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The Graduate Student Experience: An Interview with Ann E. Austin

This article was originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

Ann E. Austin is an Associate Professor in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program at Michigan State University. Dr. Austin is the 2000- 2001 President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), in which she previously served on the Board of Directors (1985-1987), as Conference Program Chairperson (1992), and as chair and member of a number of committees. She also is the current Program Chair for Division J (Higher/Postsecondary Education) of the American Educational Research Association, for which she earlier served on the Division J Executive Board. She currently sits on the editorial boards of the Review of Higher Education, The Journal of Excellence in College Teaching and the Vanderbilt University Press Series on Higher Education, on the Board of Advisors of the South African Journal of Higher Education, and previously on the editorial boards of The Journal of General Education and Educational Administration Quarterly. In 1989, Ann Austin was the first recipient of the ASHE “Promising Scholar Award” (now called the “Early Career Award”). In 1998, she was named one of the forty “Young Leaders of the American Academy ” by Change. Dr. Austin was the plenary speaker at this year’s GradSTEP conference. Her talk addressed a variety of issue related to how universities and faculty members can help their graduate students better prepare for professional careers, whether these careers are in academia or outside. Also, Dr. Austin provided valuable advice to graduate students to help them have successful graduate experiences. The following are selected excerpts from an interview conducted by Tim Altman, Director of the Media and Technology Design Team of Vanderbilt’s Learning Technology Center.

Altman : Can you explain some of the factors influencing your approach to teaching and research?

Austin : One important influence is that the focus of my research has concerned faculty careers. How do early career faculty experience their work? What are the challenges they encounter? How can they be supported by the institution so that they do well and the institution and the students are feeling that this is a good situation? So a lot of my research has actually focused on what kind of challenges do early career faculty encounter in their teaching, and how do they go about learning how to teach? As I was doing the research, I was often learning things that I would want to apply to my own career. It’s actually that study of early career faculty that ultimately led me to say, “If I’m interested in how early career faculty learn how to teach as well as to do the other parts of their work, I think I should back up and start to study what happens in graduate education, the time of socialization that would prepare early career faculty.” A real problem that we’ve often discovered in the early career faculty research is that people starting out in faculty careers typically do not have much experience as teachers. Nor do they have much guidance about the full range of faculty responsibilities. They might, in some fields, have been teaching assistants, but even people who have been teaching assistants often have not had any systematic guidance about how to be a teaching assistant, or how to approach teaching. So, many faculty spend the first couple of years in their first appointment trying to figure out how to do this job well. What often happens for early career faculty is that someone who wants to teach well but knows that they do not have a lot of experience teaching will spend more and more time on their teaching in an effort to prepare very well for class. This often diminishes the time they spend on their research. Therefore their progress toward tenure may become jeopardized. In addition, even as they’re spending more and more time on their teaching, the work is not really guided by any real understanding of how students learn. It is usually just an effort to put more and more content into a course rather than to think about the learning processes. Reflection on this led me a few years ago to decide that I should study what happens in graduate education to investigate how we are getting people ready for the professoriate.

Altman : How did your experiences as a graduate student shape and guide how you now mentor graduate students?

Austin : That had a large impact on me. I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. I worked with many different professors, but I worked with two very closely: Joan Stark, who at the time was the Dean of the College of Education there, and Zelda Gamson, a sociologist. I did quite a bit of research with them. They have very different styles and approaches and this variety was beneficial to me. What I appreciated in them that I’ve since integrated into the way I work with my own students is that they provided opportunities for students to work with them. They found ways to integrate me and other graduate students into their research. Beyond that, Professor Stark integrated me into administrative work. That was appropriate because I was studying higher education. I try to provide similar opportunities for the students working with me. I try to consider whether there are papers I might want to write that students might help research and write. Another thing that each of these professors did was that they interacted with me in a personal as well as a professional way. I came to know them and their families well. They came to know me well. It was certainly a professor-student relationship, but it became a friendship, also. They were not afraid to incorporate the friendship into our work together. I think that has influenced a great deal the way I work with students. I decided that I needed to create relationships with students that are both collegial and friendly. So my own inclination in terms of working with my students is usually that we have very open, collaborative working relationships. We’re working on a research project, or on their dissertations or work they’re doing. I’ve learned also that it is important for the student and the faculty working together to think about their mutual expectations. What is it that a student might need from me? I have one student I am working with now who told me when we started working together that she needs an advisor who will reach out, not just let her go off on her own for a while. She needs an advisor to help her stay on track. That’s important to me, to have students feel free to say what they need. I have learned that I also need to say clearly what I expect. I have a husband and three children, so I have a life that includes a lot of responsibilities. I say to students with whom I work that they need to plan how they’re going to do their work. If they want me to read 30 pages, it’s not going to work if they give it to me at 5 o’clock one evening and expect to have it back by 8 o’clock the next morning. I need to integrate my work with them into other responsibilities that I have. So part of what I learned from my own professors is that working hard together, coming to know each other more personally, and being able to speak clearly about expectations coming from both directions is important.

