Proactive student advising is integral to student success. The College of Graduate Studies provides resources to assist programs with the proactive advisement of graduate students. This section focuses on helping program directors and graduate faculty with advising their graduate students and ensuring a well-rounded graduate student experience and successful student completion.
A general Graduate Student Handbook is available at graduate.ucf.edu/student-handbook/.
Advising and Mentoring Students
One of the most important lessons learned from nationwide retention studies is that events that bring faculty and students together, such as research seminars, coffees, discussion groups, etc. are very important to a student sense of belonging and caring and that this translates directly into students staying in the program. In numerous studies, the credentials of students who leave and students who stay in graduate programs are identical; students frequently leave for other than academic or performance-based reasons.
One of the most important components of graduate education is the advising and mentoring of graduate students. UCF retention studies show that our students rely heavily on their advisors for guidance in both degree requirements and in navigating the administrative structure of the university. Therefore graduate program directors must first ensure that their students are receiving advisement from either themselves or some other faculty member, and second, that the faculty are offering appropriate and accurate advice. One of the best practices in several of our programs involves the annual updating of the program faculty by the program director on recent policy and procedural changes. The content of this section of the handbook will provide an excellent resource for advising students.
Advisement and mentoring become even more critical if your program is a thesis or dissertation based program with students engaged in independent research. Often the most profound education that our students receive comes from the research guidance and the relationship offered by their faculty mentors. However, we must remember that for the most part, few faculty members ever receive formal training in mentoring students and thus it is incumbent on the program director and department chair to ensure that new and junior faculty members receive appropriate guidance in advising and mentoring students. This is one reason why less experienced faculty members should first be nominated and appointed to the graduate faculty as associate members until they acquire some additional experience in mentoring students.
Creating a Supportive Program
Another aspect of graduate education that our studies show is extremely important but often overlooked is the intellectual atmosphere of the program. Graduate students crave to become part of the community of scholars in your program and only you and your program faculty can develop an intellectual atmosphere that not only challenges our students but also boosts their confidence and pride in your program. Achieving an intellectual environment requires more than hours spent in laboratories; it requires the creation of opportunities for students and faculty members to interact with one another by exchanging and debating ideas in seminars, symposia, and journal clubs. Exposing students to different perspectives to those currently found in your program by hosting visiting scholars/faculty and outside speakers and allowing graduate students to meet and interact with them is very worthwhile. Viewing our graduate students as junior colleagues rather than just students or employees helps to establish the supportive atmosphere important to student success.
Creating an intellectual environment does not necessarily cost a large amount of money but it does require a commitment and expectation on the part of the faculty that they will participate in this endeavor. It is interesting that our retention study found that almost all program directors and their department chairs agreed that this environment was desirable and necessary to nourish our students. Those of our programs that do promote this environment appear to have better retention of their students. Perhaps one of the most important contributions that you can make to create an intellectual and supportive environment in your program is to promote research seminars, symposia, and journal clubs in your program.
Student Rights and Responsibilities
One of the most uncomfortable positions for program directors is mediating a dispute between a student and his/her advisor. The most serious cases usually occur when a student seeks to leave an advisor’s laboratory for another advisor or leave the program in favor of another program. This scenario creates a classic conflict between a student’s responsibility to his or her advisor or program who may have invested time and money in the student and the right of a student to seek a change if he/she becomes seriously disgruntled with the current arrangement.
It may be difficult but we must understand that the overwhelming majority of students do not seek such changes lightly and usually are quite fearful of being ostracized by other faculty in the department. They are also fearful of losing considerable time that they have already invested in the program. On the other hand, one must realize that the advisor or program may be caught completely unaware by the request for change since many students are very reluctant to openly express their dissatisfaction to their advisor, and thus understandably the advisor may feel betrayed and upset with the student. In these cases, it is usually best not to affix guilt to either the student or the advisor unless blatant misbehavior is found which is rare. Try to seek reconciliation if possible but be prepared to assist the student in finding another advisor if reconciliation is not possible, and assuage the faculty member if necessary. We should not admit students if we have concerns about their abilities and their fit in the program.
Student Expectations vs. Reality
Unless students have considerable experience in research and prior graduate work, they often enter your program with lofty expectations. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it is desirable, unless the reality of your program falls short of their expectations. Students expect to be challenged intellectually and most expect to work harder in their graduate programs than in their undergraduate programs. Usually, students do well in their formal courses since they are long accustomed to structured lectures and tests. But most have never experienced “independent learning and exploration” which is a cornerstone of graduate education and thus have little knowledge of the laborious nature of solid research whether it is library, field, or bench research. They have never anticipated the hours of toil and frustration that are often required before they experience success. Unfortunately, in many cases, the reality undermines their lofty expectations and unless we build a support structure to help them weather their disappointment, we will lose many bright students. This is not just symptomatic of UCF but is found throughout the national higher education community which may explain a large number of people who identify themselves as “ABD’s” (All But Dissertation) as if the ABD is a legitimate degree.
