Why Do Almost Half of Doctoral Students Fail?When students leave discouraged, unemployable and deeply in debt, it's a travesty and a waste of valuable resources.
Nearly half the students who enter doctoral programs don’t complete them, and women drop out at a higher rate than men. Is frustration over the difficulty of navigating the system a major factor in their attrition? Eva Bachman is trying to find out.
She’s seen the doctoral studies process from both sides. On the administrative staff at the University of Nebraska– Lincoln for more than 27 years, she’s been the university’s doctoral programs specialist since 2003. In 2009 she started a doctoral program herself.
In a pilot study for her dissertation, she interviewed eight current graduate students (half of them women) at a different university about their experience in getting administrative information about their program. She spoke at UNL’s Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln in October 2011.
“You have to think of doctoral students as all firstgeneration. They’ve never been a doctoral student before,” Bachman told WIHE. Even for those with a master’s degree, pursuing a doctorate is a brand new ballgame. Its rules are obscure and sometimes impenetrable.
One university Web site lists comprehensive exams or “comps” as the first of eight milestones toward a doctoral degree. Students ask: “What’s a comp? How do I get there? Where’s the road to get to this milestone?” She explained that “We don’t realize that to them it’s a whole new process.”
Since she sees many students in her office and her phone rings off the hook, she went into the pilot study interviews thinking students would be quite aware of the resources provided by their college as a whole. But few even mentioned university-wide resources like the Web site.
Good and bad, their perception of their experiences was all about the department. That makes sense since in a decentralized university, each department operates differently. The university requires comps, for example, but what these exams are like and how students must prepare for them varies by department.
• Orientations and handbooks. Most departments offer their incoming students some structured guidance, including department-specific orientations and handbooks. Every student she interviewed mentioned a handbook, although they all hadn’t looked at them until they got desperate. The students all checked the Web site but found the instructions there were unclear.
• Faculty advisors. Every university talks about the importance of the mentoring relationship. Faculty advisors are students’ primary mentors, socializing them into the ways of academic life and their particular field. They take them to meetings, arrange for them give presentations and encourage them to speak up. The graduate student is an apprentice, learning by observation and osmosis.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Sometimes it does. But her interviews confirmed her observations on the job, where students talked to her about how difficult it could be to communicate with their advisors.
Faculty expertise in a subject area doesn’t automatically translate into a clear grasp of the hoops students need to jump through. “We know what we’re saying, but even the advisors aren’t sure,” Bachman said. Often an advisor will respond to a question by telling the student to ask the department secretary.
• Departmental staff. Many departments have one staff member whose entire job is to provide graduate student support. A smaller department may merge this function with that of department secretary. Either way, these individuals are knowledgeable and ready to help, often doing students’ paperwork for them.
“I have long believed that departmental staff make or break student progress,” she said. “Students trust them somewhat more than their advisors.” While the men in her study were a little more at ease with their advisors, the women took care to double-check with staff. One said she would be lost without the department secretary.
• Student peers. The students already in the department were unofficial guides. A third of her subjects said their first guide was a student already in their program. This informal peer advising is positive on the whole; students have firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a student. Schools just need to make sure that they pass along accurate information.
Clarity and relationship
Academic requirements are notoriously nebulous. One woman she interviewed expressed intense frustration with the process. Of the rest, the women were more animated than the men about their need to search and find out more.
“We need to be a little more explicit about what we require of students. They shouldn’t have to second-guess,” she said. Completing the coursework and a dissertation is challenging enough; they shouldn’t also have to sweat figuring out the basics.
Procedural guidance can’t be left totally to academic advisors. Written and online materials need to be clear and precise, prepared with the assumption that the student comes in knowing nothing at all about how a doctoral program works. Everyone who reads them should come away with the same understanding of what they mean.
Will reducing their frustration help students stay to finish a degree? Some attrition is healthy; some students decide they got what they came for and this isn’t the path for them. But when students leave discouraged, unemployable and deeply in debt, it’s a travesty and a waste of valuable resources. They should have received better support.
Relationships are central to the graduate student experience, including but not limited to the faculty advisor. “Everyone who comes in contact with a graduate student is important. What we say, do and put in print is vital. The clearer we can make it, the better,” she said.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, March). Why Do Almost Half of Doctoral Students Fail? Women in Higher Education, 21(3), 23.