Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
According to the Council of Graduate Schools, 652,021 students were enrolled in master's degree programs in 2007 (Bell, 2008). The master's degree has been shaped by the traditional arts and science model as the first post baccalaureate degree conferred upon candidates following one year of graduate study (Glazer, 1988, p. 1). Typical master's degree students come directly from their undergraduate studies, are young professionals returning to school after a few years of work experience, or may be older, working adults.
Once students enroll in master's degree programs, they face many challenges. Pontis (2003) found that 36 percent of graduate students have a difficult transition to graduate school. These students rely on professional and faculty advisers to help them acclimate to their new lives as master's students. The purpose of this article is to advocate that advisers incorporate Appreciative Advising techniques to help mentor master's degree students as they transition into their graduate studies.
The Transition into Master's Degree Programs
Master's degree students rely on their graduate programs to help them adjust to the institution. The majority of institutions with master's programs claim they provide these basic services for their students: advising, career services, counseling, financial aid, and health care. The extent to which these are implemented depends upon the institution. What else do students entering a master's program need? Pontis (2003) found that the top issues and stressors that master's candidates face include stipend levels, accessible on-campus parking, assistantships/workloads, time management, and housing. Clearly many of these issues are very similar to those faced by undergraduate students. Just as undergraduates need high-quality advising, master's degree students do as well. One successful advising model utilized at the undergraduate and graduate levels is Appreciative Advising (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008).
Appreciate Advising Model
Appreciative Advising was derived from the organizational development theory of Appreciative Inquiry (Bloom & Martin, 2002). Appreciative Inquiry (AI) was originally a developmental tool that organizations used to bring out the strengths and best qualities of people within the organization. Those applying AI within their organizations view the organizations as being full of strengths and potential instead of problems to be solved.
Appreciative Advising (AA) is the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials (Bloom, Hutson, & He, n.d.). People as a whole tend to gravitate toward those who are positive and bring an optimistic attitude into their life interactions.
The Appreciative Advising model should help master's program advisers to establish a new type of relationship with their students. By adopting AA, the relationship of adviser-student becomes closer to mentor-mentee. According to Yahner & Goodstein (2009),
While a good advisor assists students in learning about their discipline and the skills needed to conduct research or practice their profession, a mentor develops a relationship with her or his mentee on several levels. A mentor is a trusted guide. A mentor can offer support in difficult times. A mentor socializes her or his mentee ... A good mentor must be a good listener (key to good communication), be a good problem-solver, and be a good observer (able to spot problems). (p. 1)
There are six phases in the Appreciative Advising model: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle.
The Disarm phase is about establishing trust and rapport between master's candidates and their advisers. Advisers need to intentionally make a positive first impression on the incoming master's students and establish an environment that is safe and welcoming to the student. This is the phase in which the adviser calms any fears that the incoming students may have.
The Disarm phase for master's degree students begins during the application process. For example, the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program at the University of South Carolina (USC) hosts a Graduate Assistant Recruitment Program (GARP) weekend. Students who have been admitted to the program are invited to attend this three-day event to interview for assistantships, tour the campus, meet the program's faculty, learn about the curriculum, and meet other students in their program. GARP is one of HESA's efforts to make that positive first impression on their master's students.
During GARP, prospective students participate in the business portion of interviewing for assistantships and meeting the faculty, and they also have many opportunities to socialize with other prospective and current students. This allows them to begin forming relationships with peers and start to ease into the program.
This is the phase in which advisers need to expand on the comfortable environment that was cultivated during the Disarm phase. With open-ended questions in a more intimate one-on-one setting with the student, the adviser builds on the connection that was established. In Discover, advisers learn more about their students as individual people. Advisers need to draw out the students' strengths and skills by truly listening to what the student is saying and asking positive follow-up questions (Bloom, et al., 2008). In this phase the adviser learns more about what the student needs/wants from the program.
The director of the HESA master's degree program at USC calls all candidates before they attend GARP to make them feel welcome (Disarm) as well as to learn more about the candidates and their backgrounds. This Discover phase allows the director (or adviser) to identify other incoming and current students who have similar interests and backgrounds. This provides an opportunity to establish closer ties and to share ideas in a context that involves less formal and less institutionalized roles and interactions (Walsh, 1999, p. 10). This information becomes helpful later when the adviser makes suggestions to candidates about appropriate graduate assistantship opportunities and course selections (Design). The adviser should also address funding questions, a main stressor for graduate students (Pontis, 2003), during these conversations. Given that master's programs tend to be the shortest programs available in higher education, it is essential that advisers get to know students early on.