Some of us may ask ‘why should we expend effort on those who cannot survive?’ as if graduate education is a Darwinian experience where only the fittest can survive. And, truthfully, there are some students who in spite of our best admissions criteria are not equipped to complete a graduate degree and enter a discipline. UCF research shows that the vast majority of students who leave doctoral programs had the same entering credentials as those who stay. About 50-60% of students in our doctoral programs have considered leaving; there are many who are in danger of leaving but possess the ability to be accomplished scholars and could thrive with the appropriate guidance. These are the students about which we are concerned and therefore the real question is ‘how do we as graduate faculty members build a support structure for our students so that their expectations can be reconciled with reality and still maintain their drive and enthusiasm?’ Part of the answer lies in the environment mentioned in a section above. Our students must be fully assimilated into the program and given the opportunity to build support networks with other students and faculty through interaction in seminars etc. Another part of the answer lies in our curriculum in that we must offer challenging courses in a timely manner and introduce our students to research early in the program so that they can appreciate the reality of research. Finally, we as faculty members must be aware that graduate students are entrusting their future to us. Therefore, we must honor this trust by being diligent in offering guidance, truthful but measured in our criticism, and encouraging in our manner, because in the end, the accomplishments of our graduates will clearly reflect on the quality of the training and education that we have provided.
Best Practices for Advising Students
As part of effective advising, faculty should understand the current university policies, and any changes that may have occurred, office staff should follow up to ensure that all petitions have been filed and student progress is being made, and the graduate program committee should identify planned professional development activities annually for graduate students. In this section, we have prepared a list of best practices that we have observed throughout the university in various graduate programs that is particularly helpful in creating a stimulating and supportive environment.
Prepare a 3-Year Course Schedule
In order to advise graduate students effectively and efficiently, it is best to organize the departmental functions so that the course schedule is stable. It should be planned out for 3 years with few substitutions and specificity about what is to be taught each semester.
Locate your course schedule on the program website for easy access by students and faculty, and indicate in the Graduate Catalog copy as well as the 3-year course schedule the courses that will be taught each semester. It is helpful to not list courses as “occasional” but to have a realistic plan of actual offerings so that students can determine for themselves what is available to take. This plan should be included in the curriculum section of the program handbook. Refer to the Program and Course Management section of this guide for more information on course scheduling and other topics on the curriculum.
Build Plans of Study based on the 3-Year Course Schedule
Once the course schedule has been planned, it is possible to build an effective Plan of Study for students. A Plan of Study (POS) is a listing of coursework and other degree requirements agreed to by the student and the degree program specifying what is needed to successfully complete the program. It should be used as an advising tool to help students plan their course of study and to identify deficiencies or petitions of policy at an early stage. Having strong POS planning processes will prevent delays in meeting graduation requirements. Policy information about POS is located in the Graduate Catalog.
The Plan of Study is different than a GPS (Graduate Plan of Study) audit, in that the GPS audit only includes courses that have already been completed or registered for and does not include future enrollment. The POS also identifies formal coursework, transfer work, course substitutions, and petitions that need to be completed for the student.
The only time it is necessary to submit a new Plan of Study for a student is when the student changes tracks or the catalog year of a program and at the time of graduation if the Plan of Study has changed.
Plans of Study must be on file for doctoral and master’s students before the completion of 12 credit hours of coursework. POS submissions must come through the eform process. Students who do not have a POS on file by this time will receive a hold on their student records that blocks registration. At the same time you submit the POS to the College of Graduate Studies, please also submit all petitions that are needed as well as any eforms required to process transfer work.
The Graduate College places a checklist item on all active degree-seeking graduate students in myUCF in the “to do” list section when a POS is not on file. The notification is removed once the POS is received in the Graduate College. If your department does not have its own template, then you can find suggested POS templates in the Forms and References section of this website.
We require that all parties are aware of the program of study, including students, the faculty adviser, and program director. However, electronic submission of the POS is encouraged using electronic signatures. We will accept faxes of POS as long as the POS is signed by the parties.
If you would like to know which students have approved POS, please visit GradInfo at www.gradinfo.ucf.edu in the Reports section and this will help you track your students. The Active Student Report lists all active students and a status indicator in the POS Status column. Indicators include an “I” for initiated and “C” for completed.
