Who graduate students are

The graduate student population has changed profoundly in the last 20 years and will continue to do so in the 21st century. Changes are evident in overall student demographics as well as in new market demands for graduate training. While such changes vary from region to region and among institutional types, we cannot assume that the typical graduate student is a full-time, white male from a middle-class background. In addition, mentors and protégés should not assume that every Ph.D. graduate has prospects for immediate employment in a research institution upon degree completion.

Age Diversity

The average age of graduate students is on the rise. According to data from the 2000 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, the average graduate student is 33 years old, and 20% of all graduate students are over the age of 40. Thus, many of your peers already have marriage or life partners and dependents (with corresponding family responsibilities), and prior work experience. In addition, close to 57% of all graduate students maintain some form of employment outside their studies.

Racial Diversity

The racial diversity of the graduate student population also is increasing, due to shifting U.S. demographics and to government and privately funded programs aimed at widening access to higher education. If national census projections hold, in the next 15 years Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans may constitute nearly 40% of the national population between the ages of 25 and 39 — the age group from which graduate education draws most of its applicants. According to the 2002 Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report, individuals from these ethnic groups and Native Americans earned over 4,730, or 19%, of the 25,450 doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens in 2002. What this means is that, although still a relatively low number of the total Ph.D. earners that year (39,955, including non-U.S. citizens), the proportion of minority Ph.D. earners has increased 70% since 1991. Also, in 2000, 79,847 out of 497,000 total master's degrees were awarded to U.S. minority students, a proportional increase of 88% since 1991 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

Gender Diversity

Women now pursue advanced study in record numbers, constituting approximately 60% and 51% of U.S. citizens who earn master's degrees and Ph.D.s, respectively. However, gender representation by field of study varies considerably. The physical sciences and engineering struggle with this problem more than disciplines in the arts, humanities, and sciences or the professional fields. Experts predict further increases of women and minorities pursuing advanced study during the next decade.


These changes in the graduate student population affect your and your peers' needs for mentoring and, along with other factors, are driving greater variety in career goals. For instance, although it is true that many doctoral students pursue advanced study to become professors, an increasing number are seeking other professional opportunities. In the U.S., the transition from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based one has generated new demands for knowledge workers. Many graduate students seek high-level analytical tools and intellectual development to market themselves as future leaders in a wide range of "knowledge economy" sectors. In addition, downturns in the availability of tenure-track positions in academe are leading some students — including many who originally intended to become professors — to shift their job search to arenas outside of academe.

Such developments bolster the case for re-examining the structures of graduate education and students' needs for mentoring. In this context of change, the oft-relied on separation of students into "traditional" vs. "nontraditional" categories is no longer useful. In all likelihood, you don't fit squarely into either category. Because there is no single recipe for good mentoring, your best approach is to engage in ongoing, reflective assessment of your needs, and to learn strategies to interact with your mentors effectively. This guidebook will help you do that.