The top factors in helping graduate students complete a Ph.D. are financial support, mentoring and family support (the latter meaning non-financial), according to a survey of new doctorate holders by the Council of Graduate Schools.
The survey is part of the council's Ph.D. Completion Project, which is trying to improve graduate education and to increase the completion rates of doctoral programs. Initially the council wanted to compare the responses of those who completed and those who did not, but response rates from those who left doctoral programs were too low to draw conclusions. The council also analyzed some of the responses by disciplinary groups and found potentially significant differences in the types of financial support offered and the grad students' satisfaction with the support. (Humanities students generally got the short end of the stick.)
Across the board, asked about the factors that contributed to the ability to finish a program, here are the top reasons (Ph.D. recipients were able to pick more than one reason):
- Financial support: 80 percent
- Mentoring and advising: 65 percent
- Family support (non-financial) 57 percent
- Social environment / peer support: 40 percent
- Program quality: 36 percent
- Professional / career guidance: 29 percent
- Program requirements: 22 percent
- Personal circumstances: 18 percent
- Other: 11 percent
With regard to the top issue identified (financial support), the survey found differences by discipline. Overall, 76 percent were satisfied, but that was higher in some disciplines (life sciences, engineering and mathematics and physical sciences were all 80 or higher) than others (the level was only 60 percent for the humanities).
Those satisfaction differences may be explained by other findings in the survey showing that -- among doctoral students offered multi-year financial support at the time of admission -- those in the humanities and social sciences are less likely than others to receive offers covering six or more years, even though many humanities Ph.D.'s take longer than six years to complete. Humanities doctoral students were more likely than those in other fields to receive offers covering only two or three years.
Duration of Financial Support in Admissions Offers, by Discipline
|Discipline||2-3 Years||4-5 Years||6 or More Years|
|Mathematics and physical sciences||13%||65%||22%|
Doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences were also much more likely than those in other disciplines to work outside the university during doctoral studies, or to take out private or student loans to support doctoral study.
Financing Graduate Study With Outside Work or Loans, by Discipline
|Mathematics and physical sciences||32%||41%|
Some of the other notable findings of the survey include the following:
- Although many disciplinary organizations have been urging departments to tell prospective students more about completion rates and job prospects, many new doctorates don't remember seeing that information when they were applying to or selecting programs. Only 26 percent reported seeing information about job placement rates and only 36 percent reported seeing information about Ph.D. completion rates. Much larger percentages reported seeing information on program requirements.
- Generally, the new doctorates reported that they had good access to their academic advisers during their programs, although that goes up as the students progress. During coursework, 81 percent reported good access, while the figure hit 90 percent for the dissertation writing and defense stages.
- While most of the doctoral graduates appeared to think that the difficulty level was appropriate for their programs, some did not. With some variation by discipline, between 28 percent (life sciences) and 38 percent (engineering) thought their programs were somewhat or too difficult. Between 5 percent (social sciences) and 14 percent (life sciences) thought their programs were somewhat or too easy.
Robert S. Sowell, vice president for programs and operations at the Council of Graduate Schools, said that he was not surprised that financial support and mentoring were the top two items in helping graduate students finish their doctorates. But he said he was surprised that non-financial family support finished as high as it did.
Given that many graduate schools are pressed for funds right now, Sowell said it was all the more important for graduate schools to focus on issues such as mentoring, and to "emphasize the other things students say are important" that are not costly.
A number of top universities are shrinking the sizes of their incoming graduate classes this year,  responding to budget cuts that limit funds for stipends. Sowell said that this may be a logical response, and better than providing low levels of support, given the relationship between being well supported and "higher completion rates."