Creating Meaningful Research for Graduate Students to Prevent Degree Abandonment

Creating Meaningful Research for Graduate Students to Prevent Degree Abandonment

Amy L. Sedivy-Benton (University of Arkansas at Little Rock, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5164-5.ch010


Advanced degrees are becoming more valuable in the workplace. In turn, institutions of higher education are providing multiple venues for students to obtain advanced degrees. These venues tend to reach a population beyond those who would have attended a traditional brick and mortar institution. This reaches students from a variety of backgrounds, and institutions are trying to adjust and accommodate this newly recruited and diverse population. The expectations of graduate programs have not changed; students are to emerge from these programs with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to partake in research on their own. However, these students are limited on the readiness they possess to conduct graduate research. This in turn results in attrition from the program and leaving behind their opportunity for a graduate degree. This chapter provides an overview of the skills and issues of graduate students and a discussion of how those issues affect students finding success in graduate programs. The chapter concludes with suggestions and recommendations for addressing these issues.
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There is an expectation and a need stated by Wendler et al. (2012) that in order for any country – or any organization or person, for that matter – to take a place of leadership, the development of human talent must be cultivated. Labor forces need innovation and talent and a significant amount of that talent is prepared in our educational institutions. Higher education prepares scores of future productive members of various economies: information economies, financial economies, labor economies, knowledge economies at both the undergraduate and graduate level. However, if student experiences are not positive in graduate school, and if that student leaves before obtaining a degree and fully developing his or her advanced research skills, both innovation and the economy will suffer a loss. This is key when examining how graduate programs conduct their programs of study and how institutions of higher education establish how they might support these newly minted graduate students.

If there is one consistent message that is sent loud and clear to K-12 students and our communities, it is the promise of a secure future – if you have a degree, and at times it needs to be something more than just a Bachelors degree, they should have their eye on either a professional degree or an advanced degree of some sort. What these advisors might suggest to the students is not always the best fit with their background and their experiences up to this point.

While not all undergraduate programs require research projects, there is some hope that a research paper was at least written with a minimal literature review and some evidence to support their thesis statement. This should allow both the students and the reader’s come to some type of conclusion upon reading the completed paper. However, that is not always the case. Faculty in graduate programs may assume that students who had this slight introduction are prepared for the rigors of scholarly research. Even required introductory graduate courses such as Introduction to Research or Statistics carry the assumption that students have some prior knowledge of this information. As is common throughout the education system, instructors at advanced levels hope that the students learned a particular set of skills at an earlier level; this hope becomes an assumption that allows the instructor to skip the basics and drive right into advanced methods. Unfortunately, with this type of approach the ultimate outcome is one very frustrated student. When the faculty has such expectations of - conducting independent research, writing and utilizing a library database – and the students lack the ability, the frustration begins.

Yet acquiring discrete baseline skills and then being able to transfer those skills to conducting an independent research project is a significant cognitive leap, one that requires mentoring and deliberate instructional interventions to navigate successfully. Unfortunately, graduate programs do not always include enough time to develop and transfer those advanced skills. Long and Schonfeld (2014) noted that in the discipline of art history “techniques needed to conduct original research are sometimes taught in courses about theory, but in some graduate programs they do not have a major role in the curriculum” (p. 39), even though those professions often require practical research skills. It is not known when the graduate students will even begin to be introduced to these types of concepts. When they are introduced to these concepts it is done in such a way that the information is somewhat siloed rather than integrated. For example, students might receive an introductory course in a specific methodology, such as a discrete analysis or multiple regression, but the holistic process is missing.

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