After advisers have learned about the strengths and passions of their students, the Dream phase follows. In this phase, advisers work with their students to determine what they want to achieve from their degree programs. It is also in this phase that the adviser needs to understand students' post-graduation goals and objectives.
Advisers can begin this kind of discussion with candidates during the pre-orientation phone conversation and continue the discussion throughout the students' time in the program. At meetings throughout the program, the adviser should ascertain what each student's dreams are in terms of life goals as well as ideal jobs and locations.
This is the phase in which the adviser and student create a concrete design to help degree candidates reach their attainable goals. During this phase, advisers work with student to focus on specific things that they can do to ensure that they meet these goals. Advisers should also inform students about any professional development opportunities that the institution offers.
The program faculty distributes information to students about other professional development and learning opportunities that are available on campus and through the graduate college. For example, Northwestern University's graduate school home page at www.tgs.northwestern.edu/ lists all campus-wide events to encourage students to get involved (Northwestern, 2008). It is the adviser's responsibility to make sure that advisees are attentive to events related to the established plans that they have discussed.
The Deliver phase is the phase in which students, with the help of their advisers, begin to implement their plans and follow through with the steps created during the Design phase. The adviser's role at this point of Appreciative Advising is to give positive reinforcement as students deal with the hurdles and roadblocks they may encounter in carrying out the Design plan.
In the final phase of the Appreciative Advising model, the adviser pushes the student to always strive to do better (Bloom et al., 2008). Here the adviser works to raise the student's internal self-confidence and expectations.
Relationship between Appreciative Advising and Mentoring
This article mentioned earlier the idea of adviser versus mentor. Advisers who truly embrace Appreciative Advising would find it very difficult not to mentor their master's students. Yahner and Goodstein (2009) present five points that describe effective mentors, and it is evident that they coincide with the steps and process of Appreciative Advising:
- An advisor, who has career interests similar to the student and shares their [sic] knowledge with the student informally or in the classroom.
- A supporter, who gives the necessary level of emotional and moral encouragement, as for example, prior to the final oral examination.
- A sponsor, who provides sources of information about research, grant, internship, employment, or other opportunities.
- A tutor, who gives specific, timely, and constructive feedback on performance.
- A model, who is a professional with integrity, thereby serving as a good role model. (p. 1)
If advisers embrace the idea of mentoring, they have embraced the idea of Appreciative Advising, and their students will likely succeed in their master's programs. If master's program students are strong, successful, and confident, they will have a much easier transition into the institution.
Additional Thoughts on the Importance of Master's Student Orientations
The master's program orientation is a growing trend that many graduate programs are following. Orientation programs more recently have been acknowledged as a crucial, but missing element in graduate education (Poock, 2002, p. 1). Advisers and institutions alike can enhance students' socialization into the program and are crucial in fostering master's degree students' transition.
Master's degree candidates typically encounter a dual socialization process (Poock, 2002) as evidenced by their roles as master's students as well as emerging professionals. Because graduate students are possibly negotiating this dual socialization process for the first time in their lives, they need as much help as possible early in their tenure on campus. The orientation for HESA master's candidates is held at the home of the program director. Students learn how to proactively deal with change and the transition that lies ahead; and they have the opportunity to learn about the curriculum, ask questions of current and former students as well as faculty members, and get to know each other better. Afterward, a dinner in the director's home is held for all current students and faculty. This orientation session meets the University of Maryland's five goals for graduate orientations: Offer students opportunities to assess the institution and their graduate program, provide students with essential information, make the orientation more personalized, establish a graduate community, and assist in the transition to graduate school (Poock, 2002, p. 3).
One thing is clear: The demand for master's degrees is reflected in the steadily increasing enrollment at this level of graduate study (Tokuno, 2008, p. 1). Advisers are well positioned to ensure that today and tomorrow's master's students are well served by incorporating Appreciative Advising methods into their mentoring of master's candidates. This will result in more students transitioning comfortably and confidently into their programs of study and then using the skills they have attained from advisers to be successful and productive professionals.