written by: Dr. April L. Perry & Dr. Valerie A. Shepard
Graduate and professional (G&P) education in its current (and continually-evolving) form in the United States was established during Generation Six (1850-1890): New Departures (Geiger, 2016). Despite the vast number of G&P students in the United States, who represent more than 15% of the total U.S. higher education enrollments and over 25% of all awarded degrees (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2020), we surprisingly do not have a lot of research on graduate student development, the G&P student experience, and how practitioners can best support these students outside of the classroom. Furthermore, the limited amount of research that is available on the graduate student experience has primarily been for and by faculty in discipline-specific contexts, and mostly focused on doctoral students (Hall-Hertel et al., 2022). There continues to be a need for research, resources, community building, and professional development specifically for student affairs practitioners who work with and support G&P students.
Although ACPA and NASPA have largely viewed student affairs through an undergraduate student-centered lens, these two organizations began paying more attention to G&P students starting in 1998, the year when the first informal meetings of graduate student services practitioners took place at each organization’s annual meeting. Currently, APCA is home to the Commission on Graduate and Professional Student Affairs (CGPSA); its counterpart in NASPA is the Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Knowledge Community (AGAPSS KC). Both serve as sources of community and support for practitioners who work with graduate and professional students. Beyond the vital conversations taking place within these organizations, practitioners have identified a need for more accessible training and resources for those who serve in the vast range of professional roles that support G&P students. In 2016, members of the AGAPSS KC initiated a curriculum project designed to build modules that could be implemented in already-existing higher education graduate courses. They also began to envision a project that would gather resources in a way that would make them easily available to practitioners at all levels, as well as improve communication among professionals and faculty who support graduate student thriving. This project that began as supportive discussions at conferences grew to become a book: A Practitioner’s Guide to Supporting Graduate and Professional Students (2022).
In this article, we will present a brief overview of the current graduate and professional education landscape, an overview of the book, and a call to action for practitioners. We conclude with a list of important resources and a reading guide of reflective questions specific for graduate students, new professionals, staff/administrators, and faculty who work with G&P students.
Overview of G&P Education
In the Fall of 2020, there was nearly a 40% decrease in international graduate students (mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic), but there was an increase in enrollment for first-time racial minority students (16% increase in Black students; 20% increase in LatinX students; 8% increase in Native American students) (Zhou & Gao, 2021). In Fall 2020, overall G&P student enrollment went up by 1.8%, but that was mostly masters students (but 40% are now part-time), and PhD enrollments decreased (Zhou & Gao, 2021). Additionally, it was found that 80% of undergraduate students say they are less likely to go straight to graduate school (increase in gap year) (Zhou & Gao, 2021). 1/3 of students identify coming into graduate school with significant stress showing similar symptoms to PTSD, and the stress is affecting students from marginalized populations disproportionately (Ogilvie et al., 2021, as cited in Council of Graduate Schools & the Jed Foundation, 2021). Furthermore, existing inequities accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including structural racism in the United States, continue to negatively affect G&P students’ mental health and wellbeing, student experience, and academic success (Council of Graduate Schools & The Jed Foundation, 2021)
Literature highlighting a variety of aspects of graduate education has been published since the 1800s (Access and download our extensive annotated bibliography here). The available research, however, is not written from a developmental perspective which would guide practitioner’s approaches to working with this student population. There are two primary misconceptions about G&P students: 1.) that they are just older versions of undergraduate students and do not have unique developmental processes and needs, and 2.) that they already have experience as undergraduate students, so they no longer need institutional support services. Because of these misconceptions, there has been limited research on G&P student experiences, needs, and thus support offered by institutions (Hall-Hertel et al., 2022).
The first documented publication highlighting G&P students as a unique student subgroup who need support and attention by student affairs practitioners was in 1995 (Pruitt-Logan & Isaac). Although it was brought to light in the 1990s that we needed more research and resources from a student affairs perspective, other than some references in Learning Reconsidered (2004; 2006) and in Guentzel and Nesheim (2006), as well as Pontius and Harper’s (2006) work on guiding questions for inquiry to address G&P specific needs, there have been very few formal responses to the limited research. Therefore, A Practitioner’s Guide seeks to fill this gap by curating available research, theory, and promising practices.
