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Abstract

Doctoral students typically represent a highly educated group of students that have demonstrated the academic aptitude to successfully complete multiple degrees. Yet, research has continually shown that 40%–60% of doctoral students do not persist to graduate (Allum & Okahana, 2015; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992). The purpose of this study was to explore the possible influence of individual doctoral student characteristics as well as doctoral program characteristics on doctoral degree completion. Tinto’s (1993) theory of doctoral attrition was applied to explore specific variables that may assist or detract a doctoral student with their degree completion. Results suggested age, full‐time employment, employment change after comprehensive exams, enrollment status, satisfaction with dissertation chair, and satisfaction with academic involvement all impacted doctoral completion. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.
Copyright © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company
1 University of Louisville
Corresponding Author: Mathew Bergman, University of Louisville, College of Education & Human Development , 1905 S 1ST ST, Louis-
ville, KY 40292
Author Email: matt.bergman@louisville.edu
Author note:
This work is based on the doctoral dissertation of the first author. Versions of this paper have been presented at regional conferences through-
out the United States.
New Horizons in Adult Education
& Human Resource Development
30(3), xx-xx
The Impact of Student
Attributes and Program
Characteristics on Doctoral
Degree Completion
Glenn Gittings1
Mathew Bergman1
Kevin Rose1
Brad Shuck1
Abstract
Doctoral students typically represent a highly educated group of students that have demonstrated the academ-
ic aptitude to successfully complete multiple degrees. Yet, research has continually shown that 40%-60% of
doctoral students do not persist to graduate (Allum & Okahana, 2015; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992). The pur-
pose of this study was to explore the possible influence of individual doctoral student characteristics as well
as doctoral program characteristics on doctoral degree completion. Tintos (1993) theory of doctoral attrition
was applied to explore specific variables that may assist or detract a doctoral student with their degree com-
pletion. Results suggested age, full-time employment, employment change after comprehensive exams, en-
rollment status, satisfaction with dissertation chair, and satisfaction with academic involvement all impacted
doctoral completion. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.
Keywords: Doctoral students, adult learners, persistence, educational attainment, doctoral degree comple-
tion
Doctoral students are people who have generally succeeded at school. For some, choosing to leave
graduate school can feel like the ultimate defeat by a system in which a student has always been
successful(Golde, 1994, p. 23).
A common misconception perpetuated by institutions is that doctoral students have mastered the practice of
navigating educational waters. By receiving a bachelors degree, and in most cases a masters degree, we
might assume doctoral students would not need and do not want guidance or assistance throughout their
2 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
doctoral program. They have made it to the top and can traverse the doctoral experience independently. Unfor-
tunately, the long-term doctoral attrition rate nationwide has historically hovered at just above 50% (Allum &
Okahana, 2015; Ampaw & Jaeger, 2011; Council of Graduate Schools, 2008). Despite the overwhelming need
to justify completion rates (Lipschutz, 1993) and issues of knowledge development and national competitive
advantage (Begin & Gerard, 2013; National Science Foundation, 1997), institutions of higher education typi-
cally focus resources toward undergraduate students and expend less effort engaging graduate and professional
students (Pontius & Harper 2006). Consequently, the structural components surrounding doctoral completion
could include a host of programmatic, institutional, departmental, and individual-level variables. Each of these
factors alone can be a contributing piece of the completion equation, likely leading toward some combination
of completion factors that are unique to each student, program, and institution (Tinto, 2012). Some key defini-
tions help clarify the context of the doctoral student puzzle. For example, attrition has been defined as the vol-
untary or involuntary discontinuance of a students participation in the degree program prior to degree comple-
tion (Malmberg, 2000, p. 14), while persistence is defined as a student continuing progress toward doctoral
degree completion (Malmberg, 2000). Within the context of both attrition and persistence, doctoral student de-
gree completion is defined as successful completion of all coursework, comprehensive examinations, and grad-
uation from the doctoral program (Felder, 2010).
