Improving PhD completion rates: where should we start?

May 12, 2015 David Litalien

Doctoral attrition rates are high in North America: an estimated 40% to 50% of candidates never finish. Though these rates have been relatively stable over time, the issue is of growing concern given recent increases in PhD enrollment. According to the OECD, enrollment in advanced research programs in the US and Canada rose by approximately 70% from 1998 to 2012.

Dropout occurs at various stages of the process and has negative consequences for the individuals, their universities, and society as a whole. Surprisingly, the media, policymakers, and researchers show little interest in this issue. The fact that most dropouts already have a high level of qualifications and the complexity of investigating this phenomenon might explain this lack of concern. For instance, doctoral students’ experiences may vary by program, university, country, and stage of progression.109374032_324162460_324162461_256224451 (1).jpg

In a recent article published in Contemporary Educational Psychology, we aimed to better understand this phenomenon by developing a predictive model of dropout intentions. The model posits that perceived competence decreases dropout intentions, and that perceived competence is related to student’s motivation and to the support provided by the student’s advisor, faculty, and other graduate students.

Other significant determinants were included in the model: students’ presentation and publication rate; scholarships; income; indebtedness; gender; citizenship; program type; number of completed trimesters; and dropout intentions at the first measurement time.

Two studies were conducted to test the proposed model: a retrospective comparison of students who completed or did not complete a PhD program and a prospective study amongst enrolled students to test the predictive value of the model. Overall, findings from both studies converged and supported the model.

Three major results merit attention:

  • Perceived competence appears to be the cornerstone of doctoral studies persistence. This determinant was the strongest distinguisher between completers and non-completers, being the strongest predictor of dropout intentions in enrolled students. Even in the most advanced programs that target top candidates, the feeling of competence varies across students, and appears to be crucial for persistence. This could be particularly relevant, given that PhD training requires more autonomy and involves less structured indicators of progression as well as fewer courses.
  • Quality of the student–advisor relationship is confirmed as a highly important factor. Students who completed their PhD were more likely to perceive previous interactions with their advisors as supportive. Additionally, perceiving higher support by advisors helped currently enrolled PhD students feel more effective in their studies. By enhancing feelings of competence, this specific support also reduces the likelihood that students develop the intention to quit their program. Although many studies have suggested that the advisor plays a role as a determinant of PhD persistence, the mechanism by which it affects program completion has not been examined.
  • Interactions with other faculty also play a role in students’ persistence. Students who completed their PhD were also more likely to perceive previous interactions with faculty as supportive. Perceiving support by faculty also predicted dropout intentions in Study 2.

The low and steady completion rates in doctoral studies highlight an important lack of efficiency in the training of advanced researchers. To prevent PhD students from developing dropout intentions and subsequently leaving their program, our results suggest that interventions should particularly aim to foster students’ perceived competence.

This could be achieved by improving students’ motivation and by enhancing the support provided by their advisors and by faculty. The advisory relationship can be hermetic and usually concerns the advisor and the student only, but students would benefit from an opening of this relationship.

To this end, advisors and faculty could be informed of students’ needs and encouraged to support them, a role that goes beyond traditional classroom teaching and research project supervision. Advisors could also be trained and supported in their role by departments. Institutions seeking to increase their completion rate should take a closer look at this interaction, while PhD students would benefit from initiating these relationships where possible (e.g., getting involved in research assistantship, research collaboration, committees, etc.).

Finding ways to monitor and enhance the quality of the student–advisor relationship could also help to prevent and overcome problematic interactions and progression.

In order to foster a future of optimum knowledge and discovery, we need to offer support to the next generation of PhDs.

Please see the full article for more information.

Wiley collaborates with early career researchers through our membership program, Wiley Advisors, a group of ECRs and professionals who serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on Twitter @WileyAdvisors.

Image Credit/Source:Steven Wright/Shutterstock

About the Author

Researcher, Institute for Positive Psychology and Education // Dr David Litalien is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE) at the Australian Catholic University. His research mainly focuses on motivation and academic persistence, and on the social contexts that promote or hinder those impetuses.

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