Green SERU logo with images of member universities

Logo for gradSERU - Graduate Student Experience in the Research University


SERU Graduate Student Survey (gradSERU)

The SERU Consortium has developed a new SERU Graduate Student Survey (gradSERU) reflecting the importance of understanding and seeking improvements in graduate education in an era of increased global competition for talent. The purpose of the gradSERU Survey and Consortium membership is to:

  • Collaborate in collecting survey data on the background and experiences of doctoral, master’s, and graduate professional students and the outcomes of attending top-tier research-intensive universities in the US, Europe, and throughout the world. 
  • Share best practices and SERU data among member universities under agreed protocols. 
  • Promote and support the systematic use by the Consortium members of data and analysis as tools for policy and scholarly relevant research and institutional self-improvement. 
  • Develop research collaborations and conduct studies related to the student experience. 
  • Provide a global network of peer universities with similar challenges as goals.

The SERU Consortium launched the gradSERU Survey in the late 2014, with a pilot administration at the University of Virginia, the University of Minnesota, and later in fall 2015 at the Higher School of Economics – Moscow. The initial design was for doctoral students, but the survey instrument was updated to include masters and professional students. 

SERU Consortium researchers anticipate recruiting current and new SERU members for a gradSERU Survey administration with at least six campuses in 2016-17, including universities in the US and in Europe.

In 2016-17, AAU institutions and European top universities are the initial target group for the gradSERU Survey administration, but the Consortium researchers are open to expanding campus participation to other parts of the world (see listing of contacts to query for more information).

The Need for gradSERU

Similar to reforms in undergraduate education, there is a significant global movement to improve the structure and quality of graduate programs. In Europe, for example, master’s and professional degree programs have had similar restructuring and pedagogical reforms, in part induced by the Bologna Declaration that has encouraged a 3+2 years cycle structure and efforts to “tune” graduate programs to create greater equivalence among degrees in Europe, and with significant influence internationally.

In the Unites States, the problems of doctoral student attrition and time to the doctorate as well as postgraduation career opportunities and choices have generated renewed interest within the academic community, university leaders, and American society about the purpose and structure of graduate education.

Among the reforms in graduate education at top research universities worldwide are:

  • More deliberately structured curricular requirements geared toward the array of professions the program is intended to serve. 
  • Clearly stated skills students are to acquire and expectations on their academic performance – including competencies for collaborating and working in multidisciplinary and sometimes international teams. 
  • Articulating the mentorship responsibilities of faculty. 
  • Coordination with the professions and business to better match training with labor needs. 
  • Collaboration with the private sector in providing internships as part of graduate training and integrating graduate students into faculty led university–industry research. 
  • A focus on quality of life of graduate students and efforts to support their financial and social needs to make them productive members of the academic community. 
  • Improved integration of graduate education into the larger purpose and operations of the university – including supporting the teaching, research, and public service engagement of first professional degree students. 
  • More rigorous assessment of the graduate student experience via Program Review, faculty advancement criteria and processes, and accreditation where applicable. 
  • Internationally, increased use of English in courses and for master’s theses and dissertations in programs attempting to attract and retain international talent, and for preparing future academics and business leaders whose professions are increasingly global in context.

The Stages and Spheres of the Graduate Student Experience

SERU conceptualizes the graduate student experience for students in doctoral, masters and professional degree programs in three stages (Entry/Transition to Enrollment/Development to Completion/Exit). During the entry/transition stage, graduate and professional students seek to build relationships in the academic and social communities of the university, which includes both formal and informal interactions with faculty and peers inside and outside of the classroom and in their graduate positions.

In the development stage, graduate students acquire the knowledge and develop the competences needed either to engage in dissertation/thesis research for doctoral and research master’s students or to pass certification/licensure exams for professional students.  At this stage, graduate and professional students are integrated within the academic and social systems of the program/department and start seeking opportunities for professional development. 

