gradSERU Survey Design

Green SERU logo with images of member universities

gradSERU Survey

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. 

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 United 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.

Conceptual Framework

Grounded in the tenets of Tinto’s (1993) “theory of graduate communities and doctoral persistence”, the 
gradSERU Survey conceptualizes the graduate student experience as a three-stage process that encompasses  the entry/transition stage, the development stage, and the degree completion/exit stage. 

The theory posits that individual attributes, such as demographics, prior educational experience, and financial resources, shape students’ goals and their educational, occupational, and institutional commitments. External commitments and financial resources also impact the process of students’ integration into the academic and social systems of their program, department, and university.

stages and domains of graduate student experience

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 the graduate and professional student experience at this stage.

Graduate Student Experience

SERU conceptualizes the graduate student experience as encompassing five domains that reflect the complexity  of graduate and professional education during the three stages of graduate student persistence.  These domains include curricular experiences, cocurricular experiences (including public/community service), research experiences, teaching experiences and professional development (including employment and internships in business and government), personal life and conditions (including financial resources and external commitments), and the social life and conditions in which students pursue their degrees.  In this portrayal of the graduate experience, the size of the box 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, cocurricular experiences 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 cocurricular activity and forms of social networking.  Student research and teaching experiences will differ depending on the type of assistantship they have. 

Students in research positions will probably have either limited or no teaching experience, whereas students in teaching positions will still have research experience while doing their dissertation research.  Therefore, the impact of each of the five domains on graduate and professional student experience will vary based on institutional, field, program, and degree characteristics as well as personal circumstances.

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.


The gradSERU Survey is a comprehensive, longitudinal study initiated by the Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) and the University of Minnesota’s Office of Institutional Research to help answer questions about the potential relationship between graduate education experiences, program characteristics, and development outcomes of Masters and doctoral students at the leading research universities across the globe. 

After piloting the survey instrument at three different doctoral universities in the United States, the gradSERU research team is currently enrolling institution in North America and abroad to participate in the study in spring 2017.

The intention of the gradSERU Survey is to examine how differences in the graduate/professional education experiences of students relate to their intellectual, emotional, ethical, professional, and psychosocial development. Other important questions assessed by the gradSERU survey include:

  • Exploring the differences in the graduate/professional education experience of students both within and between institutions of higher education in the United States and abroad, and how the experiences may change over time;
  • Identifying demographic and individual characteristics associated with different patterns of enrollment in graduate/professional school;
  • Documenting the changes graduate/professional students undergo while enrolled in 
  • graduate/professional school;
  • Comparing the experiences and development of graduate/professional students in different institutional contexts;
  • Identifying the specific links between certain features of graduate/professional education (advising, 
    financial support, research and teaching experiences, etc.) and graduate/professional student 
  • Exploring the impact of various institutional support systems (e.g., financial, research, career, etc.) on graduate/professional student educational outcomes;
  • Understanding how program characteristics are related to graduate/professional student development;
  • Researching the relationship of contextual influences such as the effects of student engagement in 
  • relation to the quality of advising, the program environment, and campus context on outcomes such as: proficiency levels, career plans, and overall satisfaction;
  • Documenting trends in graduate/professional student career plans/aspirations and employment 
    outcomes and how they change over time.

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 North America  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) 


The Core Survey employs a cross-sectional framework that explores the three distinct stages of graduate education: the Entry Stage, the Development Stage, and the Exit Stage.  The Entry Stage highlights the student’s transition from undergraduate to graduate education.  Related sections explore how  graduate/professional students seek to build new relationships in the academic and social communities of the research university. The Development Stage underscores the period where graduate/professional students acquire the knowledge and competencies needed to engage in research or pass 
certification/licensure exams.  Sections associated with this stage consider how students integrate with the different academic and social systems of the university and begin to develop and cultivate a professional persona. The Exit Stage emphasizes the graduate/professional student’s transition from graduate/professional education into academic and professional careers.  


Affiliated sections explore how students reflect on their graduate/professional education experience 
and what they plan to do in the future.  Three modules are being offered for the 2017 administration of the gradSERU Survey. These include:

  • Health and Wellbeing Module
  • Professional Development Module
  • International Student Module. 

The Health and Wellbeing Module is designed to highlight the physical, psychological, and emotional wellness of students and assess how personal and educational factors may relate to student’s feelings of depression and levels of stress.  Based on Stanford University’s Graduate Professional Development Framework, the Professional Development Module is designed to help assess whether today’s graduate/professional students believe they are developing the requisite skills crucial necessary to succeed in the high-skilled labor market, including skills in areas such as communication, teaching, leadership and management, personal development, and career development. The International Student Module is designed to help explore issues unique to the graduate/professional education of students studying abroad.   


Beginning in 2017, invitations to administer the gradSERU Survey will be extended to leading research universities in the North America and Europe. This will initially include the 62 member institutions of the Association of American Universities in North America and the 21 institutions making up the League of European Research Universities. Expansion to include institutions designated as a Doctoral University: Highest Research under the classification developed by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and to other research universities in Asia, Europe, and South America is being considered for future administrations.

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 North America: Daniel Jones-White - CSHE Research Associate and gradSERU Research & Development Director, Office of Institutional Research - University of Minnesota:

For gradSERU International: Igor Chirikov - SERU Consortium Director and Senior Researcher, Center for Studies in Higher Education, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley:

gradSERU Development Team 

  • Daniel Jones-White - CSHE Research Associate and gradSERU Research & Development Director, Office of Institutional Research - University of Minnesota:
  • Olena Horner - CSHE gradSERU Research Associate, University of Minnesota:
  • John Aubrey Douglass – SERU North America and International Consortium Berkeley Principal Researcher;  Senior Research Fellow, Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley:
  • Gregg Thomson – SERU North America Consortium co-Principal Researcher; CSHE Research Associate,  UC Berkeley;Director of Institutional Research, Saint Mary’s College:
  • Steven Brint – SERU North America Consortium co-Principal Researcher; Professor of Sociology and  Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, UC Riverside:
  • Ronald Huesman – SERU Principal Researcher, Interim Director Office of Institutional Assessment, University of