Adult students face a multitude of attrition risk factors due to completion deterrents including family responsi-
bilities, age, part-time enrollment status, distance from campus, lack of socialization opportunities with facul-
ty, and employment demands (Bergman, Gross, Berry, & Shuck 2014). As Meriwether (2015) explained, just
as African American, Latino, LGBT or other student populations cannot simply be treated as a homogenous demo-
graphic group, adult learners require similar strategic focus and attention(p. 18). Doctoral education remains an
evolving research setting that must be explored not only within the context of those individual and institutional
characteristics that contribute to attrition but also those programmatic interventions shown to positively influ-
ence doctoral student completion rates. In positioning our work, we drew inspiration from de Valero (2001)
who stated:
Given the high costs associated with graduate education, the current national climate of diminishing
resources for higher education, and an increased competition for these resources between undergradu-
ate and graduate programs, understanding and examining the factors that affect the studentsability to
complete their degree requirements in a timely manner and considering the implications of these fac-
tors becomes crucial. (p. 341)
Drawing from this context, the purpose of our work was to identify individual doctoral student characteristics
and doctoral program institutional variables that influence doctoral student degree completion. Because of the
unique impact that doctoral programs have on research, education, leadership, policy, and professional prac-
tice, attention to this area of higher education is critical and warranted (Felder, 2010; Blair & Hayworth, 1999).
The current study attempted to build upon and add to the research literature by determining individual and doc-
toral program characteristics that may contribute to or impede doctoral student degree completion. Graduate
students experience the acquisition of an entirely new culture when entering graduate education. Graduate stu-
dents can experience, positively or negatively, a socialization process that introduces them to both the academ-
ic department and their future career (Begin & Gerard, 2013; Tinto, 1993). We were interested to know wheth-
er doctoral student demographic variables and program characteristics would have any influence on doctoral
student degree completion. Our work unfolds in the following main sections: (a) overview of relevant litera-
ture, (b) methods, (c) results, (d) discussion, and finally (e) limitations and recommendations for future re-
search.
Overview of Relevant Literature
There are many factors that could contribute to a students retention or attrition in an educational degree pro-
gram (Bergman, et al., 2014). According to Lampley (2001), factors such as decreased funding, slow enroll-
ment growth, rising cost, increased competition, an increasing need for accountability, and a stronger sense of
student consumerism, may force institutions of higher education to take a closer look at how they operate(p.
13). The National Science Foundation (1998, p. 1) stated, The doctoral student is a precious resource in
providing the new discoveries and expert knowledge essential to the nations future.Lipschutz (1993) sug-
gested as faculty and graduate deans seek financial resources from government, foundations, and private
sources, they also needed to justify their completion rates. Gillingham, Seneca, and Taussig (1991) explained
3 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
that due to the years committed to completion of the doctoral degree and the sacrifice, measured by potential
contributions to both doctoral students and society, is costly. Moreover, attrition from a doctoral program is
costly for faculty advisers and the institution (Kluever, Green, and Katz, 1997). Given the essential impact
doctoral study has on research, education, leadership, policy, and professional practice, consistently high drop-
out rates remain problematic (Bair & Haworth, 1999).
Tinto (1975), addressed a need to further develop the literature on student persistence and withdrawal behavior
at the undergraduate level that, since then, has received considerable research attention (Pascarella, 1986).
Tintos undergraduate model sought to explain that various characteristics influence undergraduate student
persistence. These concepts included background characteristics, initial commitments to the goal of college
graduation, social and academic integration of student within the college, and subsequent commitments to the
goal of college graduation. The model that Tinto developed, substantially contributed to the theoretical under-
standing of undergraduate student persistence and withdrawal behavior (Pascarella, 1986).
After decades of continued and substantial contribution to the topic of undergraduate persistence, Tinto offered
the beginnings of a theory on doctoral student attrition in 1993 and again in 2012 with his influential books on
student attrition. Tinto (2012 & 1993) suggested that, graduate persistence is shaped by the personal and intel-
lectual interactions that occur between students and faculty and various communities that make up the academ-
ic and social systems of the institution. Tinto (1993) explained doctoral persistence as:
reflecting an interactive series of nested and intersecting communities not only within the university,
but beyond it to the broader intellectual and social communities of students and faculty that define the
norms of the field of study at a national level. The process of doctoral persistence seems to be marked
by at least three distinct stages, namely that of transition and adjustment, that of attaining candidacy or
what might be referred to as the development of competence, and that of completing the research pro-
ject leading to the awarding of the doctoral degree. (pp. 234-235).
Tinto (2012 & 1993) further attempted to develop a longitudinal model of graduate persistence (See Figure 1),
but quickly cautioned that the process of graduate persistence cannot be easily described by one simple model.
