There’s something about graduate students

We just held our Preparing Future Faculty Conference this past Friday; it’s an annual event for our graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to learn about the productivity expectations of early-career faculty at different types of colleges and universities. This is the time of year when many grads and postdocs, curious about non-faculty careers for people with advanced degrees, ask me about my journey to my present position as an “assistant dean” in a graduate school. Inevitably, I find myself explaining the field I’m in now and what “graduate student development” means.

First, a little bit about me

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with a bachelor’s degree, let alone a PhD, when I started those programs. I knew I was good at school and I really “got” ecology and limnology (study of lakes). I knew I enjoyed teaching. I knew one of my happiest moments in graduate school was being in the campus’ year-long TA Mentor Program. I knew I didn’t want grants and papers to be the things that set my pace and my measures of success. I never imagined that I would be working in a dean’s office when I was an undergraduate 30 years ago measuring water clarity from a canoe in upstate New York or standing in hip waders 25 years ago in a frigid creek in Appalachia catching fish with a dip net.

Dr. Katie Kearns at my PhD graduation in 2000 from the University of Georgia. That’s my advisor on the right, Dr. Mark Hunter.

My first job after my PhD was as an instructor of biology at a large, private research university; I taught large lecture courses and I mentored the ~20 graduate students who taught the associated laboratory sections with me. I also worked a couple hours a week at the university’s teaching center, facilitating workshops, coaching graduate students, and developing web resources. 

In my five years in that job, I learned a lot about myself and the gifts I had to share. I preferred coaching graduate students over grading biology exams. I preferred the slightly older adult concerns of graduate students over those of the typical 18-year–old undergraduates. I preferred co-learning over teaching textbook content. I preferred conversing with people across disciplines, roles, and contexts.

I chose to leave faculty life and that institution to work as an educational developer specifically focused on graduate students at a large, public university. In a role I held for 14 years, I mentored graduate students across campus as they made decisions about their instructional practices and made meaning of their classroom experiences. I facilitated workshops and communities on teaching and learning topics, I coached grads and postdocs one-on-one about their classroom practices, and I engaged in studies about teaching and learning with communities of grads, postdocs, faculty, and staff.

In those 14 years, I learned more about myself and my preferences. I loved learning about the instruction grads were doing in fields widely different from my degrees – ballet, math, folklore, communications, voice – through their stories and invited classroom visits. I loved seeing the inner calm, integration, and grounded confidence fill their body as we explored how their decisions in the classroom were related to their values, their beliefs about themselves and their students, and the support system around them. As we were discussing the pieces of their classes – assignments, readings, discussions, seating arrangements, powerpoints, white boards, post-its, correcting, grading, email – we were also making visible their strengths, their own growth, and their impact on their students’ growth.

I am now beginning my fourth year as an assistant vice provost in a graduate school. My role is largely organizational now, helping offices across campus and even other institutions collaborate and coordinate services for grads and postdocs. That work occurs within a capitalist framework of success for universities – retention, professional skill acquisition, and career achievement. Yet I am committed to my work with grads and postdocs as being about helping them make meaning of their experiences, see their strengths and their capabilities, and advocate for their dreams for themselves.

While I’ve never known exactly what I wanted to be or do, I’ve listened to my intuition about the responsibilities that were enjoyable, meaningful, and fulfilling to me. At each transition, I’ve chosen academic employment that enhanced the proportions of responsibilities that would be energizing and engaging to me. Through-lines of my academic employment journey are: I enjoy walking alongside graduate students and faculty at their life transitions; I like engaging them in reflection in which they construct meaning about their experiences, strengths and values; I want to help them take a compassionate and sacred view of themselves; and I want to engage in work that values collaboration, mutuality, reciprocity, and curiosity. 

Reflection: What are the tasks and responsibilities of your day that feel rewarding and energizing to you? Is there a common trait about these tasks that tells you something about what’s important to you and what brings you meaning in general? What is the story you tell yourself about joyful and fulfilling work?

Now, a little about you

Educational development. Faculty development. Professional development. Professional and Organizational Development Network Conference. I support graduate student development. “Development” is littered through my day, my writing, my emails, my conversations with others. But what does “development” mean?

I think in higher education we often use “educational development” or “graduate student development” to mean training and skill acquisition that prepares someone for an academic responsibility. This training is largely cognitive, with a focus on imparting knowledge, language, decision-making, prioritizing, problem-solving, how-to practices and tips, and anticipatory learning that helps grads practice the experiences they are likely to encounter. 

Only recently, in my own learning about human and adult development, have I come to understand “development” to mean something more than job training. In my mind, development is a process of reflection and meaning-making around your expanding capacity (“growth”) – what you’re capable of, what are your strengths and gifts and desires, and who you are in mutuality and interdependence with.

Development, in a psycho-social framework, is about the dynamic interplay between differentiation and integration (Kegan, 1982). Throughout our lifespans, we are becoming separate and unique from others, expanding our sense of self, and gaining clarity about our distinctness. At the same time, we are relating to, connecting with, and belonging to more groups and expanding our view of our collective interdependence. 

Culturally, we’re familiar with pronounced developmental moments with the terrible-twos and teenagers. These individuals make apparent their tensions between wanting to “be in charge” while at the same time wanting to belong. These are big moments of change and emotions: the grief of letting go of a younger self and the anxiety and uncertainty in becoming the new self.

The typical graduate students in their 20s and 30s are also undergoing a challenging developmental shift while at the same time engaging in intense study and training. In early- to mid-adulthood, people move from an interpersonal balance to an institutional balance. In the interpersonal balance (most obvious in the sociability of high school and college students), people tend to focus on mutuality and trust; they identify “as” their relationships to others. As adults move developmentally to an institutional balance, they develop autonomy, independence, and internal systems of rules; people “have” relationships” and an internal moral compass. 

I see a lot of graduate students at that developmental struggle point in the move from interpersonal balance to institutional balance. They are developing increasing autonomy and specialization as they define, study, and speak about their research topics. At the same time, they have anxieties about the expanding communities they belong to, including academic disciplines, friends, family, and community. They have reasonable grief around things they are letting go, including a younger self, families they’ve moved away from, groups they let go, and structure that used to come from faculty. 

While that developmental growth is completely normal and appropriate, it’s also emotionally challenging. And the academic research environment is generally not supportive or comfortable with emotional vulnerability. Stuffing down those feelings, rather than engaging them in community with compassion, doesn’t help. I hope that by sharing some of these developmental realities here, I can help graduate students, faculty mentors, and staff give names to very normal experiences. 

Reflection: How do you see yourself developing autonomy, independence, and an internal compass? How does grief appear in relation to a younger self you’re letting go of? Do you notice mentors around you who seem more emotionally available and comfortable in helping you navigate this developmental shift?


Kegan, Robert. (1982). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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