Rafael R. Almanzar, Rebecca Hapes, and Gail Rowe, Texas A&M University
Most students intuitively know graduate programs differ from undergraduate programs. However, most cannot articulate how different they actually are or what those distinctions may be. More importantly, not understanding the difference can result in poor academic performance, low retention rates, and lead to a less than ideal transition into graduate school. Creating a successful orientation program is a vital component to the transition process. A successful orientation program should outline departmental expectations, start with the end in mind, provide relevant resources, and set the tone for professional relationship-building for the new students. The following are some strategies for transitioning incoming graduate students through the utilization of departmental new graduate student orientation programs that serve to meet these goals.
Creation of Expectations
According to Gurvitch (2005), students’ expectation of graduate school may be based on their previous undergraduate experience. As graduate advisors, it is important to discuss departmental, program, and advisor expectations to students at the onset of program entry. According to Bloom, Mulhern Halasz, and Hapes (2016),
At the academic program level, graduate programs can and should outline programmatic and professional expectations during their new graduate student orientations. A comprehensive orientation enables students to begin their graduate programs with a clear understanding of the program and faculty expectations. (para. 2)
In many departments and various disciplines, students are expected to acquire knowledge and develop competencies in their research, perform well in rigorous coursework, teach undergraduate courses, and submit papers for publications. Many times, the first semester is one of the most difficult as it takes time to adjust to a new school, new responsibilities, and new life as a graduate student (Gurvitch, 2005). Graduate advisors can connect students to the resources that will not only help them to succeed in their first semester, but will also help them to have a clear understanding of what the expectations of themselves are as burgeoning professionals. During the graduate orientation, students should receive in some format (packet, folder, binder, online, etc.) a comprehensive overview of the degree program requirements, departmental and university policies and procedures for meeting those requirements, and the location of the resources necessary to meet those requirements.
Beginning With the End in Mind
Graduate academic advisors encourage engaging interactions with graduate students about their career goals and life aspirations in an effort to guide and appropriately prepare students for post graduate school experiences. These interactions and preparations assist the graduate students to develop technical and discipline-related skill sets, soft skills such as interpersonal and communication skills, and to identify other professional development opportunities that will enable them to be competitive and marketable in the job search prior to graduation. Many institutions have a career center that offers trainings, workshops, and other resources to assist graduate students in developing these skills throughout their academic program. Providing information about these university resources during the graduate orientation is essential so incoming graduate students can utilize the resources at the appropriate times during their program.
Providing Relevant Resources
Orientation programs are most successful when students are provided with resources to assist them throughout the entirety of the graduate school experience. Supplying students with campus resources from offices such as the career center, counseling center, and writing center will further enable them to reach their established goals. In addition, utilizing current students as a resource can create a departmental culture conducive to fostering student engagement. For instance, student organizations, such as departmentally affiliated graduate student organizations, will have the opportunity to interact with incoming students and increase the pool of students who may then participate in their organization. Groups of this nature provide many resources and opportunities to incoming students and work on a macro-level to help students transition into graduate school. According to Gurvitch (2005), graduate student organizations will help students succeed in graduate school and later become their support system.
Graduate advisors can contact the office that oversees student affairs on their campus for more relevant resources for their incoming graduate students. For instance, some universities may publish an “Off Campus Student Survival Manual,” which offer tips for a successful off campus living experience for new students. These manuals provide tips on finding housing, personal safety, information about the town, community resources, and managing a budget. For universities which do not offer a survival manual, graduate advisors can create their own, or provide students access to similar information.
Building of Relationships
Students entering graduate school may feel excited, yet simultaneously apprehensive. For some students, this may be their first time away from home and family. Assimilating into a new environment can be a challenge, especially for students coming from another country or relocating to attend a graduate program. With these considerations in mind, orientation may be one of the first opportunities for graduate academic advisors to establish a welcoming environment for their incoming students. According to Gaide (2004), it is important for students to feel comfortable in their relationship with their home department. There are a variety of ways in which orienting activities can be structured to achieve this goal.
