Student-Advisor Relationships of International Doctoral Students in a Nursing Program



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

Beijing China



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

working experience.

Data Collection

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.

Data Analysis

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



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