Understanding Graduate Students:
George Barna; President, Barna
Their Values, Beliefs, and Motivations
Research Group, Glendale, CA
If you want to understand
the direction of this nation, examine the people who will lead the country during
the first years of the next century. Where do you find these people? In our
There are 1.5 million young
adults enrolled in graduate programs in America today. If past performance is
any indication -- and there is no reason to believe it is not -- they will quickly
rise to positions of influence and authority in business, education, and government.
A study of the CEO's of America's largest 1000 companies shows that the vast
majority earned a graduate degree. Graduate training has become virtually a
prerequisite for our federal lawmakers; more than three-quarters of our Congresspersons
have a graduate degree on their resumes.
But what do we know about
the graduate student population? In scouring the libraries and research computers
for insights, it became clear that little attention has been focused upon the
graduate student population. To address the paucity of information about this
vital segment, the Barna Research Group worked in cooperation with Grad Resources
to conduct a national survey of grad students. Using telephone surveys with
a representative sample of 404 students, stratified by degree program and type
of school, we evaluated their interests, lifestyles, and felt needs.
What we found tells us much
about what we can expect the nation to be like in the years ahead. This is a
complex body of individuals. As much as any other population segment we have
examined, grad students are characterized by a variety of unique and distinctive
attributes that bear further consideration.
Performance and Perceptions
Sacrifice is not scorned by grad students as
it is by the typical American adult. In their quest for academic success, they
accept it as a way of life. Time, money, and even personal relationships have
been surrendered at the altar of scholastic progress.
Grad students are motivated
to make these sacrifices by demands they place on themselves. They are, by and
large, top achievers academically, and therefore maintain lofty requirements
of their performance. These personal demands result from expectations placed
on them by others; people they respect and those whose respect they wish to
gain. Family, close friends, class peers, and professors are among these significant
people. Grad students detect and respond to even the most subtle expectations.
Compelled to satisfy these
ambitions, the typical grad student is self-reliant. The demands of excellence
and achievement have honed their abilities to reach deep inside, to focus on
their objectives. Total concentration is one skill that distinguishes them from
Their experience and productivity
have also led them to perceive themselves as leaders. They look forward to increased
levels of responsibility in the future. Motivated by opportunities to influence
people and institutions, to leave their imprint on society, they gravitate to
the challenges generated by responsibility. Grad students are set apart by their
eagerness to enhance and employ their leadership skill toward making a difference
in their world.
Grad students see themselves
as energetic and driven. Given their work ethic, being cast as a driven personality
is viewed as a compliment, rather than a put down. They have developed a clear
understanding of where they're going, and what it will take for them to get
there. They are goal-oriented people, not to be deterred from the vision and
path they have labored so hard to define and pursue.
Skepticism was revealed as
a dominant trait among graduate students. Perhaps this can be explained by the
educational process itself. Grad students are taught to challenge and test everything;
to figure out what's real and what isn't, and not take statements and perceptions
at face value. Engaged in an intellectual journey, they are too intelligent
and inquisitive to accept dogmatic statements without closer scrutiny. They
simply do not believe what they have been shown or told is necessarily the entire
picture. Tangible, tested proof seems to be required before they will accept
Another common trait among
graduate students is a serious disposition. In the pursuit of higher learning
they find little time to engage in frivolous activity. Leisure activities are
considered a waste of time that could be spent in studying; they expect to have
plenty of leisure time to pursue other interests after they graduate.
Grad students don't spend
their time in solitary confinement, however. They do seek out interpersonal
relationships, but as a means of release from the mental strain of school and
of fulfilling of their desire to acquire knowledge and influence. Books and
lectures dominate their academic experience, but they do not isolate themselves
When grad students were questioned
about what they considered to be important in life, close personal friendships
was deemed their top personal priority. But even this desire betrayed their
single-mindedness of purpose. Friendships appeared to fuel their lust for academic
growth by enabling them to learn from the perceptions, experiences, and challenges
of their comrades. Friendships also provided the emotional release from the
intellectual intensity of their academic quest.
The unwavering goal of educational
success has its costs as grad students found they were lacking in many levels
of their relationships. Because of their narrow focus, fulfillment in their
relationships was lacking. Research suggested that grad students recognize their
closest friends as ultimately representing their most serious competition in
the classroom or in the marketplace. As an added stress, many are also acutely
sensitive to rejection by these close friends. The graduate students' non-conformist
nature hinders their ability to form lasting and deep relationships with their
Another top priority for grad
students is scholarly achievement. The quest for scholastic success dictates
nearly everything in their life: their leisure endeavors, emotional state of
being, nature of their relationships, openness to religious beliefs, and acceptance
of fundamental values.
It is the desire for, and
prospect of, academic achievement that determines the parameters of their universe.
The life of a graduate student is like a war game. Grad school represents the
final days of training, moments before the soldier of knowledge launches his
major offensive in life using his full arsenal of tools and weapons, battling
to the top of his field. As many wartime leaders relate, this is a lonely pursuit.
The role of community in the life of the grad student is largely for intellectual
enrichment and helps to soften the reality of the sacrifices that have been
made in the pursuit of a degree.
Free time is another priority
in the lives of grad students. While research among America's adult population
underscores the shift taking place from passive to active, challenging entertainment,
grad students are bent upon integrating less productive leisure pursuits in
their daily regimen. On average, grad students say they have 15 hours of leisure
time per week. The most common extracurricular activities were music, sports,
and exercise. Reading was surprisingly among the least cherished leisure activities.
Anxieties and Concerns
Grad school is a time of high
anxiety for most participants. In fact, compared with measures of anxiety across
different occupational groups, we found that grad students are more anxiety-ridden
than most segments we have tested.
