Faculty members play a critical role in how ethnic and racial minorities and women interpret the rigors of graduate school, according to a new study to be presented at the upcoming meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Analyses of 29 student and alumni interviews and focus groups in four doctoral programs in the sciences and engineering suggest that faculty mentors’ reframing of student experiences of struggle or failure, honestly discussing the way social identity affects one’s experiences in academe, validating students’ competence and potential -- what the paper calls “cognitive scaffolding” -- all support persistence and well-being by warding off isolation and a sense of not belonging.
The paper’s author, Julie Posselt, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, said via email that “Ph.D. students, maybe counterintuitively, see faculty as a last resort for academic support” and feel safer approaching peers and postdoctoral fellows. Graduate students often worry that professors “will judge them negatively if they show signs of weakness,” she said, but “when faced with doubts about their ability to make it (for example, impostor syndrome) they benefited greatly from a faculty support,” in the form of cognitive scaffolding.
Professors help students reframe their struggles and self-doubts, focusing on growth and the long term rather than the stress of immediate experiences and perceived failures, Posselt said. “Also very meaningful to students was honest talk about the ways that race and gender affect their experiences in the academy; they appreciated frank conversations about this from both same-race and same-gender faculty as well as mentoring across social identity.”
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