Changing the Graduate Experience

From the anecdotal evidence presented at the workshop, action to reduce attrition is not awaiting further research. Based on what is already known, universities are planning or have initiated a wide range of actions. They include modifying selection criteria, reducing time and flow to degree, enhancing student participation in department life, encouraging persistence by minorities and women, and providing incentives for faculty mentoring and productivity.

Selection Criteria top

As noted previously, some departmental programs screen out students vigorously after entry (sometimes referred to as "graduate hazing"); others set higher thresholds for admission and expect fewer noncompleters.

The advantages and disadvantages of each approach were debated. Converting later attrition to earlier was seen as more humane and protective of resources than waiting, as is often done, until the comprehensive exams. At the other extreme was the view that the "survival of the fittest" approach may exclude students with great potential who would benefit from a more supportive departmental culture. A third view is that either approach is valid, providing the rules are clear to students before they apply and during their studies.

Reducing Time and Flow to Degree top

Because of the varying requirements for degrees, no one suggested a uniform completion time or uniform limit after which a student no longer would be considered a doctoral degree candidate. On the other hand, institutions are looking more closely at the progress of their students. The goal is to increase the flow to degree and percentage of completers. The methods being used include monitoring student progress more regularly, establishing time norms for completion of degree requirements, and requiring faculty reviews of ABDs after a certain period. Such actions may also benefit students by keeping them better informed of their progress and keeping faculty in touch with students' plans.

In this vein, one presenter said that departments assume that graduate students understand a lot more about the structure and process of graduate education than they really do. The consequence may be a gap between departmental or institutional expectations and student expectations. To help bridge this gap, faculty and administrators could help students to develop better cognitive maps of the structure and process of the graduate programs they undertake.

Enhancing Student Participation in Department Life top

Many participants emphasized the need to improve the supportive and nurturing elements of the graduate school experience. Opinions differed on the relative value of the fellowship, teaching assistantship, and research assistantship. Some students preferred being tied to a particular faculty member or research project, as is the case with TAs and RAs; others preferred the freedom to choose with whom and on what topic they choose to work, as is the case with fellows.

In describing what constitutes a supportive departmental culture, the speakers generally agreed that the key elements are the frequency and quality of faculty mentoring, student-to-student mentoring, financial aid, and student involvement in research. Again, the departmental and field differences, such as size of the department or the composition of its faculty by age groups and tenure status, were mentioned frequently. If a biology department, for example, has an entering cohort of 80 students and a history department with the same size faculty has 200, the environments of each are very different, one speaker noted. In comparing student responses about the relative value of the RA and TA, however, the disciplinary differences emerge clearly in one study. The students in the physical sciences felt that the RA-ship was much more helpful, whereas those in the social sciences preferred the TA-ship, the presenter commented.

Encouraging Participation and Persistence by Minorities and Women top

One participant mentioned a National Research Council study[6] that included an analysis of why certain doctoral and postdoctoral programs had high completion rates for women and minorities. Based on the findings of qualitative interviews, the study identified three factors common to the successful programs: a supportive learning environment; agreement among faculty, students, and administration on the purposes of the program; and opportunity for students to become involved in the work of their fields.

Another effort to increase minority retention that was mentioned is an American Psychological Association project to create five regional centers of excellence (involving 15 institutions). These would demonstrate ways to strengthen departmental cultures to be more supportive of minority graduate students, thus reducing their attrition rate.

Other strategies and tactics for increasing the participation and the success rates for women and members of historically underrepresented groups have been discussed in other forums at NSF.[7]

Incentives for Faculty Mentoring and Ph.D. Productivity top

In the study, Contextual Factors in Graduate Student Attrition (previously described in the section, Current Research and Databases), some preliminary evidence indicated that the character of faculty-student interactions may affect persistence outcomes. The evidence suggests that high-Ph.D. productive faculty engage more frequently in certain types of academic and social interactions with graduate students.

The academic interactions by the high-productive faculty include attending colloquia, spending more hours per week interacting with students on their studies and work, seeing students in informal as well as formal settings, collaborating on academic tasks such as research papers and presentations, and co-authoring papers. The social interactions include participating in social hours, picnics, and sports, and other events outside the department, and having students to their homes.

One project to encourage more departmental attention to faculty mentoring that was mentioned is conducted by the American Sociological Association (ASA). ASA has convened its department chairs to discuss what they can do to support better faculty advising within their departments.

One observer struck a cautionary note, however, about requiring faculty to work with their students more often and to monitor their progress more closely. With their already busy schedules, they must be given incentives to devote more time to mentoring and monitoring. The message must be conveyed to them, she said, that if attrition rates remain high, faculty will not attract the best students, which would ultimately affect their ability to do research.

In considering what can be done to improve understanding of attrition, it appears that all stakeholders have an interest in the outcome of research: students, faculty, department chairs, graduate school deans and funding administrators. For this reason, one recurring suggestion was to share experiences and research related to the problem.


[6] Educating Mathematical Scientists: Doctoral Study and the Postdoctoral Experience in the United States, National Research Council, 1992 (Washington, D.C., National Academy Press).

[7] Informal Graduate Education roundtable, September 12, 1997 and National Institute for Science Education's Strengthening Graduate Education in Science and Engineering: Promising Practices and Strategies for Implementation, June 29-30, 1998.

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