Tinto postulated that factors of importance to attrition included: student attributes, entry goals and orientation,
institutional and program experiences, academic and social integration into a program, and research experienc-
es (Kluever, Green, & Katz, 1997). He also defined several components of the model, including (a) student
attributes (gender, age, race, ability, individual educational experiences, and social class); (b) external commit-
ments (work and family responsibilities); (c) individual goals (educational and career); (d) commitments (goal
and institutional); (e) financial resources (type and amount of financial aid); and (f) participation in graduate
school (full- or part-time attendance and on- or off-campus residence). The model and theory of doctoral per-
sistence posited by Tinto, is in no way offered as a rigid formula that serves as the only method in which to
study doctoral student retention/attrition. Tintos work on doctoral persistence, rather, offers the opportunity to
guide research with tools that help provide a frame of reference and allow for evaluation. Therefore, based on
this theoretical framework, we sought to address the variables that may serve to assist or detract a doctoral stu-
dent with degree completion. A visual representation of Tintos theoretical framework is provided below:
4 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
This information could be significant to institutions of higher education, specific academic departments within
the institutions, graduate faculty, doctoral degree program designers, and doctoral students. If specific individ-
ual characteristics or departmental programmatic interventions/coursework contribute to, or detract from doc-
toral student degree completion, the previously mentioned groups would benefit from the knowledge in order
to implement structure or behaviors that would contribute to doctoral student degree completion. Doctoral de-
gree completion will likely never get to 100%, but characteristics, structures, and programming that contribute
to higher degree attainment could assist in raising the overall percentage of doctoral degree completion.
While the decision to persist ultimately may rest on a combination of multiple factors unique to each individu-
al student, we chose to focus on graduate student socialization and support as well as student orientation. This
aligns closely with Tintos (1993) model of student retention within the Integration construct and provides a
structural framework with which to investigate doctoral student retention further.
Socialization, Student Support, and Orientation
Students are shaped by the various types of interactions between various individuals at multiple social layers
within the institution (Tinto, 2012, 1993). As students interact with each of these individuals and navigate the
educational institution, information about norms, values, and culture are transmitted. While this process is of-
ten informal, it can also be formalized by a variety of mechanisms. Tierney and Rhoads (1993) conceptualized
the formal process of culture transmission as socialization. Graduate student socialization is fostered through
interactions with faculty, interactions with peers, and opportunities for observation and participation in the ac-
tivities of the profession (Austin, 2002; Begin & Gerard, 2013; Brown-Wright et al., 1997; Corcoran & Clark,
1984; Poock, 2001). For example, graduate students typically have a formal relationship with a faculty advisor
or mentor to help guide the student through the curriculum and the dissertation process. An advisor/student
5 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
relationship characterized by frequent and consistent contact (Begin & Gerard, 2013; Berg & Ferber, 1983)
can have a strong influence on whether or not the student persists through the coursework, comprehensive ex-
ams, and the dissertation writing and defense process (Bair & Haworth, 1999; Malmbeg, 2000; Seagram, et al.,
1998). Because the dissertation writing process is a solitary and somewhat less structured process than other
aspects of the doctoral degree, a relationship with a faculty advisor is critical to student completion during this
stage (Campbell, 1992). Moreover, some institutions may also foster peer socialization through the implemen-
tation of doctoral cohorts, which in turn lead to supportive student networks (Dorn & Papalewis, 1997). The
social cohesion created in these cohort models of education positively influences degree completion (Maher,
Fallucca, & Halasz, 2013; Dorn & Papalewis, 1997) by providing peer networks that engender mutual ac-
countability, support, and even stress reduction (Goplerud, 1980). Further, graduate assistantships and teaching
assistantships contribute to departmental and career socialization for students, and evidence supports that assis-
tantships also increase doctoral student degree completion and career opportunities (Corcoran & Clark, 1984;
Lovitts, 2004).
But graduate assistantships may indeed serve another important purpose beyond socialization. In many colleg-
es and universities, graduate assistantship positions may come with benefits like tuition waivers, stipends,
health insurance, and other benefits. This, and other kinds of formal and informal infrastructure, we broadly
refer to as student support (Bair & Haworth, 1999; Bauer, 2004). Though many kinds of support exist, per-
haps the three most salient are financial support, departmental support, and personal support (Maher, Fallucca,
& Halasz, 2013; Bauer, 2004). As mentioned, financial support can come in the form of assistantships or even
scholarships to attend school. When this kind of support is present, students have to worry less about meeting
basic needs and can concentrate more on successful completion of their academic program (King & Chepyator
-Thompson, 1996; Pauley, 1998). Additionally, the department in which the student studies also provides sup-
port in various ways. Departments distribute important information relevant to academic and professional suc-
cess, they may host learning opportunities outside of the classroom, and they scaffold the graduate students
experience through processes and procedures (e.g. comprehensive exams) designed to support student degree
attainment (Begin & Gerard, 2013; Bauer, 2004; Pauley, 1998). Courses, seminars, support groups, and de-
partmental resources can provide doctoral students with much needed structure, experience, and guidance in
eliminating the sometimes-confusing process of completing the doctoral degree. Further, beyond the academic
experience, successful students often have personal supportive networks including support from faculty, peers,
friends, and family (Maher, Fallucca, & Halasz, 2013). These relationships may sometimes serve as both so-
cialization and support mechanism (e.g. faculty and peers), but supportive networks function more to encour-
age students, relieve burdens, hold students accountable, and offer inspiration (Bergman et al., 2014; Bauer,
2004; Pauley, 1998; Seagram et al., 1998). These supportive relationships lead to higher persistence rates for
doctoral students (Emerson, 1998; King & Chepyator-Thompson, 1996; Leadabrand, 1985; Malmberg, 2000).
