• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

Title

Debriefing the Ph.D. Journey

Views on how to improve doctoral student retention.

May 29, 2018
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson recently earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She still holds out hope that she’ll land on a teaching tenure track somewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

I graduated recently. Three days later, I had the opportunity to hear higher education guru Dr. Vincent Tinto address a packed room of educators, student affairs personnel, and grad students at a one-day professional development conference. His appeals to the audience on how best to enhance student success were earnest:

“[Students] want to come to finish something. . . [We need] to help students out in ways to lead them to want to stay. . . It is one thing for universities to act to retain students, it is another for them to act in ways that lead students to want to persist and acquire the abilities and support to do so. . . Expectations [students] have may hamper [their] first year–how are they shaped during the first semester?”

Recent studies show that about half of all doctoral students leave their programs before completing their doctorates. Tinto’s extensive published research on student retention, growth, and attainment (i.e., Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action and Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition) has largely centered on post-secondary undergraduates in four-year colleges and universities, with an emphasis on the first year of enrollment. However, his entreaties, which I and my peers largely had heard before in our various lectures, discussions, and readings on student persistence and retention, still resonated with many of us as we recalled our own journeys as graduate students in academia.

On the retention front, there are valid reasons for challenged graduate students to find solidarity with undergrads. So, too, for doctoral students, who are juggling many obligations, it’s not always easy to stay on the four-, five-, or six-year academic plan. The impression that older students, who’ve already conquered post-secondary training, are more mature, centered, and well-equipped to handle the academic and social rigors of advanced university education, may not hold true for all. In addition, life’s trials, which often involve major financial, emotional, and familial issues that trigger disruptions in the best laid academic plans, may impede straight-line progress in their ongoing research programs.

At the doctoral level there seems to be a lot of room for institutions to either improve or consider resources that might provide graduate students much-needed assists throughout their doctoral programs. Tinto, the Distinguished University Professor of Education at Syracuse University, has addressed doctoral student attrition, which he says continues to be a more obscure problem in higher education. In Leaving College he proposed a model of doctoral student persistence, which suggests strategies to help struggling graduate students persevere in their programs. The modes of support that we heard Tinto largely embrace for undergrads aren’t too different from those which might help improve graduate student retention:

Availability of Support, Ranging from Financial and Advising to Academic and Social. Institutional backing of effective initiatives that include counselors, mentors, and cohort programs, as well as learning communities and student organizations–but for graduate students–could be beneficial. Though it’s assumed that grad students, typically have more outside commitments and influences vying for their time than undergrads do, the availability of such resources could better influence doctoral student success.

Early Warning Systems. To proactively stave off dropout threats, Tinto proposed using predictive data analyses and in- and out-of-class indicators to quietly sound alarms that might help advisors and mentors steer beneficial resources toward students who need them. Institutions’ effective and committed responses to helping grad students address any problems faced during their programs, could positively influence program retention.

Sense of Belonging. In his research on doctoral persistence, Tinto focused on the significance of how well students fit into and felt an affinity toward their university’s academic and social environments. When we feel as though we don’t belong, such indifference can cause any desire to excel or succeed to flame out.

Learning and Motivation. Tinto found that students who see themselves as being engaged in meaningful learning activities are more likely to want to stay and continue learning. Doctoral students motivated to finish their coursework or dissertations are no different.

As colleges and universities pay intense focus to undergraduate student retention, doctoral student persistence also deserves heightened emphasis to improve low retention rates that have not significantly improved in years.

What are your views on graduate student retention? What is your college or university doing to help graduate students persist? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

[Image from Flickr user, The U.S. National Archives, used under no known copyright restrictions.]

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