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    Chapter 6: Facilitating Positive Student-Faculty Relationships
    Chapter 6: Facilitating Positive Student-Faculty Relationships

    The third of the Four Conditions focuses on the sine qua non of doctoral study: faculty-student working relationships. Tinto (1993) emphasized the importance of faculty in integration into a doctoral program and degree completion. In one study (Lawson, 1985), degree completers were better able than non-completers to determine and describe faculty expectations. Preston (2003) found simply having a mentor enhances the likelihood of degree completion. However, Lovitts (2001) found that different dissertation supervisors had markedly different success rates; the authors found that the most successful supervisors participate frequently in meetings with each advisee, spend more hours per week interacting with their advisees, help advisees with job searches, engage in more professional activities, see students in both informal and formal settings, and co-author journal articles or chapters with advisees. Gender differences are also noted. For instance, women students were more positively influenced than men by faculty support (Baird, 1974) and rated role-model relationships as more important than did male students (Gilbert, 1985).


    Due to the primacy of the relationship between the doctoral student and faculty members in doctoral education, we examined these relationships in greater detail. For instance, we sought to study methods by which programs encourage productive relationships between students and faculty members. Additionally, we wanted to understand more fully how doctoral students currently choose their advisors. Last, we examined what faculty members and current doctoral students perceive as their ideal advisor-advisee relationship.


    The participating programs and students also reported ways in which programs facilitate student and faculty cohesiveness. One method for facilitating positive relationships involves simply increasing opportunities for faculty-student interactions. The majority of programs (91%) arrange for social activities. Of the programs who actively organized social events, 77% percent host events on a weekly or monthly basis and 23% host events between two to eight times per year. Activities ranged from ice-cream socials, coffee and cookies, brown-bag seminars, weekly teas, pizza lunches and periodic happy-hours to more elaborate events like softball games, bowling nights, gatherings at faculty homes or restaurants, annual picnics, new student welcome receptions, student recognition and awards events, holiday parties and formal receptions. These events allowed students and faculty to build professional networks with one another as well as participate in relaxing recreational activities.


    Involving students in program decision-making processes also helps strengthen student-faculty relationships. Additionally, doctoral student involvement is positively associated with completion (Nerad & Cerny, 1991). For example, some of our participating programs invited students to serve on committees for admissions/recruitment, faculty searches, and curriculum. Another practice for promoting faculty-student interaction and encouragement is through publicly recognizing student and faculty achievements, such as publications, presentations, passing comprehensive examinations, and achieving tenure. Moreover, faculty who make significant contributions to improving doctoral completion should be lauded.


    Regarding how advisors are chosen, the majority of programs (61%) report the selection process is entirely student-driven and final selection is via mutual agreement between the student and the chair. The selection of the student’s dissertation chair in remaining programs included the following methods: student interviews of each faculty member, faculty members who recruit students through research assistantship, or student participation in a rotation in each faculty member’s lab. Although the research literature is limited in its description of how dissertation chairs should be selected, Gell (1995) found that parallel expectations of an advisor/advisee relationship and advisor training were crucial to a successful professional relationship.


    Although most programs (97%) report that their students can change dissertation chairs, few of the programs have formal policies in place if that situation arises. Twenty-six percent of the participating programs report that if the student initiates the change, then he or she would need to complete a written request with the graduate coordinator or the director of graduate studies. However, for 35% of the programs a dissertation chair change can occur after verbal discussions between the student, the chair, and the graduate program director or graduate coordinator.


    Both faculty and students generally agree on the importance this primary student-faculty relationship has on doctoral completion. One faculty member stated, "another reason why students who do finish, finish, is because of having a mentor, a research professor, or a chair of the supervising committee who is committed to [his or her] obligation to educate the next generation of Ph.D. students."


    Our studies and the research literature suggest there are benefits to improving student-faculty relationships in the following areas: mentoring, communication, research, and opportunities that increase student and faculty interactions.



    Several positive outcomes occur when mentors are utilized to provide encouragement and support to students. For example, doctoral students who have mentors produce significantly more research publications, and are more content overall with their program (Nettles & Millett, 2006). Additionally, Preston (2003) found that a significant factor between completers and non-completers is whether or not a student has a mentor. In our research studies, participants reported personal examples of mentoring that ranged from micromanagement to completely independent research. Interestingly, faculty and students have different ideas as to what defines a good mentor as such. Faculty believe their role is one of coach, colleague, supporter, and facilitator; whereas students believe a mentor’s role as is providing guidance on how to meet the student’s goals.


    Research in the area has shown that a student's research productivity is influenced by two aspects of mentoring- psychosocial support (rapport), which includes listening, building confidence, and support; as well as career support (apprenticeship), which includes networking and professional advice (Lunsford, 2007). Lunsford (2007) found that “career support has greatest positive effect on student productivity.” Accordingly, programs should focus on promoting career support in all doctoral fields. Psychosocial support is positively associated with the research productivity of doctoral students in engineering; however, students in all disciplines had significantly more positive outcomes if they receive higher levels of career support.


    Several mentoring practices were implemented by the participating programs. Some programs organized a formal mentoring system. Other programs assigned a mentor immediately after enrollment that helped the student choose an academic advisor; and later assigned a long-term mentor, after the first year of doctoral study. Programs also matched a student and advisor the summer before enrollment for a mentoring relationship which lasted the duration of doctoral study and included informal, social events, such as going out for coffee.



    Both faculty and students reported that communication between faculty and doctoral students facilitates positive relationships. One participant stated the importance of "open, regular, timely, respectful, and professional communication." Communication should be frequent and both parties should be accessible to one another in order to be effective. In particular, participants reported that problems often arise when faculty are not accessible to students as students often interpret this behavior as the professor not caring about the student’s success. Additionally, both faculty and students agreed that it was faculty’s role to clearly delineate the roles and expectations of each party in relation to specific activities, such as dissertation completion, professional training, and academic performance (Guadelope-Williams, 2005).


    We also found that communication in the form of student feedback is crucial for ongoing success in faculty-student relationships. Several participating programs utilized research questionnaires focusing on this topic. The questionnaires are given both after the student reaches candidacy, and after degree completion. Other programs organize annual reviews (either through meetings or paper documents) that address the student’s progress and goals. One participant reports these annual meetings "provided important information on the program, gave students an opportunity to express their opinions in a private and confidential setting, and imparted to the student that their well-being and success are important to the program." Another program held annual student-faculty forums during which both parties could openly communicate information and concerns.



    Given that research is necessary in order for a doctoral student to complete his or her degree, it was logical that our study found that this topic is crucial to student-faculty relationships. Several effective practices concerning research are recommended. Studies have found that students have fewer difficulties completing dissertations when they initiate research early in their doctoral studies (Golde, 1996). One method for ensuring doctoral students have early research experience is by awarding research assistantships, which are associated with higher completion rates more than any other funding source (Lovitts, 2001). Other early research promotions that were utilized by our participants were symposiums, colloquia, and brown bag sessions. Positive professional relationships can also be encouraged by inviting students to critique faculty research proposals and papers, as well as by promoting joint faculty-student publications (Nettles & Millett, 2006).


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