Tinto (2012) postulated that one of the stages of persistence included a time of initial transition and adjust-
ment. Orientation programs often serve to address perception, transition, and role acquisition that graduate stu-
dents experience by introducing new doctoral students to programs, structures, and policies that aid in the tran-
sition process. Additionally, time to meet faculty and other students when transitioning were found to be posi-
tive aspects of orientation programs (Poock, 2002; Rosenblatt & Christensen, 1993; Taub & Komives, 1998).
This is an important component of socializing doctoral students to their new roles. According to Coulter et al.
(2004), graduate studentsperceived orientations were needed for the improvement of the graduate experience.
Orientation programs generally produced a positive effect on issues of graduate student adjustment and assimi-
lation to a new role and institution (Barker et al., 1997).
Method
To examine the influence of individual doctoral student characteristics and doctoral program institutional vari-
ables on doctoral student degree completion, the researchers developed a survey based on Tintos Doctoral
Studies Questionnaire survey and a nationally vetted instrument called the Survey of Earned Doctorates. The
Doctoral Studies Questionnaire was field-tested at Syracuse University and has been used by previous re-
searchers to study, for example, the relationship between variables that influence attrition in a doctoral pro-
gram (Lee, 2003). Similarly, the Survey of Earned Doctorates has been used in prior research (e.g. Abedi &
Benkin, 1987). Therefore, this instrument adapted from Tinto (1995) by Lee (2003) as well as the Survey of
Earned Doctorates, served as the basis for adaptation to our research.
6 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
The following directional hypotheses were tested:
H1: Students who are employed full-time will be less likely to complete the doctoral degree.
H2: Students who experience an employment status change after comprehensive exams will be less likely to
complete the doctoral degree.
H3: Students who are enrolled part-time will be less likely to complete the doctoral degree.
H4: Students who are satisfied with the departmental assistance available will be more likely to complete the
doctoral degree.
H5: Students who are satisfied with the opportunity for social involvement during their doctoral degree will be
more likely to complete the doctoral degree.
H6: Students who are satisfied with the clarity and understanding of academic procedures/requirements within
their program will be more likely to complete the doctoral degree.
H7: Students who are satisfied with the dissertation chair contact will be more likely to complete the doctoral
degree.
H8: Students who are satisfied with the opportunities for academic involvement within their program will be
more likely to complete the doctoral degree.
Participants were recruited from a pool of students enrolled in a doctoral program between the years of 1997
and 2003 at two research-intensive universities in the US Midwest. Due to differences in structure and degree
completion requirements, students pursuing professional degrees (e.g. medicine, law, dentistry, pharmacy)
were not included in this study.
The researchers utilized a two-stage mailing process that included an initial postcard and a reminder postcard
mailed three weeks later. Postcards briefly explained the purpose of the study, requested participation, and pro-
vided the web address to access the survey. Of the total 3,158 former students who were sent a postcard, 275
completed the online survey, representing an 8.7% response rate. Multiple attempts of various methods were
made to help boost the response rate, but unfortunately further improvement in the participation was unable to
be reached. Additionally, it should be noted that we calculated response rate based on the total number of stu-
dents contacted. However, it is very likely that incorrect addresses were used in the mailing process. Because
of how this information was sent, incorrect addresses were not reported back to us and could not be excluded
as part of our analysis. Thus, it is entirely probable that our response rate includes individuals who never truly
received notification of this survey.
Survey Instrument
The survey contained four sections: (1) demographics, (2) doctoral educational information, (3) doctoral stu-
7 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
dent experiences, and (4) support received. Section 1 consisted of questions related to an individuals back-
ground and demographic information. Section 2 covered questions centered on educational experiences and
characteristics and included a subset of questions for those students that discontinued their doctoral education.
