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 society which may explain the 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.