The final stage is the completion/exit stage where students complete their research and defend their dissertation/thesis.  In the final stage, relationship with dissertation adviser and/or with the dissertation/thesis committee members became salient.  As in the previous two stages, external commitments and financial support continue to play a very important role in graduate and professional student experience at this stage.

SERU also conceptualizes the graduate student experience as encompassing six spheres:


 Research Engagement (1); Teaching Experience/Professional Development (2); Social Life and Conditions (3); Co-Curricular Activities (4); Public/Community Service (5); Curricular Engagement (6)

These six spheres reflect the complexity of graduate education and training: curricular engagement, co-curricular activities, research engagement, teaching experience, and professional development (including employment and internships in business and government), public and community service, and the social life and conditions in which students pursue their degrees—from master’s and professional programs, to the doctorate.  In this portrayal of the graduate experience, the size of the sphere illustrates the world of a doctoral student that is not only dominated largely by developing research expertise and preparation for the job market, but is also heavily influence by their personal life.

Universities, and their various disciplines and professional fields, will vary tremendously on what components influence the student experience. For example, co-curricular and public and community service are not always associated with graduate education; yet, degree programs in medicine, social welfare, and law often have significant components related to public service; and STEM fields also can have robust co-curricular activity and forms of social networking.

gradSERU Concept Map

The gradSERU instrument has been developed to reflect in some form each of these Six Spheres of the Graduate Student Experience in a flexible manner for institutions to customize to the graduate population they wish to target, including:

  • Doctoral Education
  • Masters Programs – Professional
  • Masters Programs – Research (largely non-terminal)

Reflecting this holistic approach to understanding the student experience, the following provides a Conceptual Map of GradSERU grouped around four general areas: Attributes of Students, Entry Orientations, the Student Experience, and Outcomes.

 Attributes; Entry Orientations; Student Experience; Outcomes

A Core and Module gradSERU Design

Like the SERU Undergraduate (UG) Survey, gradSERU is an on-line, census survey of all graduate students. Developed in collaboration with AAU and International member campuses, the design of the survey recognizes the complexity of the graduate student experience within institutions, and the differing structures and cultures of graduate programs, in the US and internationally. This includes: 

  •  A Core Set of Question questions as census to a particular student population regarding the breadth of their graduate and professional experiences, and a variety of outcomes beyond graduation; e.g., commitment to completion, proficiency levels, and satisfaction indicators; and academic background and demographics, and other related factors.

Conceptually, most Core Questions of around 36 questions are applicable to all graduate students, whether they are in Doctoral, Masters, or Professional degree programs. Key questions in the Core may include:  

  • A set of Topical Modules (normally 15 questions or less) with questions related policy areas of importance to GradSERU-International participants, including (final Module list still under development). A campus might select 2 to 3 Modules – depending on its interests. A Module could be administered as a census for all applicable students, or on a sample bases.
  • A tailored Wild Card Module where Universities can ask additional questions pertaining to their campus and unique areas of interest. In addition, as in the SERU UG Survey, campuses will have the option of asking one to two open questions.

Example GradSERU module design, with a core module on the left ,and overlappng modules on the right  (Health and Wellbeing; Professional Development; Teaching Experience; International Students; Affordability and Finance; Entrepreneurial Training) 

gradSERU Data Uses

SERU Consortium campuses will use GradSERU as a primary tool for the evaluation of their graduate programs, enhanced by the ability to benchmark data at the discipline level with other participating SERU campuses in the survey. As with the SERU UG Survey, a key objective is to provide longitudinal data and to support the internal and external data uses outlined in the following graphic.

 Internal (catalyst for campus discussion; program review; campus studies; common source of info), External (campus accreditation; national accountability regimes; media/public relations), Policy (research and policy analysis)

gradSERU Contact Information

For gradSERU AAU: Daniel White-Jones, gradSERU AAU Project Leader:

For gradSERU International: Igor Chirikov, SERU-International Managing Director: