Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Assessing Doctoral Student – Advisor Relationships in Ethically Contentious Fields

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 10:35 AM
Grenada (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Hillary B. Alberta and Aaron D. Levine, Georgia Institute of Technology
Scientific advances in diverse fields ranging from stem cell research to nanotechnology increasingly pose challenging ethical questions. At the same time, efforts to strengthen the competiveness of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce are viewed as crucial to maintaining the nation’s economy. Relatively little is known, however, about how working in contentious fields shapes students’ experiences in graduate school and the development of their careers. This paper seeks to contribute to efforts that address this gap in knowledge and advance our understanding of how the increasingly common contentious nature of modern science and technology may shape the next generation of scientists.

            In particular, we examine the doctoral student-advisor relationship and ask whether or not this relationship differs for students who work in ethically contentious areas of science. In this paper, we build on a long line of literature that has recognized the advisor-student relationship as a crucial component of a graduate student’s ability to succeed in his or her doctoral program and develop professionally. Previous studies have identified several factors that impact the advisor-student relationship. These include the race, gender, and citizenship status of the doctoral student, each of which has been found to influence how students perceive support from their advisors and how satisfied they are with their relationships with their advisors. In addition, the strategies that doctoral students use in selecting their advisors have also shown to influence satisfaction with the advising relationship. Evidence regarding the effect that the field of study has on the student-advisor relationship is less consistent.

            We contribute to this body of literature on student-advisor relationships by asking how, if at all, these important relationships are affected by environments of ethical controversy. Previous results from qualitative interviews with early career scientists suggested that working in an ethically contentious field complicates the doctoral student-advisor relationship. This leads us to hypothesize that students working in these fields will report lower satisfaction than their peers in less contentious fields. We test this hypothesis, and a series of related hypotheses, using novel data from the first wave of a nationally representative panel survey of more than 2,000 doctoral students – primarily drawn from fields in the life sciences – in the United States. Overall, the doctoral students participating in our survey reported high satisfaction with their advisors, with approximately 80% indicating they were either very or somewhat satisfied with their relationship. Our preliminary analyses provided only limited support for the idea that demographic factors such as gender, race or immigrant status are related to doctoral students’ satisfaction with their advisors but identified the frequency of student-advisor meetings as a key factor predicting increased satisfaction. In addition, our preliminary analyses identified students working in fields that raised ethical concerns for them personally as a significant predictor of decreased levels of satisfaction with their advisors.

            We conclude by considering the implications of these results for the science and technology policy and higher education literatures and for practitioners interested in improving student-advisor relationships and the graduate student experience.