Stay Informed of Graduate Policy
Program directors should keep informed of new graduate policies and revisions to graduate policies by reviewing the Graduate Council website, reading the notices of policy updates sent to the Graduate Program Directors listserv, and attending the Program Directors Updates Meeting in June each year hosted by the College of Graduate Studies.
Please go over new policy changes with faculty in department meetings and at graduate program committee meetings to ensure faculty members are kept up-to-date with current policies.
Policy information can be found in the Policy Guide and the Policies section in the Graduate Catalog. For policy drafts, minutes, and policy committee schedule, see the Graduate Council website.
Faculty members should not contradict university policies, nor promise or commit the university to decisions contrary to university policies. Faculty should be knowledgeable about the override, petition and appeals processes and know when each is appropriate.
Proactively Monitor Student Progress
Ensure that there is a systematic way to proactively track information regarding student progress each semester. This includes identifying students in academic distress, ensuring that graduation issues are resolved, and filing petitions are on time. Refer to the section on Academic Progress for guidelines and resources available to assist you with helping your students maintain successful academic progress. Conditional Retention Plans are a way to assist students who are in danger of being dismissed and we strongly advise programs to file these plans BEFORE students are dismissed, provided that the program believes the student can succeed.
Several reports are available to help you in tracking students. In the Reports menu in GradInfo (www.gradinfo.ucf.edu) includes reports for Active Students, Inactive Students, and Graduated Students. Many options are available to you to choose the data to be included on the Active Students report, for example, whether a student has a Plan of Study, has filed an intent to graduate, is enrolled and the number of credit hours, their admit and candidacy terms, any academic progress issues such as program actions and reasons, academic standing.
Employ a Separate Academic Adviser for Large Programs
Departments of more than 100 graduate students should employ a separate A&P adviser to assist the graduate program director in tracking student progress.
File Petitions Early
Petitions should be submitted early in the student’s Plan of Study, as soon after the student enters the university as possible. Petitions should be submitted and approved prior to the submission of a final Plan of Study. Reference the Policy Guide for guidelines and deadlines relating to petitions.
Submit Requests for Transfer Work, Course Substitutions, and Traveling Scholar Work Early
These requests should be submitted as early as possible in the student’s career, prior to the submission of a final Plan of Study. Early submission and approval will preempt any possibility for delays in certification for graduation. Reference this section of the faculty guide for guidelines and deadlines relating to requests for transfer work, course substitutions and traveling scholar work.
Identify Graduation Deficiencies Early
Complete a pre-certification of graduating students in the semester before students are intending to graduate. The Graduate Council will not approve petitions for master’s students in their last semester. Any petitions for exceptions to university requirements must be made in the semester before students will graduate.
For doctoral students, please complete the pre-certification process at candidacy when all coursework is completed and the only remaining requirement is the doctoral dissertation.
The College of Graduate Studies has graduation certification checklists and a timeline of all graduation deadlines available to assist you with planning the graduation processes. The checklists can be found in Forms and References for masters, certificate, specialist, and doctoral programs.
Conduct Program Orientation
Host program or college orientations for new graduate students. Fall orientations are best held to coincide with the Graduate Orientation, held each August by the College of Graduate Studies. In program orientations, the most important information that you can provide to new students is what you expect from them. Often students new to graduate school experience do not know the culture or expectations for graduate school and need the implicit made much more explicit. Provide students with the tools and resources needed to navigate their graduate career.
Program and college orientations need to include information on Plan of Study, meeting coursework requirements, and policies. Also include information about holidays and breaks in your department, assistantships, and meeting the requirements of teaching or research advisers. Have information regarding a good thesis or dissertation and a timeline for good academic progress, annual reviews of their performance for doctoral students, ethics in research, and what professional behavior is. There are other topics pertinent to the discipline as well that need to be covered.
Host General Advising Sessions
Host general advising sessions for your graduate students each semester, so that all advising can take place at one time. This will save you time and is more convenient for staff and students. Those that need to take special courses such as thesis and dissertation can have their forms approved and entered at once. If you have a computer set up, then students who wish to take regular courses can enter these into the registration system and problems can be solved in real-time. It is helpful to hold a brown-bag lunch session one week prior to this where you let each student know what they should bring to the advising session (note from faculty about independent study, thesis/dissertation, etc.).
Register Students Early
Graduate students need to register early for their courses. It is helpful to establish the curriculum so that a standard first-semester course schedule is developed and you can register students into it without waiting for students to attend the graduate program orientation. Any adjustments can be made at the program orientation. Please handle exceptions early.
Maintain a Current Graduate Program Handbook for Students
A graduate student handbook is required that carefully describes the program’s expectations for student progress, in both coursework and in independent learning experiences. The College of Graduate Studies provides an online Graduate Program Handbooks site to assist you with this task. Having a handbook that describes policies and expectations for graduate students is a requirement by SACSCOC.
