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Conceptual Framework

The Stages and Domains of the Graduate Student Experience

Grounded in the tenets of Tinto’s (1993) “theory of graduate communities and doctoral persistence”, the
gradSERU Survey conceptualizes the graduate student experience as a three-stage process that encompasses
the entry/transition stage, the development stage, and the degree completion/exit stage. 

The theory posits that individual attributes, such as demographics, prior educational experience, and financial
resources, shape students’ goals and their educational, occupational, and institutional commitments. External
commitments and financial resources also impact the process of students’ integration into the academic and
social systems of their program, department, and university.

Conceptual Framework

During the entry/transition stage, graduate and professional students seek to build relationships in the
academic and social communities of the university, which includes both formal and informal interactions with
faculty and peers inside and outside of the classroom and in their graduate positions.

In the development stage, graduate students acquire the knowledge and develop the competences needed
either to engage in dissertation/thesis research for doctoral and research master’s students or to pass
certification/licensure exams for professional students.  At this stage, graduate and professional students are
integrated within the academic and social systems of the program/department and start seeking opportunities
for professional development. 

The final stage is the completion/exit stage where students complete their research and defend their
dissertation/thesis.  In the final stage, relationship with dissertation adviser and/or with the dissertation/thesis
committee members became salient. As in the previous two stages, external commitments and financial support
continue to play a very important role in the graduate and professional student experience at this stage.

Graduate Student Experience

GradSERU Framework

SERU conceptualizes the graduate student experience as encompassing five domains that reflect the complexity
of graduate and professional education during the three stages of graduate student persistence.  These domains
include curricular experiences, cocurricular experiences (including public/community service), research
experiences, teaching experiences and professional development (including employment and internships in
business and government), personal life and conditions (including financial resources and external commitments),
and the social life and conditions in which students pursue their degrees.  In this portrayal of the graduate
experience, the size of the box illustrates the world of a doctoral student that is not only dominated largely by
developing research expertise and preparation for the job market, but is also heavily influence by their personal

Universities and their various disciplines and professional fields will vary tremendously on what components
influence the student experience. For example, cocurricular experiences and public and community service are
not always associated with graduate education; yet, degree programs in medicine, social welfare, and law often
have significant components related to public service; and STEM fields also can have robust cocurricular activity
and forms of social networking.  Student research and teaching experiences will differ depending on the type of
assistantship they have.
Students in research positions will probably have either limited or no teaching experience, whereas students in
teaching positions will still have research experience while doing their dissertation research.  Therefore, the impact
of each of the five domains on graduate and professional student experience will vary based on institutional, field,
program, and degree characteristics as well as personal circumstances.

gradSERU Concept Map

The gradSERU instrument has been developed to reflect each of the five domains of the graduate student
experience in a flexible manner for institutions to customize to the graduate population they wish to target,

  • Doctoral Education
  • Master’s Programs – Professional
  • Master’s Programs – Research (largely non-terminal)

Reflecting this holistic approach to understanding the student experience, the following provides a Conceptual
Map of GradSERU grouped around four general areas: Attributes of Students, Entry Orientations, the Student
Experience, and Outcomes.

GradSERU Survey Concept Map