About the Book
A Practitioner’s Guide to Supporting Graduate and Professional Students aims to help practitioners understand how to support the academic and professional socialization process for graduate and professional students, regardless of their degree level or discipline. It is organized in three parts: Part I provides a general overview of both G&P student services and graduate education in the US, including a focused chapter on G&P student needs. Part II describes successful strategies for G&P student affairs practitioners, including information on transitioning into graduate school, advising, mentorship, engagement, belonging, and assessment. Each of the chapters in Part II include multiple case studies to complement the topic. While discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are infused throughout the book, there is a specific chapter on DEI approaches to graduate student success. Part III of the book forecasts what might be next and the training needed for future practitioners. It includes a chapter on the AGAPSS curriculum project, in which modules on G&P topics were developed and implemented into current graduate courses in higher education student affairs and now are available for all practitioners (more details below).
The book is organized so that it may be read from start to finish, as each chapter builds on the previous one; at the same time, for readers who are looking for information on a specific topic, each chapter and case study may stand alone. Additionally, the case studies in chapters 4-9 describe actionable, practical examples that practitioners can apply and adapt to address localized needs on their campuses. As a general handbook, A Practitioner’s Guide does not include all topics; we intend that it will function as a catalyst for further research to inform practice, as well as community building among those who support G&P student success.
Call to Action
Our situation has obviously changed, our students have changed and are changing, and we have limited research available to guide our practice…So what now? Our practices must adapt. We believe our success as institutions, and particularly our success in serving G&P students, is contingent on forward-thinking as we transition out of the pandemic, not back to business-as-usual. In adapting our practices, we believe there are a few overarching items (the what) that should guide our thinking:
- Redefine student success from transactional to transformational. We must shift our approach from services provided to developmentally minded, and from segmented support to holistic student development.
- Create diverse pathways for enrollment and completion. We must think creatively about how to recruit G&P students and support them through their academic pursuits.
- Shift our culture from competitive to supportive. We must identify ways to help G&P students of all identities succeed using innovative metrics instead of the traditional metrics, which have been created through white, hegemonic, and colonialist perspectives.
- Make career connections. We must help G&P students gain transferable skills, access professional development opportunities, and develop interdisciplinary networks for the multitude of career transitions they will face.
- Prioritize holistic wellbeing. We must recognize the foundational role wellbeing plays in G&P student success: when G&P students do not have equitable access to health promoting environments, they cannot engage at the highest levels in their academic pursuits. When practitioners and faculty do not have equitable access to health promoting environments, they cannot engage at the highest levels either.
- Wrap our minds around the inequitable, long-term effects of trauma and fatigue from COVID-19. Although we may be eager to move through and past the global pandemic, we must not be naïve about the effect it has (and will continue to have) on our mental health and overall capacity. We must recognize how this will not only affect student engagement and performance, but also our own ability to do this important work. Navigating a global pandemic has propelled us years into the future, particularly with regard to using technology in our practice. Reflective questions:
- How do we use what we have learned moving forward, broadly defined?
- How has what we have learned from recent events allowed us to evaluate our work and thus redetermine essential practices?
- Have we reexamined quality of services versus quantity?
Using a transformational (versus transactional) mindset should not only inform what services we can and should offer, but also should be our baseline for how we engage with students. We must meet students where they are (which is different from before the pandemic), acknowledging G&P students’ dynamic, unique, and localized needs. We must come back to the essentials of student support and success, considering, for example:
- Basic Needs (i.e., Maslow, 1987)
- Sense of Belonging (affinity groups; space & place, faculty affirmation, etc.).
- Community-Building (engagement, involvement, peer-support, faculty support)
- Mentoring, Coaching, and Advising
- Transferable skill development (communication, resiliency, adaptability, collaboration, etc.).
We often define student success by retention and completion, but those are outcomes of success. The support efforts and innovative approaches are the drivers that get us to those desired outcomes. Practitioners and faculty need support networks and knowledge of promising practices specific to G&P student success to advocate for appropriate institutional structures, programs, and resources that foster it.
