Doctoral Students Need Support Groups, Too

Robert Greim describes how his graduate cohort helped themselves and other future academics by creating a student organization.

August 7, 2015

For the sake of student success, retention and satisfaction, universities often intentionally structure, fund and methodically assess first-year experience efforts. The benchmarks of an effective first-year experience can include -- but are certainly not limited to -- meaningful faculty engagement, immersion in campus activities outside of the classroom, cohort bonding experiences and intrusive advising.

It was on this premise that midway through our doctorate of higher education administration program, my cohort of peers created a recognized student organization, Student Docs.

The cohort started with 15 members in fall 2011; by the end of the first semester, more than half had dropped out. Even with a few new students who joined after that first year, we were down to eight by spring 2014. After our final class that semester, a few of us gathered in the student lounge and spoke about how we were going to make it through the final and most difficult phase of our program: we were now ABD (all but dissertation).

In that discussion, we realized our experience had been adversely affected by a number of factors over the course of those first three years. With only two full-time professors in the program, most of the teaching was left up to adjunct or out-of-program faculty members. Required classes did not always fall in a logical sequence that would foster understanding. Faculty advisers were unavailable to us over the summer. Many cohort members faced personal challenges of balancing studies with full-time work, family commitments or even the death of a parent or loved one. In short, we experienced a great deal of uncertainty, confusion and isolation, not unlike first-year undergraduates.

Creating a recognized student organization at the beginning of our fourth year allowed us to develop a collective identity. Academically, we were recognized by the campus and invited by the Office of Assessment to participate in a formal focus group, offering our constructive feedback in the hopes of structurally enhancing the program. We also served each other, and members of the new cohort that entered the program in fall 2014, as informal academic advisers and peer mentors.

Administratively, we were permitted to hold monthly executive meetings on campus and host a study hall in the campus library four days per week. And our accomplishments were included in the School of Education electronic newsletter.

Funding from the Student Government Association allowed us to buy member T-shirts, host a campus event with a guest speaker, hold two motivational semester-end celebration dinners and send three members to present at the 2015 NASPA Convention in New Orleans.

Most importantly, we organized our efforts to support members of the new cohort emotionally. We offered them the unvarnished truth and wisdom that only come after surviving a tough experience. We responded quickly to their emails, met with them privately over coffee and held group luncheons in the school cafeteria. We even engaged prospective doctoral students who heard of our successes and camaraderie.

If ever a student organization was created for the sake of student success, retention and satisfaction, this is it, as evidenced by the fact that the 2014 cohort completed its first academic year with 100 percent retention. Additionally, we received the Emerging Organization of the Year Award from the Office of Student Involvement for the 2015 academic year.

The formality of registering as a student organization not only elevated our outward presence on campus, it intrinsically enhanced expectations of members to commit to scheduled events and participate in activities. Had we simply continued as an ad hoc group, it is likely we would have experienced a less enforceable, lower expectation of participation while hosting informal events and making arbitrary gestures of support to one another.

As the fall semester begins, it might be a good time for doctoral students, or the professors who have a passion for helping them, to visit with the Office of Student Involvement about the process of becoming a recognized student organization. If you would like to discuss our organization’s challenges, accomplishments and failures, please reach out to us at


Robert Greim is director of compliance for the athletics department and a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.


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