Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Power Bases of Faculty Supervisors and Educational Outcomes for Graduate Students

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Power Bases of Faculty Supervisors and Educational Outcomes for Graduate Students

Article excerpt


Power is a topic that receives consistent attention from educational researchers. At the macro level, theories of power help explain decisions about the selection of an academic program for termination [28], varying levels of institutional research activity [31], and decisions regarding higher education policy [50]. At the micro level, researchers are interested in power perceptions and their impact on outcome variables such as quality of interpersonal relationships and educational success. The last decade of educational research has been particularly prolific on the topic of power perceptions and their correlates, especially in higher education. For example, Dry [18] examined power relationships between administrators, faculty, and students; Fisher [21] investigated university presidents' power bases; Ranta [55] reported deans' power in areas such as rule-making, budgets, scheduling, curriculum development, and staffing; and Whitson and Hubert [73] measured department chairpersons' perceptions of faculty power. An area that has not been similarly scrutinized, however, is the dyadic power relationship between graduate students and supervising professors.

The Importance of Power in Faculty-Student Interactions

Graduate education is frequently portrayed as an intimate relationship between a supervising professor and a student [51]. Graduate students regard their relationship with members of the faculty as the most important aspect of the quality of their graduate education [30]. Moreover, researchers frequently describe the relationship and interactions between faculty and students as one of the most important factors affecting students' satisfaction with a graduate program [cf. 11, 29, 60]. In addition, graduate education is often represented as a student socialization and development process mainly influenced by student-faculty interrelationships [12, 35]. Accordingly, the degree to which faculty can influence students and the power relationship between graduate students and their faculty supervisors is often described as one of the most critical determinants of graduate students' success [10].

Graduate students' perceptions of the power of supervising faculty are assumed to influence the relationship between them, and ultimately, educational outcomes such as (a) graduate students' satisfaction with the graduate program and university environment, (b) students' mood and morale, (c) number of years spent in graduate school before graduation, and (d) future career success [cf. 33, 62]. Because the power relationship between faculty and student can determine students' success or failure, several researchers have investigated this issue empirically. However, the topic is still seriously underinvestigated.

Power in Faculty-Student Interactions: An Underinvestigated Issue

The aforementioned contentions regarding the importance of students' perceptions of the power of professors seem to be indirectly supported by research at the elementary school [36, 47] and undergraduate [57, 61] level, showing that students' perceptions of instructors' power affect learning and motivation. However, despite the considerable interest and hypothesized relevance of power in faculty-student relationships in graduate education, the empirical information on the topic is only tangential. For instance, Baker [9] examined power relationships among graduate teaching assistants (TAs), but no information was gathered regarding TA-faculty interactions. Also, Feld [20] examined whether a sample of graduate social work students perceived themselves, in general, as being more powerful than graduate business students. However, and similar to Baker [9], self-perceptions of power were not provided regarding faculty-student relationships. In another recent article, Heinrich [33] utilized rigorous qualitative methods for collecting and analyzing experiences in graduate school (including power relationships) from an all-female sample of twenty-two students. …

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