Maintenance of the handbook is important and should be done annually at the time that Graduate Catalog copy is due, for consistency of information. Plan to make updates to your handbooks every spring semester, prior to June 1.
Track Registration in Dissertation Hours
Confirm that all students registered for dissertation hours have passed candidacy and that the status change and dissertation advisory committee have been submitted to and received by the College of Graduate Studies. Students should only be registered for dissertation hours after they have passed candidacy. Reference the Graduate Summary in PeopleSoft to see if a student’s status has changed to Doctoral Candidacy (DCD) and the Dissertation Advisory Committee is recorded correctly.
Academic Progress for Doctoral Students
Please monitor student progress milestones from entry to graduation. All doctoral students should have successfully passed qualifying examinations within the first year, and certainly no later than the middle of the second year. Admission to candidacy for doctoral students will normally take place near the end of the third year and coursework should be completed during this time. Doctoral students should meet with their doctoral advisory committees each semester during their dissertation work.
Dissertations in progress for more than two years should be reviewed by the doctoral advisory committee, which should notify the program director if there is lack of progress or problems.
All doctoral students must be evaluated each year by the graduate program committee to determine if they are making progress to degree.
Advising of Graduate Teaching Assistants
SACSCOC requires that all teaching assistants have a faculty supervisor. Please inform your faculty supervisors that they are to meet with the GTAs at least weekly and are required to provide an evaluation at the end of each semester on their teaching performance before the GTA can be employed the next semester. The evaluation form is the GTA Performance Assessment Form. This form does not require teaching evaluations completed by students in the class before it can be completed. The GTA Performance Assessment Form focuses on the professional teaching experience and development of the GTA student during their assistantship.
The College of Graduate Studies recommends to departments and colleges that they offer awards for outstanding achievements and contributions made by graduate students. They should also nominate graduate students for the university-wide awards such as the Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching Award, the Excellence by a Graduate Teaching Assistant Award, and the Outstanding Dissertation and Thesis awards.
The College of Graduate Studies recognizes outstanding poster presentations each year during the Graduate Research Forum. Please encourage your faculty and students to attend and participate.
In addition, the Graduate College is always interested in thanking our outstanding faculty who selflessly mentor doctoral students. The Award for Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students is offered annually to the two best mentors in the disciplinary categories (see Awards and Recognition for more details).
Establishing the Curriculum to Make Advising Easier and Better
- If resources are limited in a department, then it is best to think about cohort groups of students (especially in programs with part-time students) who enter and take classes together on a well-defined schedule throughout the curriculum. Generally, scheduling in cohorts requires fewer elective courses. Also, having a good, solid curriculum that is up to date, but streamlined, with few tracks is always easier to market and to maintain. Advising is often much easier for cohort students in that they will take the same courses each semester until graduation.
- Programs with large numbers of part-time students should consider offering the program online, or at least offer a majority of the courses online. Although initial costs can be higher to convert the curriculum to online (the university has resources to assist), these costs usually decline in time and allow many programs to reach scattered but important audiences of students at a distance.
- Consider admissions only in the fall semester and to simplify course offerings. Keep the curriculum simple so that advising is easier, particularly for the master’s programs. Consider cohort groups of students that will take courses lock-step, as well as a few electives that could be taken by many students. In this way, the course offerings are simplified and students get some choice. It is best in master’s programs to have fewer tracks or no tracks and concentrate on a solid and up-to-date curriculum.
- Have a standard first-semester curriculum so that advising in the first semester is not as rushed.
- For non-thesis master’s programs, in particular, meet with students in a group to do advising and have computer systems and the staff there to register students on the spot each semester. Hold an informational session the week before advising students what to bring with them and what they should think about before advising.
- Lay out the entire curriculum for each student in the first semester after admission, so that students understand their Plan of Study and your expectations for them. Send the Plan of Study to the College of Graduate Studies through the eform process, before the student completes 12 credit hours. Only make small changes as students proceed through the curriculum to update course substitutions that may have been allowed. This is easier to do if the curriculum is clear and the 3-year course schedule is realistic.
- Develop a formal extracurricular component to the program, including fixed events that are considered important in developing professional skills of students. Examples include a brown-bag lunch discussion of teaching challenges, a research symposium, and a seminar on portfolio or resume development, an award ceremony for those who graduate or receive fellowships or honors, a discussion panel of faculty, employers, or others discussing their employment situations, email listservs for students to connect with each other, etc. Formally adopting the extracurricular component makes it easier to ensure that students’ needs are consistently met.