Graduate Students' Description of the Ideal Science Advisor: Implications for Graduate Women's Success

By Ferreira, Maria M. | Advancing Women in Leadership, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Graduate Students' Description of the Ideal Science Advisor: Implications for Graduate Women's Success


Ferreira, Maria M., Advancing Women in Leadership


Abstract

Research indicates that doctoral students' relationship with their advisor is the most important factor in the degree progress, and often the main reason for student attrition. In this study interviews with graduate students in two science departments, biology and chemistry, at a large research university were used to explore their concept of the "ideal" science research advisor and the extent to which their present advisor fits this ideal. Students' descriptions of the ideal research advisor included many of the traits that characterize the advisor as a mentor. However, student responses also indicated that most of their advisors deviated considerably from students' descriptions of the "ideal." This perception was particularly common among the female students in chemistry.

Introduction

According to Tinto (1993) the graduate education process progresses in three stages, (1) transition to the program, (2) acquisition of skills, and (3) the conduction of research. Student persistence in the third stage is primarily the result of the student relationship with the advisor (Girves & Wemmerus, 1988; Hollenshead, Younce, & Wenzel, 1994; Tinto, 1993). Studies show that students' satisfaction with their doctoral program is directly related to satisfaction with advisement relationships (Bargar & Mayo-Chamberlain, 1983; Davis, 1999; Golde, 1996, 1998; Hollenshead et al. 1994; Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, 1996). The quality of the interpersonal relationship between graduate students and their advisor has been found to be a better predictor of success in a doctoral program than a student's GRE scores and undergraduate grade point average (OSEP, 1996; Sorenson & Kagan, 1967). Regrettably, the advisor-advisee relationship is often perceived as the most disappointing aspect of many students' experiences in graduate school (Curtin, Blake, & Cassagnau, 1997; Ferreira, 1997; Golde, 1998; OSEP, 1996).

Female students who join graduate science programs with few or no female faculty members, who can serve as role models, are particularly vulnerable and depend on their advisor for successful integration into the existing departmental culture (Bizzari, 1995; Davis, 1999; Lovitts, 1996). These students are at a greater risk of leaving a promising career in science when their advisor shows little interest in their success. Subotnik and Arnold (1995) point out that women, in particular, who may question their ability to succeed, do best in colleges and universities that offer responsive advisors. According to Widnall (1988), "the advisor is the primary gatekeeper for the professional self-esteem of the student" (p. 1743).

The graduate advisor performs a minimum of five essential roles: 1) a reliable information source, 2) a departmental socializer, 3) an occupational socializer, 4) a role model, and 5) an advocate for the advisee (Golde, 1998; Lovitts, 1996; Winston, Miller, Ender, & Grites, 1984).

Mentoring

Researchers define mentoring as an intentional process in which a more skilled person (the mentor) serves as a role model and provides information, support, and guidance, to a less skilled or less experienced member of the organization (the protégé) (Anderson & Shannon, 1988; Campbell & Campbell, 1997; Romberg, 1993). Although most definitions of mentoring portray the protégé as the main beneficiary in the relationship, others contend that both mentor and protégé benefit from a mentoring relationship. While the protégé benefits from the mentor's knowledge and experience, the mentor, in turn, benefits from the satisfaction of making a positive impact on another person and often receives admiration, respect, and gratitude from the protégé (Fagenson, 1994; Hall & Sandler, 1983; Healy & Welchert, 1990).

According to Brown and others (1989), the mentoring process involves three stages: "modeling," "coaching," and "fading." The mentor "models" by revealing his/her problem-solving strategies; "coaches," by supporting the students' attempts to perform new tasks; and "fades" after having empowered the student to work independently. …

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