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Distance Education ArticlesBack to Article list

Creating a Support Network

Thomas Jankowski says that he's really never been a "support group kind of guy," but when he began writing his dissertation a few years ago, he quickly changed his mind. His wife told him about PhinisheD, an interactive website geared toward graduate students, where he could get advice and support from other students experiencing his same struggles. Today, he's Dr. Jankowski, and he says PhinisheD has been "instrumental" in helping him finish his dissertation.

So he became the PhinisheD webmaster, and to date, Jankowski reports the site gets an average of 5,000 hits a day from students across the country seeking support in real-time. "I know people who check it every day, on the hour, all day long," said Jankowski.

However, PhinisheD users are not the only graduate students who are seeking support from sources outside of the classroom. These days, campus support services are struggling to meet the needs of students according to Peter Syvonerson, the vice president for research at the Council of Graduate Schools. A survey conducted by the Council revealed that the top issue graduate deans nationwide were focusing upon was how to improve support for graduate students.

Why is support an issue? In his article, "(r)Evolution on our campuses," David Kniola, the national network chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Services Network, writes graduate students are quite possibly the "most overlooked and under-served student population" on U.S. campuses today. What's more, in an interview, Kniola said that many universities assume the attitude that graduate students are "wholly developed students who are adults, so why should we bother with them?"

"That created an environment where students are feeling neglected and overlooked," he said.

And it's easy to see why. According to The Condition of Education 2001, a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students enrolling in graduate school has increased steadily over the decades, growing from 1.3 million in 1980 to over 1.8 million in 1999. By 2011 the NCES predicts that number to have increased to 2 million, nearly 20 percent in a little over a decade.

If the NCES' findings remain consistent through the next decade, as the enrollment numbers increase, so will the number of students who juggle outside responsibilities on top of the intense graduate workload. According to the study, students working on their Master's consider it "primarily a part-time activity" because the majority of grad students work, and many of those who work, do so full-time. Jankowski said that most of the active PhinisheD users are women, not only working on their dissertations but holding jobs and raising children.

Still others are like Charles Brockner, a 24-year-old grad student at Georgetown University who works part-time at night on his Master's in Security Studies while balancing a full-time job during the day as the director of an academic program at the Washington, D.C.-based The Fund for American Studies.

"I find myself reading all the time, and when you are working a full time job 9-5, and then you have class from 6-8 and well," said Brockner, "your weekends are spent in the library. That's graduate school."

No doubt, grad school is demanding, and as Kniola puts it, the support services do not match the rate of grad students enrolling. However, support services-while few-are not obsolete. In fact, students can access many of them much like the PhinisheD site-online.

At the Association for Support of Graduate Students (ASGS) website, students can write to other students and faculty from around the world via Doc-Talk, a free email forum or download a template for citing sources in theses. Also, the site lists a directory of consultants for hire, professionals like Dr. Daniel Berman of Academic Consulting International who has assisted with 500 theses over 20 years.

While many campuses offer the usual support services, many are failing to provide adequate support resources specifically for frustrated and overworked grad students. In the meantime, people like Sherry Wien will seek out support wherever they can find it-and until they earn a degree.

At 11:57 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, with only three minutes left in the day on which Sherry Wien earned her PhD, she posts the online message to other PhinisheD users who have been encouraging her throughout the process: "I could not have written my dissertation without you. This website is truly a blessing."

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