Altman : So the exchange between a graduate student and his advisor is far more than transactional – it’s relational?

Austin : Absolutely. I think that it is 90% relational. Now, to some extent this is idiosyncratic to me – it’s virtually impossible for me to go about my work without connecting with my students – but I absolutely think that’s critical in the faculty-graduate student relationship, particularly the advisor-graduate student relationship. We know that in doctoral education there’s about a 50% attrition rate. About half the students who enter doctoral education don’t finish. When I first learned that I was astounded. I think that’s huge. Now, there are many reasons for that, and there are certainly good reasons someone would start graduate school and then decide that it is not the route that they would like to follow. One would expect that there would be some people who would decide not to continue. But I know also from some research I’ve done that there are often doctoral students who enter graduate school and are envisioning being able to cultivate what some – not everyone, but some – would call a mentoring kind of relationship with a faculty member. A relationship where they really are connecting, where there is some guidance for the student, where there’s a sharing of mutual scholarly interests. I’ve interviewed a number of students who say “this hasn’t happened for me and I’m losing my enthusiasm and my sense of my goals here.” So, I think it’s very important for advisors to realize that students are hoping for some kind of relationship that goes beyond just the transaction of saying “here’s my course list” or “here’s my paper” or “here’s the proposal.”

Altman : What are 2 or 3 things that graduate students should do to prepare for their professional careers?

Austin : One of the things they should do is to seek a relationship with not just one but several faculty members. I was talking before about some of the important roles that an advisor plays. But I also believe that graduate students themselves need to be very proactive about their education. It is not a matter of just showing up and doing the work, even if one is being a very good researcher or very good TA. There’s something more that’s required for success. We’ve learned in our research that the students who are the most successful in graduate school are the ones who are proactive. They are thinking about the kinds of opportunities they want to have. They’re saying to themselves that they want to have a career outside of academe in a particular area, or it might be that they wish to be a professor. And they’re asking themselves what experiences would help them move in that direction? So, one of the things that I think graduate students need to do is seek out other faculty members with whom they can talk about those goals that they have, with whom they can have conversations in which they say, “let me talk about me as a graduate student, let me talk about my passions, the questions that excite me. What does this mean for a career I might have, what does this mean for work I should do in graduate school?” Students need to get input from faculty members about what this means about the careers they can have and the work they can do in graduate school. So, one of the things I think graduate students should do is seek out those relationships, and actually say to some faculty members, “I really want to connect with you, talk with you regularly. Would that be possible?” Sometimes it evolves naturally, but it doesn’t always. Secondly, graduate students should be looking at the array of opportunities that a university offers. What I mean is in addition to the immediate opportunities of going to classes and having an advisor, or maybe working on a research team or being a teaching assistant, there are many other opportunities, such as lectures delivered by visiting scholars or by someone applying for a position. It takes a little bit of effort, and it’s something special that one has to add to one’s calendar. But those are critical. If students hear a lecture delivered by someone applying for a job, that gives them a sense of what’s going on in the academic labor market. That’s an example of taking advantage of opportunities. Graduate students also need to find out what career support is available on their campus. Many universities have offices that help students think through not only their disciplinary expertise, but also what one actually does in a logistical kind of way as one is thinking about one’s career. It takes additional effort to say “I’m not just going to work on my immediate day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, I’m going to think of this university and the scholarly opportunities it offers in the broadest way.” I think that’s really important. Another important step that graduate students can take is to think about how they can organize what I call developmentally focused opportunities. What I mean by that is, if you’re on a research team you may learn certain parts of doing the research, but you may not have learned how to write a grant proposal, or how to seek foundation or government support. Or you might not be on that research team at the time that the team is engaged in dissemination of information. So a graduate student who is thinking carefully about how they might progress developmentally might say “here are the experiences I’m having on this research team, but let me talk to my professor about other aspects of work involved in research.” Then that student, with the guidance of that professor, might consciously seek out other opportunities that they could have. So, if you hadn’t been involved in writing a proposal you might say “that’s not part of my assistantship, but I’m not going to be confined to my assistantship. I’m going to go volunteer my time somewhere else.” That’s what I mean by a student thinking through all the parts of career preparation. Advisors have to help with that, but I think students can be very proactive about that.

