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Ph.D. Completion Study Documents Best Practices for Student Success

A major study of doctoral students at 29 U.S. and Canadian universities reports that only 57 percent of Ph.D. candidates complete their programs within a decade, according to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) organization. 

 Seeking to help students finish their doctorates, reduce the length of their doctoral studies and lessen the costly financial commitments of doctoral programs, the Washington–based CGS undertook an investigation several years ago to learn why students were dropping out—especially women and students from underrepresented groups—and how to help them complete their degrees.

 “Although we are looking at improving Ph.D. completion rates overall, the Ph.D. Completion Project is particularly focused on completion by minorities, including women and underrepresented groups in the STEM fields,” said Robert S. Sowell, vice president, programs and operations for CGS.

 Funded by the Pfizer Inc. and the Ford Foundation, the project has followed more than 10 cohorts of doctoral students at 29 major U.S. and Canadian universities since 2004. Participating schools have submitted data and created and implemented interventions, which have been evaluated for their impact on attrition rates.

 When they began the project, CGS collected demographic data from  participating schools, which include institutions such as Yale University and Penn State University. Men outnumbered women almost two to one in doctoral programs between 1992 and 2004. Students of color represented a fifth of all those doctoral students.

 The project has produced three monographs, each focusing on a specific subject: baseline attrition data, analyzing demographic data, and collecting responses from exit surveys of Ph.D. students. This fourth installment chronicles the strategies these schools are using to improve retention.

 Sowell said talking about the project and its outcomes thus far have “inspired institutions that aren’t participating to change their culture in terms of Ph.D. completion. It gets them to start collecting data about their students.”

 Among the most promising practices, Sowell said schools are employing writing assistants for doctoral students to eliminate the trepidation that comes with starting a major writing assignment such as the dissertation. In some cases, senior Ph.D.s train newer students early on to prepare them for the dissertation process.

 In other cases, graduate schools are retooling the pre-enrollment process by offering summer research programs, using alumni of color to meet with prospective students, and organizing campus visits for them.

 Schools are also trying to fit students with advisers and programs by paying more attention to their needs and goals. These and other practices are being evaluated by the Ph.D. Project’s staff, and they will release a report in the coming months assessing their impact.

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