The Division of Science Resources Studies (SRS) of the National Science Foundation (NSF) held the Workshop on Graduate School Attrition on September 22, 1997. Participants included representatives of the academic research and graduate education administration communities, along with officials from disciplinary professional societies, NSF, and other government scientific agencies.
The purpose of the workshop was to address key gaps in knowledge and data about the problem of graduate student attrition. Specific gaps to be addressed included knowledge and understanding of the overall extent of doctoral student attrition; factors that influence whether or not students complete their doctoral degrees; the impacts that such decisions have on their future earnings and labor force experiences; and further data that would be needed to assess more confidently the extent, causes, and consequences of graduate student attrition.
The workshop focused on the problem of students who intend to obtain the doctorate rather than the master's as the terminal degree. The greater concern over doctoral student attrition, one speaker noted, is that the students in master's programs differ in a number of
respects that may affect attrition rates, such as being more focused on a specific professional career path and having already had experience in the job market.
The ConcernThe National Science Foundation (NSF) is concerned with graduate student attrition for a number of reasons cited by NSF officials:
- Doctoral education is costly not only for society and higher education institutions, but also for the student.
- Attrition is especially relevant to NSF's role in supporting students in science and engineering directly through graduate fellowships and traineeships, and indirectly through research assistantships attached to NSF research grants.
- Attrition is relevant to NSF's commitment to increase the participation and success rate of historically underrepresented groups in science and engineering education.
The doctoral student is a precious resource in providing the new discoveries and expert knowledge essential to the nation's future.
 This workshop is part of an ongoing series of SRS/Professional Societies workshops and of NSF's Graduate Education Initiative and other activities relating to graduate school education. Some of the other activities are described in this summary under "Future Research Needs" and "Changing the Graduate Experience."