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Retaining Students in Your Graduate Program

Adapted and reposted with permission from the Computing Research Association

R etention Requires Constant Vigilance

Statistical data are lacking, but it appears that graduate programs experience significant problems retaining minority students. Many schools make an effort to get students started on their graduate career through orientation and advising, but these efforts tend to fall off as the student progresses through the program. Because it is so easy for a minority student to feel different from the other students and alienated from the graduate program, it is critically important to reinforce a sense of belonging at every stage of the graduate career. In particular, this means getting the student deeply involved in the two major activities of the department--teaching and research.


Establish an advising program that continues beyond the first year of graduate school. Transfer the student to an appropriate adviser as soon as he or she is ready to commit to a research area. Provide summer support or a research assistantship to enable the student to become familiar with faculty members and other graduate students and to integrate the student into a research group within the department. Give students a chance to teach to help them decide whether they wish to pursue an academic career. (This is especially important today, given the small number of minority doctorates who choose an academic career in computer science.) Provide an appropriate faculty member or more senior graduate student as a mentor to create a sense of belonging, and give the student a chance to be a mentor to a more junior graduate student. Establish a minority support group or other cultural outlets, since some minority graduate students drop out of graduate school because of dissatisfaction with the social life rather than the intellectual environment. Apply the same standards and expectations to minority students as you do to other students. Do not put them into a special class of "affirmative-action" students who are not expected to perform as well as other students. Show a personal interest in their successes and viewpoints.

Faculty Members Need to Serve as Mentors to Minority Students, And They Should Receive Training in How to Be an Effective Mentor

A mentor is someone who can be a trusted counselor to a student--someone who can serve as a role model, help the student to identify goals as well as the steps needed to achieve them, provide constructive criticism, and provide emotional support. According to a document from the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) on mentoring, a student receives a variety of benefits from a mentor:

  • Experience that can be applied when working on new or difficult projects, jobs, or decisions.

  • Honest feedback. Direction on where to concentrate improvements to match expectations.

  • Advice/help with career guidance.

  • Access to the mentor?s network of professional connections.

  • Knowledge of the appropriate/expected behavior for various professional settings.

  • Access to information the student might not otherwise have.

  • Support from a mentor who serves as cheerleader and protector.

  • Improvement of skills (technical, interpersonal).

  • Emotional support, such as tips on balancing work and personal life.

  • Someone to vent frustration to without fear of reprisal or breach of trust.

One of the most interesting discussions in this same IEE Web document is the set of benefits the mentor derives from this relationship:

  • Access to information that the mentor may not otherwise have.

  • Visibility/recognition for the mentor who is perceived to team up with "winners."

  • Access to the student?s network.

  • Opportunities to find out and learn about other operations, activities, or cultures that may not otherwise be available.

  • Better understanding of yourself when trying to help others.

  • Fresh perspective.

  • Good feeling about yourself.

  • Better use of your own mentor by being a mentor to others.

  • "Reverse mentoring" by the student on issues that were not an initial part of the relationship--often outside the work arena.

Mentoring is serious business because of the enormous impact mentors often have on students. Many students learn how to behave by observing faculty members and treating them, consciously or unconsciously, as role models. As a result, poor mentoring can cause considerable damage. This is as true for faculty members who come to serve as mentors through happenstance as for those who become mentors through formal assignment. Mentoring is easiest when the mentor and the student share a common background. This is true not only of similarities in physical profile, but also in intellectual, social, and economic profiles. Lacking commonality, it is more difficult, but not impossible, to build the ties and trust essential for a strong mentoring relationship. Some of the ties that seem to be effective for building a mentoring relationship are: sharing gender or ethnicity; growing up in similar circumstances (in a big city or in a rural area, in a poor family, in the suburbs, from the same geographical region); or working in the same research field. For these reasons, it is important to establish a process that supports mutual selection.

For a mentoring relationship to work effectively, both sides have to contribute. The student must be trustworthy about information provided in confidence by the mentor, be willing to advance in his or her career and make an effort to do so, and be able to accept constructive criticism. Similarly, the mentor must be able to keep confidences, provide honest feedback, take the time to give advice, share his or her professional network of contacts and promote the student within this network, protect the student, and create opportunities for the student.

The McKnight Doctoral Fellows Program, which extends across a number of campuses in Florida, shows the value of mentoring. Operated by the Florida Educational Fund since 1984, the program provides up to 25 fellowships per year--renewable for up to 5 years--to African-American students to study in doctoral programs at one of 10 Florida universities. The students are required to study in one of 10 subject areas in which African Americans have been underrepresented. The program has a very high success rate--89% retention in graduate school. Of the 130 people to receive doctorates through the program to date, eight have been awarded in computer science. The McKnight Program would not be nearly so successful if all it did was provide financial support. Integral to the program are activities to provide mentoring and to support communities. Several kinds of mentoring activities are built into the program. At the annual fellows meeting every October, all fellows share their experiences with each other in both informal and formal settings. Fellows are selected from time to time to make presentations to the group, and graduates are invited back to give talks on specific topics that relate to getting through the Ph.D. process. There is a council of elders composed of senior black faculty members from around the country. These elders share their experiences with the fellows in the same manner. Informal social events are held at the annual meeting, and talks are given by elders. In addition to the annual meeting, there has typically been a mid-year meeting with a similar intent as the annual meeting, but focused on the current fellows. Groups of fellows at different schools around the state also meet on their own.

The McKnight Alumni Association has established its own formal mentoring program to match each new fellow with McKnight graduates who may be on the faculty either at their current institutions or at another one nearby. As one former McKnight Fellow stated: "Students in the program have the feeling that there is a network of people and resources available to them. It really helps with the feeling of isolation that often comes with graduate school. For me, the lessons learned at the annual meetings were the most valuable. It was all practical advice that related to exactly the things I was going through at the time." (Ernest McDuffie, computer science professor, Florida State University.)

Typically, the most effective mentoring will occur within the graduate department, with either a faculty member or a more advanced graduate student serving as the mentor. There are a number of publications describing how an individual can be an effective mentor and how a department can set up an effective mentoring program. The National Academies have published an excellent guide, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend . The National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science Inc. provides a series of low-cost publications on mentoring that can be ordered online. Examples include "The Mentorship Briefing Guide: Handbook for Establishing/Implementing a Mentoring Program" and "Mentoring: An Essential Factor in the Doctoral Process."


Ensure that every student has a mentor. Faculty should consider it part of their responsibilities to serve as mentors to students. Because knowing how to be a good mentor is not necessarily intuitive, faculty members should seek out training. Bring in experts to provide faculty with practical advice about how to mentor, or provide them with written materials on mentoring. Mentors for minority graduate students need to be committed to cultural diversity and familiar with the issues facing minority students. The publications of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, mentioned above, are particularly valuable in this regard.

For further information, please visit the Computing Research Association Web site.