Social Events. One way to provide a level of comfort is to add a social component by involving departmental faculty, staff, and current students into the orientation program. For instance, implementing social activities, such as an ice cream social or a happy hour, is a great opportunity for incoming students to meet and interact with current students in an informal and casual setting. Another way to engage incoming students is during a departmentally inclusive event. One such example could be a physical activity (softball or flag football game with faculty and staff vs. students or some other creative combination) and afterwards, everyone gathers together for a picnic. Events of this nature are valuable opportunities for incoming students to see their home department, faculty, staff, and other students in their program in a non-academic, casual, and family-like atmosphere. Graduate programs that want to reduce attrition will provide their students with ways to socialize within their home department and build upon that sense of belonging that has been found to be an integral component of retaining students (Sheehy, 2016).
Mentoring Activities. Current students can initiate contact with the incoming students prior to their arrival to the departmental orientation program. If departments host recruiting events where current students are able to interact with prospective students, utilizing those student connections and building upon those relationships initiated at that event would be a way to foster additional engagement between the incoming and current students. Incoming students could also be assigned a more experienced student as a mentor. The current student mentor serves to provide assistance in the transition process and lends guidance and support in a myriad of topical areas as the new student eases into the program.
Establishing a mentoring program can also ease the transition process for new graduate students. Mentoring programs can extend beyond new student orientation. Mentoring programs serve multiple purposes such as career development, and psychological and emotional support, which also leads to higher student retention, persistence and degree completion (Erickson & Travick-Jackson, 2006). Graduate advisors can pair incoming graduate students with seasoned graduate students. This type of mentoring arrangement should provide benefit and professional growth to both members of the mentorship pair. A variety of methodologies can be utilized to identify mentors, and pairings may be made based on academic, social, or a combination of attributes, depending on the specific mentorship goals in an effort to match compatibility. Once the pairings are made, the graduate advisor should communicate with both parties about their role, respective responsibilities, and expectations, including appropriate academic referrals and resources.
When developing a departmental orientation program, graduate advisors should consider the delivery method of the content relative to the program model and target audience. For example, it may be most appropriate to host a graduate orientation in an online platform for a program in which the students are participating at a distance. However, in-person orientation programs may be more appropriate, augmented perhaps with online or print resources, for graduate students attending a program with a traditional delivery model. Graduate advisors should also understand the various orientations an incoming student may be mandated or encouraged to attend and plan accordingly. It is appropriate to view content from the institutional orientation program to either prevent overlap of information, to supplement existing information, or to reinforce information. It is also important for graduate advisors to understand the rate at which students in their program attend the university-wide orientation program so departmental programs can be organized appropriately.
Graduate academic advisors can utilize new graduate orientation programs to successfully transition and matriculate their incoming graduate students. Through the vehicle of a comprehensive new graduate student orientation, graduate programs have the opportunity to provide incoming graduate students with a strong sense of community and welcome. Clearly communicated programmatic expectations help incoming students establish and solidify goals so they can begin with their particular end goal in mind. Providing relevant resources for successful degree completion and professional development further enables accomplishment of the goal. An effective new student orientation lays the foundation for professional networking, builds relationships, and allows graduate advisors to assist in facilitating the continued success of the graduate programs in which they work and of the graduate students whom they advise.
Rafael R. Almanzar, M.A.
Senior Academic Advisor I
Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics/College of Agriculture & Life Sciences
Texas A&M University
Rebecca Hapes, M.S.
Senior Academic Advisor II
Department of Entomology/College of Agriculture & Life Sciences
Texas A&M University
Gail Rowe, M.A.
Senior Academic Advisor II
Department of Aerospace Engineering/College of Engineering
Texas A&M University
Bloom, J. L., Mulhern Halasz, H., & Hapes, R. (2016, June). Advising strategies for graduate student degree progression. Academic Advising Today, 39(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-Strategies-for-Graduate-Student-Degree-Progression.aspx
Erickson, D. E., & Travick-Jackson, C. (2006). Creating community through mentoring. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching and Research. 2, 262-270. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ943126
Gaide, S. (2004). Student Orientation at Tarleton State Takes the Distance Out of Distance Education. Distance Education Report, 8(17), 4.
Cite this article using APA style as: Almanazar, R.R., Hapes, R., & Rowe, G. (2018, March). Strateties for a successful graduate student orientation program. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]