Dissertation Précis

Significance:

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Post-graduate degree attainment produces many benefits to society. Graduates make important public service contributions, promote generosity and encourage community engagement; all of which benefit society and reduce public service expenditures (Trostel, 2015). Additionally, the higher education system depends on reproducing its research talent to continue to function as needed, but is currently losing more then half of their talent due to conditions of chronic stress, burnout and a lack of scaffolding(Aelterman et al., 2019; Gardner, 2008; Huisman et al., 2002; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000).

The national average attrition rate for doctoral students ranges between 40 to 85 % depending on the sourceJiranek (2010), and the majority of doctoral students report experiencing more then average to tremendous current stress (Evans et al., 2018), 56% of currently enrolled PhD students have considered dropping out (Anttila et al., 2015), and 43% of currently enrolled doctoral students were contemplating interrupting their studies (Stubb et al., 2011). Many studies cite stress, anxiety, and exhaustion, as reasons for students to consider dropping out of their PhD program, taking a leave from PhD studies, or giving up on academia altogether (Anttila et al., 2015; Devine & Hunter, 2016; Stubb et al., 2011).

There is clearly a need to retain more talent in post-graduate education. Post-graduate students who do not complete their degree is a significant loss of investment for all involved. Campus closures, political polarity, and the continued racial violence that has occurred since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic, has spawned a renewed interest in well-being in education.

There is plenty of existing evidence that demonstrates well-being and academic achievement are not separate goals, but one in the same. In compulsory education, many interventions have been conducted that embed well-being into school culture and teaching practices (Duan & Ho, 2020; Hoare et al., 2017; Lai et al., 2018; M. Seligman & Adler, 2019; M. E. P. Seligman et al., 2009). Such interventions show with high-consistency, that embedding well-being positively improves the mental health, engagement, grades, and the standardized test scores of students (Duan & Ho, 2020; Hoare et al., 2017; Lai et al., 2018; M. Seligman & Adler, 2019; M. E. P. Seligman et al., 2009).

However, such embedded approaches to well-being are extremely rare, if not non-existent in higher-education settings. At universities, well-being is still addressed mainly through stand-alone programs and events that privilege popular topics in mental health, but rarely touch on the determinants of burnout that students report being most troubled by Gardner (2008).

Additionally, assessments in higher-education are still primarily focused on academic performance, but do not consider the well-being of students despite the influence it has on performance. Frequent communications about the mental health of students, but the lack of student involvement in any efforts to address well-being, can create distrust between students and their institutions, compounding sources of ill-being. There are many opportunities for occupational chronic stress in post-graduate education, but there is little scaffolding in place that creates consistent sources of well-being to help students cope. For students who are choosing to continue their studies, especially during these times of disruption, institutions have a responsibility to take the well-being of their students very seriously.

Although schools can not impact what takes place outside of school, there is a lot that can be done to ensure that the college experience is a positive one. Given that school is a place where much of life is lived, and from which many relationships stem, embedding well-being into graduate education stands to create a significant impact on the mental health of students. Furthermore, modeling well-being practices to graduate students today, can have a positive influence on the education practices of tomorrow.

To that end, this manuscript will summarize the existing literature on graduate student well-being, and will then conclude with a proposal for a novel intervention that will fill the gaps in existing research, and attempt to promote well-being, along with academic achievement, in post-graduate education.

Background

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Studies examining within-institution cohorts found that the majority of doctoral students report experiencing more then average to tremendous current stress; additionally, 43 to 46% of bioscience graduate students reported being depressed (Evans et al., 2018). Another study compared age-matched higher-education students to the general population and found that university students show higher depression symptoms and higher rates of suicide then their counterparts(Henning, 2018). Burnout is the most prevalent consequence of ill-being in higher-education, with the rates doubling that of depression (Henning, 2018). Burnout is the result of chronic occupational stress. The three main components of burnout include: Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low personal accomplishment (Henning, 2018).

Although many nuances exist, in general, sources of ill-being that graduate students seem to echo are: Difficulties negotiating with supervisors, poor or mismatched relationships with supervisors, lack of supportive mentorship, constant deadlines, very high work expectations, role conflicts, low-status low-control positions, being at the mercy of others, regular and disjointed evaluations at many different levels, internal battles resulting from conflicting roles and responsibilities, feelings of guilt and frustration, anxiety inducing uncertainties about the future, positioning oneself for acceptance into the scholarly community, lack of degree milestone transparency (especially beyond coursework requirements), feeling unprepared for high-level independence in undergraduate training, and learning to navigate the phases of socialization to independent scholarship largely through trial and error (Gardner, 2008; Haynes et al., 2012; Juniper et al., 2012; Kurtz-Costes et al., 2006; Martinez et al., 2013; Mays & Smith, 2009; Pychyl & Little, 1998; Schmidt & Umans, 2014).

