The Doctoral Experience of Student Affairs Administrators

By Cawthon, Tony W.; McClellan, Melanie A. et al. | College Student Affairs Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Doctoral Experience of Student Affairs Administrators


Cawthon, Tony W., McClellan, Melanie A., Dunn, Merrily S., Grandpre, Edward A., College Student Affairs Journal


The authors surveyed 92 student affairs professionals with recent doctorates to determine which parts of the doctoral experience were most stressful, and to solicit advice for student affairs professionals who are considering pursuing a doctorate. Responses were similar regardless of gender, ethnicity, relationship status, parental status, degree type, and employment pattern while enrolled.

In 1893, Clark University offered the first higher education graduate course, and Teacher's College of Columbia University offered the first college student personnel course in 1916 (Schwartz & Bryan, 1998). Prior to these developments, student affairs practitioners received the majority of their training by simply performing their jobs. The establishment of academic programs and the creation of professional organizations led to a greater emphasis on formal training for the student affairs practitioner. Schwartz (1997) reported that early professional associations of deans (both men and women) advocated graduate training for new professionals planning a student affairs career.

Research has focused on several different components of the doctoral experience including identification of factors influencing potential students' choice of doctoral programs (Talbot, Maier, & Rushlau, 1996), key factors regarding program choice by currently enrolled students (Grace & Fife, 1986; Mertz & McNeely, 1989), establishing a profile of enrolled students (Coomes, Belch, & Saddlemire, 1991; Keim, 1991; Schuh, 1989), and establishing the value of the doctorate for student affairs administrators (Blimling & Wachs, 1994; Bloland, 1979; Moore, Martorana, & Twombly, 1985; Ostroth, Efird, & Lerman, 1984; Richard, 1988; Sandeen, 1982; Townsend & Wiese, 1992).

Since the 1970s the number of preparation programs has grown to more than 100 (Keim & Graham, 1990; Schwartz & Bryan, 1998) offering a master's and/or doctorate, with the majority of the programs housed in higher education, counselor education, or educational leadership departments (Evans & Williams, 1998; Zimpfer & DeTrude, 1990). By the 1993-94 academic year, student affairs preparation programs had 662 doctoral students enrolled, with women making up 55% of all doctoral students (Evans & Williams, 1998).

Sandeen (1982) reported that 83% of chief student affairs officers surveyed ranked a professional degree as somewhat or very important, and that chief student affairs officers with graduate degrees from a student affairs preparation program attached more importance to such degree training than did those who earned degrees in related programs of study. Townsend & Wiese (1992) reported that community college personnel held this value as well.

Paterson (1987) found that 63% of chief student affairs officers at 4-year colleges and universities had doctorates, and Moore et al. (1985) estimated that 39.1% of chief student affairs officers at two year colleges had doctorates. A doctorate is clearly valued in community college settings and in other types of institutions as well (Komives, 1993) and is a necessary requirement for career advancement (Earwood-Smith, Jordan-Cox, Hudson, & Smith, 1990). Townsend and Mason (1990) argued that in today's competitive job market, securing a doctorate is as important for maintaining one's job as it is for career advancement.

Although research has revealed important insights into the doctoral experience, additional research is needed to examine the stresses of completing a doctoral program. Eddy (1977) noted that stress in higher education impacts students, faculty, and administrators on a daily basis. Because many student affairs professionals pursue doctorates after working in the profession for a number of years, this study focuses on their experiences. Specifically this study addressed the following questions:

1. What academic and personal factors generated the most stress for student affairs professionals during their doctoral program?

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