Advising Working Adults at the Graduate Level: Diversity from Pre- to Post-Graduation

Joan Marques
Woodbury University

Volume: 11
Article first published online: August 5, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161518


This short article reviews four dimensions of diversity manifested in advising non-traditional graduate students. The dimensions are distinguished in the areas of need for guidance, cultural difference, maturity levels, and student motivation. Specific qualities required of the faculty adviser to ensure retention of these students are flexibility, motivation, patience, and empathy. The article briefly reviews various challenges advisers may encounter while advising working adults and ends with a perception of the reward enclosed in this noble task.

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, working adults, adult students, diversity, post-graduation, graduate students


In my current position as a participating adjunct, I advise thirty to forty MBA students from their second semester in the program on to graduation. Enrollment counselors guide registration for classes during the first semester. From that point on, however, each student is assigned to an adviser, who will lead him or her successfully and gratifyingly to the finish line. This, then, is where a fascinating experience of connection and trust begins.

Diversity among the Advisees

The diversity in the relationship between faculty adviser and graduate student manifests itself on multiple levels:

  1. There are broad differences in the way students need guidance. While some have it all figured out and merely need the adviser's approval before registering, others are totally in the dark and need face-to-face encounters and brainstorm sessions with in-depth explanations about the reasons behind certain course combinations and sequences. In between these two extremes, there are numerous levels of need for guidance.
  2. There are also broad cultural differences among students, especially at a multi-ethnic campus like the one to which I am affiliated. The main difference can be detected between local and international students, whereby the international students, understandably, need more guidance through the program as they deal with a new culture and different education system than the ones they were used to in their respective home countries.
  3. There is divergence in the students' levels of maturity while progressing through the program. Some have their careers laid out and may even be in the thick of them, while others are still on the threshold of their professional lives and fear that they may be making the wrong career choices in today's ever changing environment.
  4. There are differences in students' motivation throughout the program. While some have enrolled because they consider their forthcoming degrees a good step toward the next rank at work, others decided to enter because they consider it the most logical thing to do after completing their undergraduate programs. These two categories usually consist of good students who are not out to attain special honors, knowledge, or perspectives from their programs. The choices they make for their classes are less meticulous, and they usually don't have a specific focus in selecting their electives. Then there are the students who see their programs as an intermediate step to an even higher degree and those who simply want to learn as much as they can. These are the students who display critical determination in selecting their classes. Each class matters to them and the combinations their advisers suggest are carefully analyzed. High grades, honors, and a rewarding experience are of the foremost essence to these students.

Useful Adviser Qualities

In the midst of all these different dimensions of diversity stands the academic adviser. As I have learned in the past few years, the level of success in relationships with adult advisees depends on four main qualities of the adviser: flexibility, motivation, patience, and empathy.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The “quick ones”—those who have their plans laid out very decisively—only want to know whether they are on the right track and whether the combination of courses they selected is okay. The students who require handholding, because they either lack the maturity, the motivation, or familiarity with the curriculum and system, need to be treated differently. I have found that in all cases, responsible flexibility is a wonderful quality. The majority of these students are working adults. They don't have the time to come by for an appointment, yet they want proper guidance. For them, phone and e-mail communication works superbly. It usually takes one call or two to three e-mail exchanges to plan the upcoming semester load to everyone's satisfaction.

As an adviser of working adults, I have found that some motivational leadership skills come in handy. Students in these programs face many challenges: job changes, layoffs, marriages, divorces, childbirth, elderly parents, and all those other life issues we all handle. Sometimes these students want to give up, and as their adviser I feel that I need to boost their morale and willpower to persevere. It is not possible in 100 percent of the cases to keep a student in school when times are tough, but the likelihood they will return after the storm has subsided improves if the adviser shows patience and empathy, while still gently underscoring the importance for them to earn a degree.

Another challenge lies in the motivations tied to the reasons students enroll in the program (see point 4 above). Although this is not spelled out, the adviser can easily detect these motivations. The students who merely want to earn a degree as a requirement for work or because it seems to be the best thing to do after earning an undergraduate degree, may show signs of burnout at an early stage, because to them the contents of the program are merely a means to an end and not an end unto itself. It is a very interesting challenge to help make the experience a rewarding one for these students. Providing them the best workable choices that make good use of time and represent a decent balance of courses may add to these students' satisfaction.

The students who savor every class, either on their way to post-graduate education or as the experience itself, may be the easiest ones to advise, even though some advisers may consider them “high maintenance,” because they are so deliberate in the choices they make.


The diversity among working graduate students from a wide range of backgrounds presents a fascinating challenge. The crown to this experience is not even the day that they hug you as their adviser or professor at graduation; it is when they write you many years later to tell you that they consider all you have done of great importance, including the voluntary but well-intended advising about life you shared with them. That is a reward that no salary can match.

About the Author(s)

Joan Marques, Ed.D., is a participating adjunct faculty member at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. She is also a lecturer in business and management courses at the graduate and undergraduate level. Aside from teaching and advising, she writes and edits books, journals, and articles for popular and scholarly audiences. She can be reached at or through