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New Book Sheds Light on the Doctoral Student Experience

New Book Sheds Light on the Doctoral Student Experience
By Ronald Roach

A new book authored by Drs. Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett offers a comprehensive look inside the experience of graduate students pursuing their doctorates. In Three Magic Letters: Getting the Ph.D., the authors, who are officials with the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., capture a frank and compelling picture of graduate school life. The book, published by the John Hopkins University Press, also highlights important factors that contribute to student persistence and success. 

“Rarely have there been studies done that look at what life is like in graduate school,” says Nettles, senior vice president for policy evaluation and policy at ETS.

Dating back to 1995, the study includes extensive survey data from 9,000 students in graduate programs at 21 top-tier research institutions, reportedly the largest survey ever conducted of doctoral students. The study pays particularly close attention to issues concerning graduate student funding and the role that faculty mentorship plays. Millett, a research scientist at ETS, says the impetus for the 368-page book came from her own experience as she sought funding to complete a doctoral program in education at the University of Michigan. After discussing the financial plight of graduate school students with Nettles, who was one of her Michigan professors at the time, he suggested she study the graduate student experience to answer the questions she was posing.

“I was saying ‘I don’t know how students do this’ and that led us to launching the project … I never imagined that it would lead to a book,” Millett says.

Nettles says the book has already become highly sought after by graduate school deans and faculty members, because it’s being seen as a resource that might help higher education leaders better evaluate the graduate programs they currently run. Findings in the book cover the areas of student financing; socialization; research productivity; satisfaction, performance, and progress; rate of progress, completion, and time to degree; predictors of student experiences and performance; predictors of major distinction by field; and predictors of major distinction by race and sex.

Three Magic Letters is currently in its second printing. The first run, published on Feb. 15, has already sold out. U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., has ordered 700 copies of the book, to be handed out to students who attended his annual higher education conference in Philadelphia,
“This is one of our fastest selling books ever,” says Kathy Alexander, a spokeswoman for John Hopkins University Press.

According to the book, Black graduate students often find themselves at a disadvantage academically. They receive fewer opportunities to contribute to and publish research articles and are less likely to secure research assistantships. Three Magic Letters notes gender and other ethnicity-specific differences in the lives of graduate students. Nettles hopes the book will prove useful to administrators as they evaluate their diversity and affirmative action outreach programs. That emphasis is especially timely, as pressure continues to mount on research universities to open their minority programs to all students.

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