Meeting the Minds—Dr. Shawn Fraser

Interviewing AU's Adminstrators and Educators

Dr. Shawn Fraser is a Professor and the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Athabasca University.  Here we talk about his background, inspiration at AU, acquisition of education, demographics of graduate students at AU, popular courses and programs, and more!

What is your own narrative? What is family and personal background, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion, and so on?

I was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan.  My father was a city police officer and my mother was a welder.  Having working class parents and being a first generation university graduate and first generation professor colors my view of higher education in terms of access to education and the role of education in society.  In terms of culture, I grew up on the prairies of Saskatchewan and this means I am a Roughriders and Canadian Football League fan.  For fun and some activity I play football in the Edmonton Flag Football Association.

What is the most inspiring story seen coming out of AU by you?

It is too difficult to pick any one story.  Many Athabasca University students are the first in their family to go to university.  The strong support and pride from families is always palpable and inspiring at convocation.  However, working with a student who was eventually awarded a degree posthumously was inspiring on many levels.  The degree was accepted by the student’s partner and I had the privilege of shaking her hand on stage at convocation.  This was a special and humbling experience showing how precious higher education can be.

What work took most of the time for you, in early life into young adulthood and prior to the interim position? Where did you get an education, and in what? And why those areas of study?

I attended the University of Regina where I obtained a BSc in Mathematics.  With no lab component and no term papers, Math was the perfect major for me since I needed to work most evenings to pay for school.  After finishing my Math degree I decided to pursue a more applied science, Kinesiology.  I eventually obtained an MSc in Kinesiology from the University of Saskatchewan and went on to complete a PhD at the University of Alberta from the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, where I studied rardiac rehabilitation.

Graduate school is a challenge and takes a great deal of persistence.  I was fortunate to belong to a strong and supportive research group and to obtain Tri-council funding as a doctoral student.  I joined Athabasca University in 2006 as an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Nursing and Health studies.  Prior to the Interim Dean position I served as the Program Director for the MN and MHS programs, Acting Dean of FGS in 2014, and most recently as the Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Health Disciplines.

What are the demographics of the graduate students of AU?

The demographics of our students varies a great deal depending on the program.  According to our Office of Institutional Studies, the average age of an incoming graduate student is 35 years of age.  About 74% of our graduate students are women, but most of the students in our DBA (67%) program and MSc-IS (81%) programs are men.  There are also slightly more men than women in our MBA (56%) and Architecture (55%) programs.  In contrast, about 92% of our MN students are women.

What course is the most popular? Any speculation on the reason?

Given the size of our Master of Nursing (MN) program, the first required MN course, Nursing 608, is the most popular graduate course at the moment.  The top 20 graduate courses by registration are all Nursing courses.

Also, what degree program is the most signed onto for graduate students?

The Master of Nursing program is by far the most subscribed graduate program taking in nearly 300 students annually.  There are currently over 1500 student in the MN program.

What tasks and responsibilities come with the interim position?

I basically oversee the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) team which provides services in the support and administration of AU’s graduate programs.  I also chair the Faculty of Graduate Studies Council, the body responsible for developing and approving policies and guidelines related to graduate programming and program delivery.  Daily tasks include representing FGS on various governance committees and in other meetings and working with the other AU Faculties on tasks to help achieve the goals outlined in our strategic plan.

What books are you currently reading, AU and non-AU?

I mostly read reports these day such as the recent Horizon Report on technology trends in higher education and the recently released The State of Post-Secondary Education in Canada.  However, I am working my way through AU Press’ new book An Online Doctorate for Researching Professionals: Program Design, Implementation, and Evaluation.  For fun I am currently reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses and .  learning statistics with jamovi: a tutorial for psychology students and other beginners (for free here).

What are the current initiatives ongoing in graduate studies?

We have many initiatives in FGS designed to improve the support of quality graduate education at Athabasca University.  An ongoing initiative we have is to provide support for the professional skills development of graduate students.  These are offered through webinars, in-person workshops and now we are developing some online modules and courses.  Other initiatives include supporting faculty development with workshops around thesis supervision, for example.  Major initiatives to support students include an annual 3MT competition for AU graduate students and the annual Graduate Student Conference, co-hosted with the Athabasca University Graduate Students’ Association.

If you could have a meal with a person living or dead, who would it be? What would be the meal?

I would be terrified, but I would love to have a meal with Kurt Vonnegut or Bertrand Russell, two of my favorite authors.  The meal might include some Thai food or maybe American Barbeque.

For students interested in AU graduate studies, what are the main things needing doing prior to application?

It is important to check that you have all of your materials and to check that you’ve met the qualifications for admission.  Each program has slightly different requirements and deadlines and program options (e.g., thesis vs.  course-based).  Since each program has different administrators, if you have questions about admission it is important to contact the graduate program administrators for the specific program you are interested in.  Incomplete applications can cause a big delay.  It may be helpful to consider how much time you can devote to graduate studies.  A thesis or dissertation can take much longer than one anticipates.  A course based masters takes a great deal of time and many years.  Support from family, friends and employers is cited as extremely important for our graduates.  A long term plan to cover costs and the potential disruption to work and family is best done prior to starting a degree.

AU students tend to forget or not take the time to know enough about scholarships and awards.  What awards are available for the graduate students? How can they apply? What are the best means by which to strengthen awards and scholarships applications of the students?

There are many awards available to AU graduate students and some of these are listed on the Faculty of Graduate Studies website.  In fact, some funding is underutilized and can go unclaimed.  Some of these  Masters  and Doctoral awards are administered from the registrar’s office and some are administered by the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  Provincial and federal awards are also available.  The Research Office also has funding for travel to conferences and for research software.  Work closely with FGS and your home Faculty to identify upcoming awards and requirements and for information on how to apply.

Regarding the direction of AU for 2018/19, what most excites you?

Athabasca University is undergoing a period of renewal having just developed a new strategic plan, Imagine: Transforming Lives, Transforming Communities.  Following this plan, the Faculty of Graduate Studies has developed a new strategic plan.  We anticipate a period of growing graduate enrollments and new and exciting programs are being developed.  We are excited for AU to expand graduate programming options to new students.