Flexibility and Responsiveness Critical for Adult Graduate StudentsKatie Smith | Emergency Management Associate, IEM
The following interview is with Katie Smith, emergency management associate at IEM. Smith is a graduate of Penn State’s Master’s of Professional Studies in Homeland Security degree program, an online program designed to meet the specific needs of homeland security professionals. In this interview, Smith reflects on her experience as an adult pursuing two master’s degrees and shares her thoughts on the importance of flexibility and student-centeredness for non-traditional students seeking graduate-level credentials.
1. Why is flexibility so critical for adults when looking for graduate degree programs?
Flexibility in a graduate program is one of the most important factors for adults because everyone nowadays is busy and pulled in five million different directions. It provides the best opportunities for adults to be able to fulfill their education when a program is willing to be flexible and willing to work [with] and understand the other responsibilities that adults have. …
That was one of the biggest factors that Penn State really provided me in their online program. They offered the openness for you to be able to call them, and really listened to your needs and your limitations.
They would work with you as much as they could to figure out [things like] what would be the best course to take, what would be the best time [to study] and to figure out what would be best for your situation. That is something hard to do for a large university, but it was also something I found to be the most important part of my education.
2. Other than flexibility, what were the most important elements you considered during your application period?
Having [expert] faculty available to you that have been in the professional field for years and can really steer you toward where you want to go with your program, and how to get there, was really important for me as well.
3. Were these more or less the same factors other adult students in the program were looking for?
[Beyond the first two factors], a third one I actually didn’t realize until after I got out of my degree and into the workforce was the fact that there needs to be more of a focus in all programs, especially professional programs, on giving you the training you need for the actual workplace. …
We learn the background in school and broader pictures of what the strategy is, but there’s a lot of hands-on things you don’t learn in school. When you get into the office or into the field as an emergency manager or in [the Department of] Homeland Security, you’re still learning as you go. For example, every emergency manager has to be able to write an emergency plan. In very few emergency management programs are there courses that teach you how to actually write one. A lot of that, we have to learn once we get onto the job.
Outside of flexibility and staff support along your career path, that’s the biggest thing I’ve found in talking to my peers; we would like more real-world training in our courses before we have to get out there and figure it out as we go along.
4. From your perspective, what would the perfect graduate degree program for adult students look like?
The perfect program would include a mix of professors and advisors who have varying degrees of experience in their field of studies. For example, in some programs you have a lot of academics and those are the ones teaching your courses. When you have only academics teaching your courses, you only get the academic side of things. It might actually be useful to pull in current working professionals at different levels in the field so students can actually get a working understanding of what’s currently going on in the career field that might be important to know coming out of a degree program into a job.
5. When you think about other aspects of the program, is online really valuable for adult students or should face-to-face components be built into every program?
Online programs are geared toward a certain personality and it’s very important for students to recognize, when they’re looking for a program, what atmosphere they work best in. For me, online programming has its pluses and its minuses. The perfect program would be one that incorporates both in-classroom learning or hands-on learning and, at the same time, having more background information being presented online. Having everything online has a lot of challenges because you don’t actually get to interact face-to-face with any of your peers and I’ve also noticed that it does add a lot of extra work because professors try to keep people engaged.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about what it is adults are looking for when they’re seeking out graduate degree programs and what institutions can do to make graduate education work better for adults?
The best experiences from the program come from faculty and advisors and administrators actually reaching out to their students and asking them what they need and what they want and what’s most helpful for them.
Having an active conversation with students can help tailor the program to individual students’ needs. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen that has made programs most successful.
Author Perspective: Student
I’m a graduate student, too, and agree with Smith’s points. For me, the selling point of my institution was flexibility not only in scheduling, but in degree/credit pathways. Before I confirmed my enrollment, I met with an academic advisor who went through various scenarios and helped me pick one that maximized my prior learning and experience. I earned the equivalent of three course credits through my prior learning, which put me one term ahead of my classmates. This type of individualized advising is needed for institutions that want to serve adult students.
Smith correctly identifies what most adult, not only graduate, students are looking for in a program. I work primarily with active military and veteran students, and the question I hear most frequently is, “How does what I’m learning apply to a job?” There is a need for institutions to better connect their curricula to real-world circumstances to demonstrate the value of their programming. In the graduate education realm, I see easy opportunities to bring in experts for lectures or career days. There are also opportunities to connect with local businesses to develop special projects for students, or the more traditional work placement or internship. We should jump on these opportunities before graduate and/or adult students start to seek them elsewhere.