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, the average time to complete a doctorate degree in the United States for all fields is 9.2 years from the start of college, 7.8 from the start of graduate school, and 5.8 years from the start of a doctoral program (Kang, 2019; Schiller et al., 2012). Because graduate degree attainment takes many years to accomplish, these stressors can persist for years, leading to chronic stress and eventually burnout. Many studies cite stress, anxiety, and exhaustion, as reasons for students to consider dropping out of their PhD program, taking a leave from PhD studies, or giving up on academia altogether (Anttila et al., 2015; Devine & Hunter, 2016; Stubb et al., 2011). One study found that 56% of currently enrolled PhD students were considering dropping out (Anttila et al., 2015), and another reported that 43% of currently enrolled doctoral students were contemplating interrupting their studies (Stubb et al., 2011). Having more than one mentor has been found to decrease the chances of students leaving their studies, where experiencing burnout increased the odds of students dropping out (Cornér et al., 2017). The national average attrition rate for doctoral students ranges between 40 to 85 % depending on the source Jiranek (2010).

The most effective forms of coping stem from positive involvement with the community, problem based coping, finding balance in each day, participating in enjoyable activities, and viewing the graduate journey as a process instead of a product (Stubb et al., 2011; Zahniser et al., 2017). Post-graduate students report engagement in professional development opportunities, teaching groups and research groups as a primary method of connecting with mentors and peers that become sources of positive support throughout the journeyStubb et al. (2011). However, such relationships need to be formed early on to avoid feeling isolated and lost later in the journey (Gardner, 2008). In contrast, coping strategies that can compound the problem involve isolated approaches. Examples of sub-optimal coping strategies include hiding one’s true feelings in order to gain acceptance into the scholarly community (wearing an academic mask), avoidance, and hiding in isolation.

Study Proposal

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In light of these findings, promoting both well-being and academic achievement in post-graduate education can theoretically be accomplished by scaffolding the path to degree attainment with community owned assets. Asset mapping and asset development is something that must be done with the community; however, previous research has shed some light on what scaffolds show promise. Promising scaffolds are assets that create: Spaces for shared problem solving, process transparency, developing professional identities, positive mentorship, and assets that help students take ownership over their path to degree attainment, and construct it in ways that are personally meaningful to them.

Because of the global pandemic, there is a renewed interest in addressing well-being in higher-education. The theme of community assets emerges in the past literature, and is a chief challenge to bridge due to campus closures. A recent study on the emergency shift to remote learning revealed that students did not view virtual learning as problematic, but instead reported
losing access to the school community to be their most significant loss (Chan et al., 2020). Indeed, because of the high-level of independence in graduate training, before the pandemic, informal shared problem solving with peers was how post-graduate students reported learning to navigate the different phases of graduate education (Gardner, 2008). Such informal conversations are likely occurring at far less frequency with no central place to gather.

To bridge these challenges, this study proposes to take an asset based approach to developing community owned assets at Claremont Graduate University. In contrast to other program planning models such as the PRECEDE–PROCEED model, asset based community development (ABCD) focuses on assets as opposed to deficits (Haines, 2009). It is the most fitting model for the post-graduate population who are highly skilled problem solvers, and whom are already voluntarily invested in their community(Haines, 2009).

Design

The preliminary design involves mixed data collection methods, intervention development and implementation, and pre-post test evaluations.

Focus Groups

Data collection begins with focus groups in order to identify existing resources in the community; such as social (bonding and bridging), human, and physical capital. Drains on resources, and additional resources that need to be developed in order to bridge the gaps in resources. From these meetings, an asset map will be developed in coordination with community members (Haines, 2009).

Population wide Survey (pre-test)

Following the focus group sessions is a population wide survey. The survey itself will ask again about assets and involvement on campus, but will also include: Assessments of multi-dimensional wellbeing (Goodman et al., 2017), perceived stress (eustress versus distress), inclusion of self and others (Aron et al., 1992),personality traits, positive and negative affect, and intentions to terminate or interrupt studies.

Development and implementation of the intervention Based on community assessments, an intervention will be developed and implemented to address well-being and academic achievement at CGU.

Some preliminary ideas are to create a virtual space where students can engage in shared problem solving, view their community vital signs, survey results and asset map, share micro-stories in podcast format, access a data base of student and faculty research projects, and access shared data for research projects. See here a concept website that I have developed for this

http://thecommunityasset.com/ .

Population wide Survey (post-test) The same population wide survey will be dispersed again after the intervention to serve as a post-test.

Hypothesis

H1 I hypothesize that those who have engaged in the community owned resource(s)will significantly differ from those who did not. This will be measured by: Lower levels of distress, higher perceived connection to community, higher positive affect, higher perceived meaning in their studies, and intentions to remain in their studies uninterrupted.

H2 Those who were directly involved in developing their community owned assets will show significantly higher-levels of well-being then those who only participated. This hypothesis is based on reports from practitioners of ABCD who state that it is community involvement in the process, more then the product, that makes the biggest difference in community health interventions(Haines, 2009).

*Note: The focus will be placed on factors related to school life only, as those are factors that can be influenced by school-level interventions.

*Note: The need for community owned assets was influenced by conversations with students who feel that institutional communications regarding their well-being were more about collecting metrics then they were for them.

References

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