Who Gets a PhD and Why

Inside Higher Ed reports on two interesting studies about which students complete a PhD and why.

The first study, by Susan K. Gardner, looked at doctoral programs with high and low attrition rates. She interviewed students and faculty about their opinions as to the causes of attrition. Perhaps not surprisingly, faculty tended to blame students, and students tended to blame faculty or the departments.

The top reasons faculty members cited were that students were lacking (53 percent), the student shouldn’t have enrolled in the first place (21 percent) or the student had personal problems (15 percent). The list prompted a few chuckles in the audience and comments after the presentation about how these same faculty members convinced that students were at fault had admitted these students to their programs. Notably, Gardner said that the attitudes were largely consistent with the graduate program had a high completion rate or a low one. Graduate students interviewed cited personal problems as the top reason some leave (34 percent), departmental issues (30 percent) and issues of fit (21 percent).

Most distressingly for female students, faculty tended to view pregnancy as a “personal problem.”

Professors also tended to classify pregnancy as a personal problem and one that would invariably lead students to drop out. One faculty member, asked about departmental attrition, said: “I think the others we lost were female. They got pregnant.”

The second study, by Valerie Lundy-Wagner, Julie Vultaggio and Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania looked at which undergraduate programs produced the most minority students who later went on to receive doctorates. (They used data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, an incredible set of data that I’ve used for ESN-related research.) They found that, in most cases, historically black colleges and universities, and universities with large Latino population, sent the most minority students on to doctoral programs. But,

Gasman said that the predominantly white institutions that do well in these rankings “tended to have programs or practices that were similar to what happens at historically black colleges and some Hispanic-serving institutions — close relationships of faculty and students, exposure to research, programs where you could have lunch with faculty, exposure to the faculty way of life.”

In other words: mentoring, mentoring, mentoring.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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