Resources to Guide Action
In this article, we have presented general information about G&P students, the limited research we have on supporting this student population, and the gap our book has aimed to fill. We then presented a call to action for practitioners who work with G&P students to reframe the what and the how of our work. In order to meet this challenge, we would like to guide readers to some important resources.
- The Book – A Practitioner’s Guide to Supporting Graduate and Professional Students is an essential starting point for understanding the history and context of our work, the unique needs of G&P students, and a plethora of promising practices. With 50 contributors, this is an important collection of G&P work presented in an easy-to-read, grab-and-go kind of way. Link to book here (use code FLA22 for a 20% discount).
- The Appendix (free download here) – This is a collection of G&P-focused publications and presentations since the 1800s. If you want to know more about the history of this work, organized categorically and chronologically, this annotated bibliography is a great starting point.
- In Part III of the book, we present an initiative from the NASPA AGAPSS KC, in which a series of training modules on various G&P topics/sub-populations have been developed. We have now created a website where these modules can be accessed by the public. We encourage you to:
- Access and use the modules. These are great within graduate curriculum, as well as for self-education and staff training (link).
- Write a module. If you have deeper knowledge and experience with a specific G&P population or entity of G&P work, please consider developing a module to contribute to the advancement of our field. There are module instructions and templates online (link).
- Since the publication of the book in February 2022, we have done a series of conference presentations and webinars. During these presentations, we invite participants to share their innovative practices to a JamBoard. Click here to access the board and share/gather additional strategies and contacts to support G&P students.
- Finding a community of practice is essential. Consider joining G&P functional groups in professional associations, including ACPA’s CGPSA, NASPA’s AGAPSS KC, as well as other organizations specific to your role in supporting G&P students (examples include the Graduate Career Consortium and NAGAP, the Association for Graduate Enrollment Management). All of these organizations include opportunities to connect both in-person and via social media. A more comprehensive list is available in the Appendix of the book (free download here).
Reading Guide/Reflection Questions:
Graduate Students studying Higher Education:
- Think about how your own graduate student experience (right now) is different from your undergraduate experience. Based on that, reflect on what you may need now from the institution (different types of student life programs and services, academic support, affinity groups, etc.).
- Think about where you are in your life now (developmentally, financially, level of responsibilities, etc.) and how that might be different from when you were an undergrad. What support/resources could help you? (access to additional mental health support, childcare, professional development, etc.).
- What are some things your current institution is doing well to support G&P students? How can you replicate them if/when you are a professional who works to support G&P student success?
- What are some things your current institution is not doing to support G&P student success that you wished they did? How can you take your relevant, lived experience as a graduate student to help inform and support future graduate students whom you make work with and/or supervise?
- Do you know where to gain additional knowledge and resources about supporting graduate and professional students? (See resources listed above).
- Are you finding that you work (directly or indirectly) with graduate students in your role? If directly, do you know where to access a community of practitioners doing similar work? (see communities of practice listed above). If indirectly, do you know where to learn more about specialized G&P populations and topics? (see training modules linked above).
- If you work in a centralized campus unit primarily serving undergraduate students (i.e., career services, financial aid, campus life, etc.), how can you begin to expand your support/services to include G&P students?
- When building programs and events, do you consider graduate students? How can you expand your offerings to include graduate student development in your work?
- Have you considered partnering with the graduate school or other campus units that support graduate students? Can you use your knowledge of student development and particular functional area(s) to collaborate with campus units who work directly with graduate students?
- Do you supervise graduate students? If so, do you know appropriate resources on your campus to refer them to in order to support their own professional development, wellbeing, and student success? If you do not know about appropriate resources, who can you talk with on your campus or within a community of practice to inform your knowledge in this area? (See communities of practice listed above).
Staff/Administrators who work with G&P Students:
- If you work at a campus that serves undergraduate and G&P students, to what extent do the G&P students understand that services “for students” are available to and relevant for them?
- What are some successful strategies you use to center G&P student voices in designing programs and services for them?
- What is your level of familiarity with the CAS Standards for Graduate and Professional Student Programs and Services (2019)? Do you utilize it in your strategic planning and design of programs and services for G&P students? If so, reflect on what are some specific elements of it that are the most useful to your work, and why they are useful.
