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Perceptions of Doctor of Physical Therapy Students and Faculty About Graduate Assistantships

Thompson, Kristine A., PT, MPH, PhD; Stiller, Christine H., PT, PhD

Journal of Physical Therapy Education: September 2018 - Volume 32 - Issue 3 - p 218–225
doi: 10.1097/JTE.0000000000000018
Research Report

Introduction. Graduate assistantships provide students with financial assistance and the opportunity to gain professional experience. Doctor of physical therapy (DPT) students face increasing student loan debts, and graduate assistantships are one method to provide financial support and opportunities for professional involvement. Responsibilities of graduate assistants (GAs) typically include teaching, research, and/or administrative activities as assigned by their faculty supervisor. The purposes of this study were to 1) explore the perceptions of GAs and their faculty supervisors about entry-level DPT graduate assistantship responsibilities and experiences and 2) develop a conceptual framework to describe the graduate assistantship experience in a physical therapist education program. Previous authors have demonstrated that GAs face challenges if there is a lack of clear expectations, training, or mentorship. However, with effective training and faculty supervision, GAs can receive valuable professional experience. In addition, GA faculty supervisors may benefit from increased research productivity and assistance with teaching responsibilities. There is limited research about the experiences of GAs and the faculty supervisors in health care professions, and no research about physical therapist education was found.

Methods. There were a total of 33 subjects: nine full-time physical therapy faculty members and 24 entry-level DPT students. In this qualitative study, subjects completed a demographic form and participated in a focus group interview with peers. Guiding questions focused on the following: reasons for becoming a GA/faculty supervisor, fairness of compensation, description of assigned roles and responsibilities involved with graduate assistantships, the benefits and challenges of being a GA/faculty supervisor, and future recommendations. Descriptive statistics and the constant comparative method were used for data analysis. Themes and concepts were generated and a conceptual framework was developed.

Results. Participants described GA responsibilities that included teaching, research, and/or administrative activities. All participants agreed that the financial compensation for GAs was fair and, despite some challenges, the graduate assistantship experience was beneficial for both students and faculty. Examples of benefits for students included increased knowledge about teaching and research, improved communication/time management skills, and a collegial relationship with faculty. Faculty benefits included increased productivity, training in new technology/computer skills from GAs, and gratification related to growth of the GA. Concepts with accompanying themes included the following: factors for a successful experience (supportive structure and relationship building), transitions in roles and relationships (changing roles and evolving relationships between the GA and the faculty supervisor), and influences on professional development (doing and becoming).

Discussion and Conclusion. The graduate assistantship experience can be beneficial for students and faculty. The conceptual framework illustrates how the concepts contribute to a successful experience and facilitate professional development of both students and faculty. These findings may assist faculty in effectively mentoring GAs and help encourage physical therapist educators to develop GA positions and establish training programs for both students and faculty.

Christine Stiller is a special instructor of Physical Therapy at Oakland University.

Kristine A. Thompson is a special instructor and chair of Human Movement Science at Oakland University, 3077 Human Health Building, 433 Meadow Brook Road., Rochester, MI 48309-4452 (kathomps@oakland.edu). Please address all correspondence to Kristine A. Thompson.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Received October 07, 2017

Accepted January 02, 2018

Copyright 2018 Education Section, APTA
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