Altman : How important do you think being a teaching assistant is for a graduate student’s professional career?

Austin : I think if a graduate student is aspiring to be a college or university professor, being a teaching assistant is very important. I would have actually enjoyed being a teaching assistant, but my field of study didn’t allow it because there were no undergraduate courses to teach. But I definitely think that if a master’s or doctoral student is in a field where there are opportunities to teach, then it is very helpful to take those opportunities. It’s very important if one intends to be a faculty member. Even if you don’t intend ultimately to teach – for example, if you intend to work in leadership and management aspects of higher education – teaching is very important because it’s part of the core of what happens at a university or college. Understanding teaching is very helpful, so I would definitely encourage graduate students to do it if they can. One problem I’ve identified in my research is that in some fields, especially the sciences, there are a number of graduate students who would like to have teaching opportunities but are often encouraged by their faculty advisors not to take that route, but rather to stay with the research. There are many reasons advisors might say, “continue to do the research; don’t take the time to do the teaching.” One reason often is that the student is part of a research team and the graduate student’s contributions are needed on the team. Also, especially in the sciences, their future success often depends on what kind of researchers they are. I’ve often talked with graduate students who are not being encouraged by their faculty to teach, but the student wants that opportunity. My thought is that if a doctoral student or master’s student really wants that opportunity, even though they might be heavily involved in research, then I would like to see the university find ways to give the student that opportunity. In the long run providing those opportunities to teach will be very helpful to higher education because there is such national interest inside and outside academe in the quality of undergraduate education. So, if we in the university who are preparing graduate students don’t think about how we can actively prepare them to teach, then I think in a way we are not addressing the strong national interest in the quality of teaching and learning that happens in our universities.

Altman : What recommendations would you make to universities about improving graduate education?

Austin : A couple of things come to mind. First, within master’s and doctoral programs, faculty members and students should work together to develop what I call systematic opportunities to prepare for their career. What that would involve is faculty members and students together exploring the kinds of careers that are available. A doctoral student might not only be thinking about a career in academe; there are many opportunities, particularly in the sciences, for people to work in laboratories, industry, and business. Students and faculty should be working together to explore career options and the kinds of preparation needed in graduate education. That would be a strong recommendation. I believe that oftentimes our graduate programs are understandably organized around the research activities, and that those activities are extremely important. I’m a big advocate of research and do a lot of it myself – but I do believe that our graduate students need to be informed of many career options and then have opportunities in graduate school to prepare for different career options.

The second recommendation I would make grows out of my research. One problem identified in research that colleagues and I have done on graduate education is that graduate students often are not getting frequent and explicit feedback about their progress. Certainly they get grades if they’re taking courses. But in many cases they’re not engaged in regular conversation with an advisor who sits down with them and says “let’s explore what your goals are, where you want to go for a career, what opportunities you’re involved in here – research, courses, teaching, and so on – and let’s assess how well you’re doing.” These conversations often need to be rather frank conversations. I’ve been trying to give more explicit feedback in my own practice as a graduate professor. I find that sometimes it’s very hard. It’s sometimes hard to say to someone “you really are not progressing as well as you should, in your research skills, or in your ability as a teacher, or in your writing.” I recently had a conversation with a student who said he’s interested in becoming a faculty member, but he’s not doing the sorts of things he would need to do, such as writing and presenting articles or presenting at conferences. I needed to say to him, “your goals are not matching your activities.”

My second suggestion is that I think we need to commit ourselves as graduate faculty to more intensive and focused opportunities for feedback to students. And it’s easier said than done. Another area that I think needs attention – and this is an area where deans, graduate deans, and graduate schools can play a role -is helping students to develop the ability to communicate and perhaps work directly with people from other disciplines and fields. That is, an appreciation of interdisciplinary work, and how to do it. Though there are some exceptions, graduate education generally is predicated on intensive specialization in your field. It’s not for the most part focused on interdisciplinary work. There are lots of reasons it’s focused on specialization, but I think as universities think about how to prepare their graduate students for future roles, whether in the academy or out of the academy, we need to consider how to provide opportunities for our graduate students to apply their disciplinary expertise to issues that go beyond their immediate disciplines. I think the issues – the problems in our society, in our country, and in the world – that people with PhDs are being called on to address are problems that oftentimes cross disciplinary lines, and I believe that universities need to be thinking about ways to help graduate students learn how to work in interdisciplinary environments and on projects and problems in addition to specialization. Those are some of the things: More intensive advising, more focus on developmentally preparing people for careers, and more attention to helping graduate students see the place of their discipline in connection with broader problems and broader disciplines.