- What institutional data do you have available that informs your knowledge of localized G&P student needs? Who can you partner with at your institution to get and disseminate this information? What are some specific ways you can incorporate it into 1.) your design of programs and services 2.) your cross-campus partnerships with staff, faculty and students, and 3.) your advocacy to support G&P student success?
- Who supports your professional development on your campus, and in professional associations? What are some specific actions you can take to connect with and build your professional community? (See communities of practice listed above).
Faculty who teach G&P Students:
- How do you support G&P students outside of the classroom? And outside of discipline-specific items? How can you re-center holistic development and wellbeing regardless of discipline?
- How do the faculty in your academic unit approach G&P student needs? How can you explore (on a local level, formally or informally) G&P student experiences to understand their needs and thus how to meet those needs?
- Reflect on what services you can offer to G&P students (i.e., advising and supporting), and make yourself (and colleagues) aware of campus resources to direct students to (i.e., mental health support, career support, emergency financial support, food pantries, childcare, etc.).
- Faculty teaching Higher Education: How are you incorporating G&P student experiences, concepts, and development into your curriculum as you prepare future practitioners who are likely to work with G&P students in their career? (See resources listed above).
American College Personnel Association (ACPA), & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). (2004). Learning reconsidered: A campus-wide focus on the student experience. NASPA/ACPA. https://www.naspa.org/book/learning-reconsidered-a-campus-wide- focus-on-the-student-experience
Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education. (2019). Standards for graduate and professional student programs and services [Revised 2017]. CAS professional standards for higher education (10th ed.). Author. www.cas.edu
Council of Graduate Schools & The Jed Foundation. (2021). Supporting graduate student mental health and well-being: Evidence-informed recommendations for the graduate community. The Authors. Retrieved July 22, 2022 from https://cgsnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/CGS_JED_Grad-Student-Mental-Health-Report-1.pdf
Geiger, R. L. (2016). The ten generations of American higher education. In M. N. Bastedo, P. G. Altbach, & P. J. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges (4th ed., pp. 3-34). Johns Hopkins University Press.
Guentzel, M. J., & Nesheim, B. E. (Eds.) (2006, Fall). Supporting graduate & professional students: The role of student affairs. New Directions for Student Services. Jossey-Bass.
Hall-Hertel, K., Brandes, L. C. O., & Shepard, V. A. (2022). Introduction: Context, Research, and Applications. In V. A. Shepard & A. L. Perry (Eds.), A Practitioner’s Guide to Supporting Graduate and Professional Students (pp. 3-16). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003121671-2
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (n.d.). NCES fast facts tool. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372#College_enrollment
Pontius, J., & Harper, S. R. (2006, Fall). Principles for good practice in graduate and professional student engagement. In M. J. Guentzel & B. E. Nesheim (Eds.), Supporting graduate & professional students: The role of student affairs (pp. 47–58). New Directions in Student Services. Jossey-Bass.
Pruitt-Logan, A. S., & Isaac, P. D. (Eds.) (1995, Winter). Student services for the changing graduate student population. New Directions for Student Services, 42. Jossey-Bass.
Zhou, E., & Gao, J. (2021). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2010 to 2020. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. Retrieved from https://cgsnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/CGS_GED20_Report_final_v2-2.pdf
Dr. April L. Perry (she/her) is an Associate Professor in the M.Ed. Higher Education Student Affairs program at Western Carolina University and currently serves as the Department Head for Human Services. Her research is primarily on student identity development, career development, student transitions, and institutional initiatives for student success. As a practitioner, April has worked in graduate school administration, student leadership programs, parent & family programs, fundraising & marketing, and academic tutoring services. She lives by the motto that the only thing better than watching someone grow is helping them grow. For more information about April, visit aprilperry.weebly.com
Dr. Valerie A. Shepard (she/her) is a Senior Writer at UCLA Recreation. She has been a Student Affairs practitioner for over 10 years, and has held regional and national leadership positions in the NASPA Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services (AGAPSS) Knowledge Community. Prior to her current role, she was the Assistant Director of the UCLA Graduate Student Resource Center. She also worked on the development of ImaginePhD (a collaborative project of the Graduate Career Consortium: https://www.imaginephd.com/creators). She has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UCLA.