Higher EducationLeadership

There is an underlying assumption that graduate student leaders do not need much support because they are more mature and experienced than undergraduate leaders. Although this may be true in some cases, this notion is based on 3 faulty assumptions. It should be noted that these assumptions are often subtly embedded in our structures and activities vs overt attempts to limit the graduate student leader experience.  In other words, campuses don’t mean to limit this experience but sometimes do so without realizing it mainly because they buy into one or all of these false assumptions. The assumptions are:

1)    Graduate student leaders were all engaged student leaders as undergraduates.

For many, graduate school becomes the first true opportunity for club/organizational involvement.  Graduate student organizational leadership does not have a true pipeline like many private industries. Thus the assumption that undergraduate student organizational leadership translates into graduate student leadership pipeline exists does not always hold true.

So why do graduate students get involved with clubs and organizations in graduate school for the first time?

In my professional experience, I have identified four reasons for this.

  • Having completed an undergraduate degree some students may feel that they have found a system for academic success that will allow them to do other things.
  • Other students may come from campuses where opportunities to get involved were limited or did not meet their tastes.
  • Students who may desire nonacademic experience often turn to involvement in a graduate student organization as a means of getting the teamwork and problem solving skills essential to landing a job in today’s market place.
  • Organizational membership may be rooted in finding a community of peers. That community is crucial in enhancing the students’ sense of belonging and positive graduate school experience.

2)    Graduate Students have all the necessary skills they need. 

Even if a graduate student leader had considerable undergraduate or life experience with organizations and management, that is no guarantee that they have all the skills needed to be successful. Navigating the institutional landscape alone can be difficult – particularly if students are new to a campus or a leadership experience.  Think about it, if we as professionals spend time and money on our own professional development because we acknowledge we need work, why wouldn’t assume the same for graduate student leaders?  The need for self-improvement is a continual process vs a static transaction.

3)    Graduate Students have no desire or need for leadership development.

This assumption is just false. I draw from my personal experience in saying that workshops on leadership self-awareness assessments (Strengthsfinder, True Colors, Myers-Briggs, DiSC etc.) are always in high demands. Likewise workshops on topics such as project management, conflict resolution, and work-life balance (to name a few) are also met with enthusiasm. The need and desire is definitely there.

Graduate students are a strong and vibrant part of the campus community.   Graduate student leaders a pillar of graduate student experience and culture as they are instrumental in creating community and ensuring the graduate student voice on campus is heard. As campus professionals, we must ensure that we are providing holistic development. Leadership skills are vital to success after graduate school on both a professional and personal level. By checking out assumptions we can reinforce (or in some cases) design resources and programs that our graduate and professional students receive those vital skills on a consistent basis.


Dr. Paul Artale is a motivational speaker, author, and organizational coach who helps organizations create high performance culture through understanding employee needs and leveraging their strengths.   He has more than 20 years of experience in higher education as an instructor and administrator.  

For more information visit www.paulartale.com

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