Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

By Design: How Departments Influence Graduate Student Agency in Career Advancement

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

By Design: How Departments Influence Graduate Student Agency in Career Advancement

Article excerpt

Introduction

Darius, an engineering student, and Leslie, a biology student, arrived on campus on the same day to begin their doctoral programs. However, three years into their studies, they find themselves in very different places. Darius feels stuck in his ability to move forward in completing his degree and obtaining a position as an engineer, whereas Leslie feels confident she can complete within the time-table she has set for herself and obtain a position as a biologist. Darius is not seizing opportunities to gain important skills needed for his dissertation research and future career, whereas Leslie keeps finding new internships and summer opportunities. Leslie had important questions related to her comprehensive exam and went to her committee members for answers. Darius is afraid to seek out the advice of his advisor regarding the topic of his dissertation. Overall, Darius is concerned that the one career option he sees for himself, to become a faculty member, is not a good fit with his talents and interests. Yet, he does not know what else he will do if he ever completes his Ph.D. Leslie believes completing a good dissertation and landing her first job is going to be hard, but it is within her control.

There are a number of ways research on graduate education might explain Darius and Leslie's different experiences. Most often, doctoral student experiences are examined through the lens of socialization theory, which considers how students are accessing knowledge, skills, and orientations that influence key graduate student outcomes (Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001). Darius and Leslie both have social identities at play in these scenarios that influence their experiences (Ferreira, 2003; Fries-Britt, Younger, & Hall, 2010; Haley, Jaeger, & Levin, 2013; Lindholm, 2004). In addition, Leslie may be better supported financially, which influences time to degree, retention, and degree completion (Golde, 1998; Lovitts, 2001).

Although each of these viewpoints is helpful in understanding Darius and Leslie's different experiences, we think an important perspective, the lens of agency, is missing. By agency we mean the perspectives graduate students assume, and the actions graduate students take to pursue goals that matter to them (Campbell & O'Meara, 2013; O'Meara, 2013). Seen through the lens of agency, Leslie is exhibiting "agentic perspectives" and taking "agentic actions" to move forward in her career. Darius is assuming perspectives that make him feel boxed in, isolated, and without choices. He does not seem to be asking for help when needed or seeking new opportunities. There are, of course, many likely influences on these doctoral students' different levels of agency, which could be individual, organizational, and societal. Among potential influences, departments are particularly important. Given academic departments are where graduate students are admitted, take classes, complete dissertations, and search for jobs, it makes sense to consider departments as central forces that can enable or constrain graduate student agency (Frasier, 2013; Gardner, 2007, 2010; Golde, 2005).

The purpose of this paper is to examine the specific ways in which departments influence graduate student agency in career advancement. To deepen understanding of the kinds of agency departments might influence, we examine the agentic perspectives and actions exhibited by graduate students. Understanding graduate student agency and department influences are important for three reasons. First, assuming agency in advancing one's own academic and professional career is important for becoming a successful professional (Etelapelto, Vahasantanen, Hokka, & Paloniemi, 2013). Second, much research in human development shows assuming agency is associated with goal achievement, greater life satisfaction, and well-being (Alkire, 2005; Marshall, 2005; Sen, 1985). Third, agency in career advancement is particularly important for women and doctoral students of an underrepresented race and/or ethnicity (e. …

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