Matches and Mismatches in Producing Ph.D.'s

April 15, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- In theory, these days, everyone agrees that attrition in Ph.D. programs is a real problem. Graduate students don't want to spend years in programs from which they will never graduate, and universities don't want to support those who won't complete their programs. Also in theory these days, most academics agree that it's crucial to expand the diversity of the Ph.D. pipeline so that the candidates for faculty positions represent a broader demographic than the current professoriate.

Research presented Tuesday here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association challenged higher education a bit on both of these supposed consensuses.

One study -- comparing the attitudes of students and faculty members at the same university about why some graduate students leave -- suggested quite a gap in views, and a gap that exposes that many professors feel that they don't need to worry about graduate student attrition. Another study examined why some undergraduate institutions have uncommon levels of success in sending minority students on to doctoral programs -- suggesting that there are approaches that could be used by many other institutions.

The Attitude Gap on Graduate School Attrition

To explore the differing attitudes on graduate student attrition, Susan K. Gardner conducted in-depth interviews with 60 doctoral students and 34 faculty members at one doctoral university. Gardner, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maine, interviewed students and professors in six departments, with Ph.D. completion rates from a low of 17.6 percent to a high of 76.5 percent.

She found that while faculty members blame students for leaving, students have a different view. The top reasons faculty members cited were that students were lacking (53 percent), the student shouldn't have enrolled in the first place (21 percent) or the student had personal problems (15 percent). The list prompted a few chuckles in the audience and comments after the presentation about how these same faculty members convinced that students were at fault had admitted these students to their programs. Notably, Gardner said that the attitudes were largely consistent with the graduate program had a high completion rate or a low one. Graduate students interviewed cited personal problems as the top reason some leave (34 percent), departmental issues (30 percent) and issues of fit (21 percent).

Gardner read quotes from her interviews with the faculty members, many of whom seem to accept the idea that they will admit significant numbers of graduate students who will never finish. "Not everybody who starts their Ph.D. is going to finish it and some are just not up to the job," said one. Several talked about students who lack enough drive. "Some of them area not willing to work hard enough. ... I think it's a lack of focus," said one.

Many professors also seemed to see the issue as one in which students "drift" into graduate school, and don't belong there. "There are always going to be some students who really shouldn't be in graduate school to begin with. They're smart, they did well on the GRE's and so they come to graduate school and they're just not as motivated as they should be," one professor told Gardner.

Professors also tended to classify pregnancy as a personal problem and one that would invariably lead students to drop out. One faculty member, asked about departmental attrition, said: "I think the others we lost were female. They got pregnant."

In contrast, the graduate students -- while seeing personal issues as relevant -- also outlined a range of issues such as departmental politics and lack of advising as influencing decisions to leave programs. In addition, many mentioned money, with one typical quote being: "You cannot put a family to live on $12,000 a year forever. I mean, it's impossible."

Gardner suggested that there are a variety of reasons graduate students leave programs. But she said the depth of faculty feeling that student attrition is not the professors' fault at all raised real questions about whether graduate programs are really taking the attrition issue as seriously as many would like to think.

Producing Minority Ph.D.'s

Another top issue in graduate education is that of attracting more minority students. A paper by Valerie Lundy-Wagner, Julie Vultaggio and Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania focused on which institutions produce the most minority graduates who go on to earn doctorates. They took data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates to analyze which minority students were earning doctorates and then went back to identify the institutions that these students attended as undergraduates. (The National Science Foundation released a study exploring some of this ground last year, but the NSF focused only on math and science degrees, not all doctorates.)

Their analysis looked at total numbers, not at percentages of minority students. Not surprisingly, historically black colleges and those with large Latino enrollments did well. But so did some predominantly white institutions. Lundy-Wagner described how the institutions that produce many minority undergraduates who go on to doctorates have specific programs to expose minority students to the research experience. For example, she noted a University of California at San Diego program that sponsors a summer research program, a statewide symposium on research and mentoring for minority science students.

Gasman said that the predominantly white institutions that do well in these rankings "tended to have programs or practices that were similar to what happens at historically black colleges and some Hispanic-serving institutions -- close relationships of faculty and students, exposure to research, programs where you could have lunch with faculty, exposure to the faculty way of life."

She added that seeing these patterns suggests the lost potential from more institutions not making similar efforts. "You have a small number of institutions doing this really good work, and other institutions don't seem to know how to do it," she said.

Here are the institutions that were identified in the study.

Top Institutions at Producing Minority Graduates Who Go on to Earn Doctorates

Rank Black Latino Asian
1. Howard U. U. of Puerto Rico at Piedras U. of California at Berkeley
2. Spelman College U. of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez U. of California at Los Angeles
3. Florida A&M U. U. of California at Los Angeles Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. Hampton U. U. of Texas at Austin Harvard U.
5. Southern U. Florida International U. U. of California at San Diego
6. Jackson State U. U. of Texas at El Paso Cornell U.
7. Morehouse College Harvard U. Stanford U.
8. U. of Michigan U. of Florida U. of Hawaii at Manoa
9. North Carolina A&T U. U. of New Mexico U. of Michigan
10. U. of California at Berkeley U. of Arizona U. of California at Davis

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