The most crippling anxiety
affecting grad students was the struggle to achieve balance in life. While there
is gratification earned from academic achievement, grad students fear being
transformed into academic machine, devoid of any real life outside the classroom
or library. In conjunction with this fear was concern for their personal health.
Many grad students indicated that stresses and pressures of grad school were
taking an emotional toll on them.
| Anxieties and Challenges
| balance outside of school ||
| personal health ||
| dealing with stress/burnout||
| not being successful in career ||
| financial pressures||
| relationships with peers||
| choosing wrong career path||
| relationships with opposite sex||
| relationships with professors||
| failing others' expectations||
| growing in relationship w/ God||
|feeling like an outsider ||
Surprisingly, the state of their relationships
was not a contributing part of their anxiety. Success in career, finances, and
scholarly pursuits, all ranked higher than their concerns about interaction
with peers and members of the opposite sex. This limited concern could be related
to a fear that excess energy devoted to
interpersonal activities might drain them of the focus they need to excel academically.
Sadly, though, some grad students pointed out that the very emphasis upon academics,
at the expense of deeper relationships, is what has led them to a point of emotional
The importance of the issue
of balance in lifestyle cannot be over emphasized. Balance is not one of the
post graduate realities for which students are being prepared. Discussions about
balancing career achievement and personal wholeness are absent from classroom
lectures, and missing from pages of the text books that are underlined and memorized.
Yet the conclusion grad students arrive at regarding balance may be among the
most important products of their studies. Their definition of balance, their
means of achieving it, and the importance of balancing competing interests will
set the pace for their post collegiate lifestyles. And that, as much as anything
else they derive from their studies, will direct the quality of their lives.
Nine out of ten grad students
concurred that stress and burnout were already major concerns in their life.
Although the majority of grad students are in their twenties and early thirties,
they are already wrestling with major issues ascribed to people in the later
stages of life: those caught in the throes of a fast-lane career.
Coping with Pressure and Stress
How do grad students handle
the weight of pressure they encounter? They turn inward. Independent and self-reliant,
they turn to the one person in whom they have ample trust and confidence: themselves.
Nine out of ten grad students claimed that they "frequently" rely upon themselves
for growth and stability. Other common sources of encouragement and stability
cited were friends and family, but these were called on for help with limited
During times of weakness,
doubt, or crisis, students are unlikely to reach out to their professors for
aid. Only 6% said they "very frequently" turn to their mentors for assistance.
This does not intimate that they have little respect for their professors. On
the, contrary, the impression was that grad students avoid any show of weakness
before those whose respect they try so desperately to win. Transparency is not
thought to wear well in the academic community; signs of strength and fortitude
The data also indicated that
religion is not generally perceived to be a source of comfort or encouragement.
Only 11% said they seek support from the Bible during tough times. Support from
clergy is also low on the list of potential sources of assistance.
There is a distinction between
how the grad student currently copes with pressures and crises, and how he or
she would like to do so. There was a noteworthy discrepancy between the proportion
of students who said they did feel close to their professors and those who desired
that closeness. There was a similar disparity in a desire for close relationship
with peers. Thus, grad students are in a catch-22 situation. On one hand, they
desire to have more vibrant relationships with the people they share their time
and space with. On the other hand, to pursue such relationships would increase
stress from the fear of rejection and in the compromised focus of their energies.
Pressure, stress, self-reliance, limited free
time, mistrust. Do grad students glean
a sense of fun or joy from the educational
pursuit? Yes, but it is the joy of achievement.
Acing a test. Earning the highest grade
in the class. Having conclusions in a
paper affirmed by a respected mentor. Intellectual
affirmation is the source of joy in grad school.
The Essence of the Grad Student
Grad students appear to be
motivated by knowing rather than by being. Their mission is to obtain, retain,
and utilize knowledge. The test of success in grad school is the ability to
manipulate information as required by the academic process. The heart of the
individual tends to be less important than the brain. The students are what
Grad students are motivated
by respect as well. They want people to respect their intellect, their drive,
their time, and their mission. Anyone wishing to influence the grad student
must gain their respect and show respect for them.
The Religious Component
With so much emphasis placed
upon the religious character of the American people, where does religion fit
in the picture of grad students? For most, it simply doesn't. For instance,
while just over half of the adult population claims that religion is very important
in their life, barely one third of the
graduate students interviewed expressed the same view.
Grad students do not dismiss
the existence of a religious dimension. In fact, seven out of ten acknowledge
that there is a spiritual dimension to life. Most grad students acknowledge
a connection between religion and a person's purpose in life. (See Prof. Keith
Yandell's article, Reason and Religion.)
It appears that religion also
holds some attraction to grad students, if only from a conceptual or theoretical
perspective. Most students said they would like to hear their professors discuss
the influence of the different faiths and world views on the current social
and ethical issues of their fields of study. Research showed that rather than
sift through religious philosophies on their own, they would trust the faculty
to provide a balanced and informed presentation of how religious faiths and
world views influence the foundations of their own academic disciplines. Such
discussions promise personal benefit (new knowledge) and an opportunity to engage
in further discovery (the joy of learning).
The Three P's
In summary, grad students
can be described in light of their passions: performance, preparation, and people.
Their level of conduct and achievement (performance) is integral to their personal
identity and their sense of growth. Their purpose for living through the challenges
and risks of grad school is to be ready (prepared) to assume positions of responsibility,
leadership, and influence. And through it all, they recognize the importance
of establishing relationships with people; short-term ties which will further
their ability to climb the academic ladder, and long-term relationships which
will boost them past the hallowed halls of academia into the real world, pursuing
the security of emotional acceptance and support.