Student-Advisor Relationships of International Doctoral Students in a Nursing Program by Chiu-I Sung 宋秋儀 副教授 教育行政與評鑑研究所
Taipei Municipal University of Education
Paper presented in STEP Conference
This small-scale exploratory study uses face-to-face interviews to investigate the
academic success and student-advisor relationship of the international doctoral
students in a Nursing doctoral program in the United States. The most remarkable
finding is the observation of the cut-off point in the relationships among English
language proficiency, academic success, and student-advisor relationship. This study
finds that advisors’influence outweighs the importance of student’s language
proficiency. Future research should include longitudinal and multi-site studies to more
thoroughly assess the success of international doctoral students in nursing programs.
Having a supportive relationship with an advisor is critically important during
doctoral study (Shelton, 2003); however, international students have been given
nearly no attention in the literature to understanding how effects of student-advisor
interactions vary according to students’characteristics (Terenzini and Pascarella, 1991)
and institutional contexts. Many previous studies have showed that cultural and
English language barriers have impact on the forming of student-advisor relationships
that go beyond academics; however, most studies were done from the perspective of
cross-cultural understanding (i.e., McKean, 1994). Very little studies were done to
reduce the attrition of international students and to examine their overseas learning
experience (Terenzini and Pascarella, 1991). Forming student-advisor relationship is
the “nature and dynamics of the collegiate experience”(Terenzini & Pascarella, 1991,
p. 90) for international students. This study attempts to examine the experience of
international doctoral students in overcoming language and cultural barriers to
become full-fledged members of a nursing academic community. I also seek to
understand how these students initiate meaningful interactions with faculty.
This study was conducted at a large research university--one of the top ten US
The nursing doctoral program has approximately 75 students, ages range from the
early 20s to early 60s. The majority of students study full-time and 22% are
internationals. The selective admission process requires international doctoral students
to achieve a high academic standard and ELP. Though these students have attained
satisfactory Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores, they still may be
asked to complete a telephone or face-to-face interview at the selected site.
The university typically enrolls four doctoral students from Taiwan, one of the
heavily represented international doctoral student groups within the program. The
participants were single female, pre-candidates, who had earned master’s degree in
nursing in the US. They were in their late 20s and early 30s; one specialized in
gerontology (identified as Ann), one in occupational health (identified as Betty) and
two in woman’s health (identified as Cherry and Dina). Pseudonyms were given for
all participants in the interest of confidentiality. Ann, Betty, and Dina had a few years
of full-time working experience as clinical nurses in Taiwan, and Cherry had no
Data were collected from institutional or national records. Semi-structured,
institutional review board and signed consent from participants. Interviews were
audio-taped to capture the richness and accuracy of data, and the data were
transcribed and reviewed for each participant during the process of data collection.
A wide variety of documents were reviewed, including national statistical reports
such as Open Doors 2011, and institutional statistical reports such as English skills
requirements, English reevaluation results, the departmental admission package,
departmental booklets, enrollment reports, official websites for doctoral students,
doctoral course guides, and participants’self provided curriculum vitae, academic
performance and assistantships. Most documents were reviewed before the first
interview took place, and then reviewed again during the data triangulation process.
The interview data were coded, analyzed, and categorized, and emergent themes
were identified. These documents were analyzed by content analysis procedures, and
interview data were examined using interpretive analysis in order to look for patterns
or constructs that could provide insights to this research. Triangulation was performed
by cross-examining the above data sources in the effort to look for factors that could
describe and explain how ELP affects international doctoral students’learning
experience and what the respondents do to overcome their difficulties in forming a
Respondents’oral skills were collected from the tape recorded interviews and
used as measurements of ELP. Oral skills are used on daily basis and are the most
critical communicative skills in many activities in academic settings. A validated oral
proficiency scale was adopted to evaluate the respondents’ELP. This scale was
developed and has been used for years at the English Language Institute at a US
research university to assess non-Anglophone teaching assistants’oral skills and is a
reliable scale. This five-point-scale uses the controls of linguistic repertoire, speech
production, instructional context awareness and verbal and non verbal interactive
communication techniques as assessment criteria.
Assessment of Respondents’ELP
Respondents’oral ELP ranged between 3- and 4- on the Teaching Assistants
Rating Scale, suggesting that even the most proficient one would probably not qualify
for a teaching assistantship in a Liberal Arts College. The nursing faculty is not the
major source of English language help for international students; for one thing, the
nursing faculty typically does not usually inform students if they need to seek help
with English; for another, the faculty typically does not assume the responsibility of
editing students’English. Even in the cases of students who are clearly weaker in
English as Second Language courses) from the University.
Formal Supportive Practice
The nursing doctoral program has two parallel ways of advising students: the
program director and advisors. A new administrative position was created to oversee
the doctoral program. A foreign-born faculty member was appointed to serve in the
directorship about three years ago, and she was chosen perhaps for her particular
background, which international students can relate to themselves. Ann thinks that the
director is the treasure of department, and stated, “The best point for my [program] is
that the director is international…she knows the difficulties for international students
and the cultural norms [of] Americans. She…shows us how to communicate with
American faculty and students.”
Ann’s view is generally accepted among the Taiwanese cohorts; however, Dina
does not feel the creation of new directorship has changed anything for international
students. She has been working with an advisor for five years, and the relationship is
warm and supportive. The respondents feel comfortable talking about personal
problems with advisors, as well as the director of doctoral studies in the program.
Dina stated “[the advisor] makes me feel that she will help me if I am in trouble…She
cares about every student of hers…she makes me feel comfortable to talk about
Overall, the student-advisor relationship is intimate in nursing program, and the
faculty act more like mentors than instructors or research directors.
A few limitations still exist in this study, but are simply a product of the
particular design. First, the findings will be most useful for nursing doctoral programs.
Second, the findings should be used with caution for international students from
non-Chinese speaking countries. Third, the ability to generalize the findings of this
study will require additional study beyond the current study.
ELP was shown to have weak influences on student-advisor interactions in
nursing. Student-advisors’social interactions are frequent and supportive, and
advisors tend to foster nurturing relationships with doctoral students regardless of
their ELP. The findings may suggest that faculty members offer more support to
international students, show more tolerance for various cultural and language barriers,
and are willing to maintain meaningful relationships with students despite their
students’cultural and language barriers. For such a large institution, these kinds of
efforts are quite unusual. Advisors’influence and students’willingness to learn serve
as the most reliable predictors of international doctoral students’success. Particularly,
success. The most successful students in this study are those whose advisors have
positive influences on them, and students simultaneously spend large amounts of time
Cohen, S. M. (2011). Doctoral persistence and doctoral program completion among
nurses. Nursing Forum, 46(2), 64-70.
Diane, B. (1994). The apprenticeship approach to advanced academic literacy:
Graduate students and their mentors. English for Specific Purposes, 13(1), 23-34.
Institute of International Education. (2011, November 14). Open Doors 2011: Report
on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from
McKean, K. J. (1994). Academic helplessness: Applying learned helplessness theory
to undergraduates who give up when faced with academic setbacks. College
Student Journal, 28(4), 456-462.
Shelton, E. N. (2003). Faculty support and student retention. The Journal of Nursing
Education. 42(2), 68-76.
Terenzini, P. T. & Pascarella, E. T. (1991). Twenty years of research on college
Vinke, A. A., & Jochems, W. M. G. (1993). English proficiency and academic
success in international postgraduate education. Higher Education, 26(3), 275.
Xu, M. (1991). The impact of English-language proficiency on international
graduate students' perceived academic difficulty. Research in Higher