Historically Underrepresented Graduate Students’ Experiences at a U.S. Majority Serving Institution: A Narrative Analysis

Karen M Collier, Margaret R. Blanchard
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 19  •  2024  •  pp. 001

This study explored the experiences of a group of historically underrepresented graduate students at a research-intensive university to understand their perceived supports and barriers to academic persistence and success and how these related to their background, socioeconomic status, language, and cultural differences.

Attending graduate school can provide learning in specialized disciplines, creating opportunities for career advancement and gains in income. Under-represented students (i.e., underrepresented minorities, females in STEM, first-generation students, part-time, and international students) often encounter additional barriers in graduate school, such as a lower sense of belonging, imposter phenomenon, or microaggressions. However, they may find emotional support through family and friends and mentor support through faculty and advisors. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was used to understand how these graduate student success factors acted as supports and barriers to motivate students to reach their optimal potential.

In this qualitative narrative study, interview transcripts from fourteen graduate students studying at an R1 university in the United States were restoried into narratives. For the typographic analyses, themes emerged from the individuals’ stories. Similarities in the data were organized into categories, and relationships were sought between the categories. For the rhetorical analyses, short storylines developed from these cases were used to derive opposition statements and syllogisms.

This study illuminates the graduate student experience through novel analytical methods and a well-regarded psychological theory – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – tied to graduate student success factors. Although each person’s graduate experience is unique, the study findings lead to recommendations to enhance the graduate student experience for all students.

Case analyses revealed nine major themes linked to students’ backgrounds, socioeconomic status, language, and cultural differences: (1) mentor support,
(2) sense of belonging, (3) financial support, (4) peer support, (5) community, (6) imposter phenomenon, (7) microaggressions, (8) family obligations, and
(9) access and opportunity for academic research and writing.

Universities can better support graduate students by providing better professional development for faculty to serve as mentors, using a cohort-based model for better peer support, financial counseling for graduate students, better mental health services and access, more parental support considerations, and more opportunities for research experiences.

Researchers will gain a more nuanced understanding of individuals’ circumstances – particularly those students who have many complicating life circumstances (e.g., enrollment status, family, finances, citizenship) – by collecting and analyzing qualitative data. Mixed methods, using validated instruments, could also enhance our understanding of graduate education.

Universities that follow the recommendations in this study will enhance the experiences of graduate students, likely increase graduation rates, and contribute to a more educated and more diverse workforce.

For universities that have already implemented some of the suggested support structures (e.g., mentor professional development, cohort programs, and financial counseling), future research could investigate their utility to graduate students.

sense of belonging, mentor support, financial support, peer support, imposter phenomenon, graduate student success
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