The Nature of Success in Doctoral Education: The Roles of the Student, the Advisor, and Goals

The Nature of Success in Doctoral Education: The Roles of the Student, the Advisor, and Goals

Preston B. Cosgrove (Concordia University Wisconsin, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8018-8.ch005

Abstract

Doctoral attrition rates have remained around 50% for nearly four decades at significant costs to the student, department, institution, and society. In this chapter, the author analyzes the literature and make an argument for three critical strategies of degree completion: 1) the nature of the adult doctoral student, which involves an identity shift from dependent student to independent scholar; 2) the nature of the doctoral advisor, which involves more holistic supervision and support; and 3) the nature of goal-setting, which acts to organically link the two and focus effort and attention. Taken together, they provide a holistic framework that can counter the pervasive attrition rates and lead to greater doctoral student success.
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The Problem

Doctoral students in the United States are often considered the premier scholars. After all, their prior academic preparation and success should provide the intellectual bandwidth for survival of doctoral coursework and the dissertation. But far from a guaranteed success, the attrition rate in Ph.D. programs has hovered around 50% for nearly four decades (Cassuto, 2013), with current research showing attrition rates as high as 70% (Jones, 2013). As Barbara Lovitts (2001) argues in Leaving the ivory tower, there are significant consequences to such a high number of departures: costs to the faculty and departments; the institution; society; and, most importantly, to the student who left. The reasons explaining such high attrition rates are complex, but include the preparation of the student themselves, a disconnect between the student and the department and/or academic discipline, and also the strengthened rigor and quality of doctoral programs (Golde, 2005; Roulston, Preissle, & Freeman, 2013).

Several researchers (Cassuto, 2015; Lovitts, 2001; Nettles & Millett, 2006), have proposed broader systemic solutions to graduate systems and cultures. Indeed, as Gardner and Mendoza (2010) describe, due to the involvement of myriad “scholars, foundations, and institutions…we are beginning to understand the challenges that exist. …moreover, the scholarship on doctoral education and doctoral students has grown exponentially in the past several decades, allowing us to view the multifaceted nature of the experience” (p. 5). Lovitts’ (2005) research has provided a helpful framework for the components influencing doctoral student retention and graduation: 1) the macro-environment (the culture of graduate education and the culture of the discipline); 2) the micro-environment (the advisor, department, faculty/peers, and location), and 3) the individual resources of the student (intelligence, knowledge, thinking styles, personality, and motivation). In this chapter the author analyzes the literature and make an argument for three critical strategies of degree completion: the nature of the doctoral student, the nature of the doctoral advisor, and the nature of goal-setting. These three align with components two and three in Lovitts’ (2005) model, and as she reminds, “it is not the background characteristics students bring with them to the university that affects their persistence outcomes; it is what happens to them after they arrive” (Lovitts, 2001, p. 2).

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