By Dr. Kathleen Clarke
My rationale for wanting to go to University of Toronto for my doctoral work was to understand more about the research on postsecondary context. I was attending a conference in the summer prior to starting my studies and I presented in a session in which Tricia Seifert and Jeff Burrow were sharing recent findings from the Supporting Student Success study. I was able to connect with Tricia and several of the team members throughout the conference and I was fortunate to be invited to begin working on that study in the fall when I started at OISE. I credit Tricia with opening my world to student affairs and services. Prior to this work, I did not know that this was an area people researched nor did I know it was an area within which I could work. I connect this to the study in the sense that, not everyone knows about student affairs and services and what folks in this field do.
My doctoral research focused on understanding the experiences of graduate students with mental health challenges and examining the challenges they face and the supports they use. I used the 2016 Canadian Reference Group data from the National College Health Assessment to obtain an overall understanding of Canadian graduate students’ mental health. I then conducted semi-structured interviews with 38 doctoral students in Ontario who identified as having a mental health challenge or disability. Although the Supporting Student Success study was not the metaphorical “egg” to my dissertation research in the same way that Jacqueline Beaulieu described, I will detail three connections that I do see.
1. Defining “Success”
Seifert, Henry, and Peregrina-Kretz (2014) wrote an article titled “Beyond ‘Completion’: Student Success is a Process” and in it they highlight that degree completion is often considered the sole criteria for determining whether a student is successful. They draw attention to a need for a broader notion of what student success is and cite literature that refers to students’ academic goals and intentions as key pieces of what a definition of student success should have. Part of what I wanted to look at in my study was how mental health conditions impacted students’ performance and progress in their doctoral program.
I began by identifying the year of study and then the stage of program (coursework, comprehensive exam, proposal, dissertation). This was fairly straightforward. Next, I asked participants about the expected time-to-completion. This is where it started to get messy. Some participants referred to what the official timeline was from the Faculty of Graduate Studies, others referred to what their specific faculty identified, and others referred to what they personally expected for their time-to-completion. Questions about participants’ current year in their program and program length were asked to begin a conversation about whether participants were considered “on-track” to finish within the expected time frame. However, in the same way that Seifert et al. (2014) said that there is more to student success than completion of the credential, I learned that determining what would be considered “on-track” was also not straightforward. Participants’ timelines for completing different aspects of the degree varied and some were comfortable with being beyond the ‘expected’ time-to-completion because of their own expectations.
2. Shared Responsibility
One of the key things I learned while working on the Supporting Student Success study was that student success is the responsibility of everyone on campus: It is not the responsibility of student affairs and services professionals alone. There needs to be a broader campus culture that values and encourages collaboration across campus with the purpose of supporting student success. I connect this to my dissertation work because graduate students use support from a variety of sources throughout their experience. When I interviewed doctoral students, I found that many people play a part in supporting graduate students with mental health conditions. Participants sought informal academic and mental-health related support from peer networks and they also talked about a mental health culture within their departments where students are sharing their experiences of seeking mental health support. While peers can encourage others to seek support, they can also unfortunately deter others from seeking support if they had a negative experience. The findings that peers were primary sources of informal support was not surprising, particularly in light of this piece by Peregrina-Kretz, Seifert, Arnold, and Burrow (2018) that used data from the second phase of the Supporting Student Success study to identify peers as connectors, coaches and confidantes, co-constructors, and copycats.
In addition to peers, interview participants also reported that faculty supervisors were also a primary source of support. Of 36 participants, 22 disclosed their mental health challenges to their supervisor. I was reminded of presentations that the Supporting Student Success team did titled “Knowing me, Knowing you – It’s the best I can do” and “Do I know you? Faculty and student affairs and awareness and engagement with the ‘other’” and was prompted to think about the importance of ensuring that faculty are aware of the various mental-health related supports and how to refer students to those services.
Another way that I connect shared responsibility for student success to my dissertation work is by using findings related to the use of professional mental health support. In the NCHA, participants are asked if they had received mental health support from offices at their current college or university. About 45% of the graduate students with a mental health condition reported that they had. However, a limitation of this instrument is that it does not ask about use of off-campus support. In the interviews I conducted, I learned that 35 out of 38 participants reported accessing some form of professional mental health support during their doctoral studies: 13 used on-campus support, 14 used off-campus support, and 8 used both on- and off- campus support. This finding highlights the need for collaboration between on- and off-campus resources to support students’ mental health.
3. Survey Design
I joined the Supporting Student Success research team when we were starting Phase 3 of the project and developing a survey to send to faculty, student affairs professionals, and senior administrative leaders across Canada. During this time of survey development, I learned how important it is to take a close look at how questions are phrased to ensure that they are clear. Furthermore, I learned about decisions that are made when you develop a survey. After being involved in this survey development, I now examine survey instruments very closely and pay particular attention to how questions concerning graduate students are asked. Connecting this to my dissertation work, the National College Health Assessment could be revised in different ways to capture the graduate student context more effectively. For example, one question asks, “What is your year in school?” and response options are: 1st year undergraduate, 2nd year undergraduate, 3rd year undergraduate, 4th year undergraduate, 5th year or more undergraduate, Graduate or professional, Not seeking a degree, and other. Only one of these response options captures the graduate level and it does not allow for further categorized based on master’s versus doctoral level, or year of study at the graduate level (1st year doctoral versus 6th year doctoral).
I also want to draw your attention to how we ask questions about whether students identify as having a disability or mental health condition. In my dissertation, I examined participants’ responses across the three NCHA questions and found that a large number of respondents who responded affirmatively to “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?” and/or “Within the last 12 months, have you been diagnosed or treated by a professional for any of the following mental health conditions?” did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. A total of 69% of the 975 participants who had been diagnosed with depression at some point did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. Similarly, of the 1,144 participants who identified as being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health condition in the past year, about 71% did not report having a psychiatric condition. Why might students be comfortable reporting their mental health condition on some questions but not others? What would happen if the question about having a psychiatric condition was not part of the disability demographic question? How are students defining disability?
The focus of student affairs research, particularly in the area of mental health, is focused primarily on undergraduate students. I therefore challenge you to consider how the needs of graduate students at your institution may differ from those of undergraduates and to reflect on the following questions:
- How are you working together across the institution and beyond to support graduate students’ mental health specifically?
- How are peers and faculty supervisors trained to support graduate students’ mental health at your institution?
- In what ways are you collecting data about graduate students’ mental health?
- How do the questions you pose in surveys reflect the nuances of graduate-level education (e.g. master’s versus doctoral level, year of study, academic requirements)?
Dr. Kathleen Clarke is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. Follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke.
Peregrina-Kretz, D., Seifert, T., Arnold, C., & Burrow, J. (2018). Finding their way in post-secondary education: the power of peers as connectors, coaches, co-constructors and copycats. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(5), 1076-1090.
Seifert, T., Henry, J., & Peregrina-Kretz, D. (2014, July). Beyond ‘completion’: Student success is a process. SEM Quarterly, 2(2), 151–163. doi:10.1002/sem3.20042