learn well in online classes. How could you connect Franklin to appropriate courses to help them consider if online courses might be an option? What tools are already being used in on-campus courses that might make Franklin more open to different learning modalities? What would you advise Franklin to do?

Professor Sarah Brown

Professor Brown (she/her) teaches in an on-campus graduate program that has launched an online format. She is interested in online learning but has almost no experience in it outside of remote emergency teaching during the pandemic. She is an engaged professor who holds lively debates in class, invites her students to group lunches, and encourages office hour attendance. While her on-campus course evaluations were excellent again this past semester, her online evaluations were poor. Her students complained that synchronous sessions were uninteresting and dry, she was inaccessible outside of class time, and she did not engage students in the course content. How would you support her? What strategies would you suggest to the instructor to engage her students? What ways can they mirror her successful on-campus engagement practices to the online format?

Reflection Questions:

  1. How can faculty make sure their students feel connected to their institution beyond the classroom whether online or on-campus?
  2. How can advisors create programming that builds connections for graduate students in the anticipatory, formal, information, and personal stages of socialization?
  3. How can faculty and advisors build connections for graduate students across online and on-campus programs?
  4. How can faculty and advisors help graduate students develop their own goals and evaluate their progress toward their goals?
  5. What tools are students, faculty, and advisors already using that can be repurposed to build better and deeper connections

About the Author

Adam Roth-Saks is the Administrative Director of the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership at the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Penn, he worked in international education arranging experiential opportunities for university students and faculty with nonprofits and social enterprises in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Adam received his BA from Brown University, his MSEd in International Educational Development at the Graduate School of Education at Penn and is currently pursuing his EdD with a concentration in Higher Education at Penn.


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