Section 3 covered questions concentrated on doctoral student experiences while pursuing their doctoral degree
and included subsets of questions on the following topics: (a) satisfaction, (b) social involvement, (c) clarity
and understanding of degree requirements, (d) interaction with dissertation chair, and (e) satisfaction with aca-
demic involvement opportunities. Section 4 consisted of questions related to various forms of support received
during the pursuit of their doctoral degree.
Although each instrument has been tested separately, processes to establish validity and reliability were con-
ducted prior to formal collection of data for this study due to the use of an amended study and combination of
instruments. A pilot study was conducted to test the validity of the revised instrument. The scaled question
related to clarity and understanding of academic requirements produced a lower Cronbachs alpha of α = .227.
All of the remaining scaled questions produced Cronbachs alpha results ranging from α = .656 to α = .894.
The results were judged high enough to demonstrate consistency of the scaled items in the instrument.
In order to assess the extent to which variables accurately measured the constructs of interest, the survey items
in this research were analyzed using an exploratory factor analysis based on a pilot study performed by the re-
searchers. Additionally, a panel of tenured research methodologists at the authors home institution reviewed
the survey instrument to determine if the survey items were content valid.
Sample
The final sample size consisted of 275 individuals who had attended doctoral programs at two research univer-
sities in the Midwest. Table 1 includes the demographic profile of the sample, including gender, ethnicity, em-
ployment status, and enrollment status.
8 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
Table 1 continued
The average age of reporting respondents was 43.41, suggesting that most respondents were adult students.
Most respondents identified as White (n = 236; 85.8%) and a majority of respondents were female (n = 158;
57.5%). We also sought to gather data on participantscurrent employment status after their experience with
doctoral studies. Employment status was identified by full-time, part-time, not working, and pursuing other
education. The majority of respondents worked full-time while pursuing their doctoral studies (73.6%) while
far fewer students worked only part-time (16.5%). Only 8.8% (n = 23) of respondents reported not working at
all and 4.6% (n = 12) reported that they were pursuing other education. Enrollment status was defined as either
full time (nine or more hours of concurrent enrollment) or part time (less than nine hours of concurrent enroll-
ment) and we asked respondents to indicate whether they were completing their doctoral program either most-
ly or all full or part-time. The majority of respondents indicated enrollment at the all full-time equivalent of 9
hours or more per semester (31.7%). Closely behind, 30.6% of respondents indicated enrollment at the mostly
part-time equivalent of below 9 hours. When the categories of mostly part-time and all part-time were com-
bined, they accounted for the majority of total respondents (51.5%), indicating an overall enrollment profile of
a part-time student.
Analysis
The independent variables in this study were grouped in two key categories, and within each category, the var-
iables are further defined as more specific measurable attributes.
Individual doctoral student characteristic variables:
1. Age - Ratio scale based on self-reported date of birth by year.
2. Ethnicity - Dummy coded nominal variables of various ethnicities.
3. Gender - Nominal level variables indicating gender with ordering implied.
4. Financial Support - Nominal variables individually selected as they apply to each participant.
5. Employment - Dummy coded nominal variables of levels of employment.
6. Marital Status - Dummy coded nominal variables of status levels.
7. Dependents - Ratio scale based on self-report indicating the number of dependents.
8. Distance From Campus - Ratio scale based on self-report of miles from campus.
9. Debt Load - Interval item scale with 9-point Likert response of debt levels in dollar amounts.
10. Employment Status Change After Comprehensive Exams - Dummy coded nominal variables indicating
status change.
11. Enrollment Status - Interval item scale with 4-point Likert response of enrollment levels.
9 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
Doctoral Program Characteristic variables:
1. Orientation - Dummy coded nominal variables indicating attendance.
2. Departmental Assistance - Interval six item scale with 5-point Likert response measuring satisfaction of
elements within the department.
3. Social Involvement - Interval seven item scale with 5-point Likert response measuring elements of op-
portunity for social involvement during pursuit of the doctoral degree.
4. Dissertation Preparation Courses - Dummy coded nominal variable indicating completion of this type
of coursework.
5. Dissertation Preparation Seminars - Dummy coded nominal variable indicating participation in this
type of seminar.
6. Clarity and Understanding of Academic Program Procedures/Requirements - Interval five item scale
with 5-point Likert response measuring satisfaction of elements and offerings within the academic program.
7. Dissertation Chair Contact - Interval six item scale with 5-point Likert response measuring satisfaction
of various aspects with the dissertation chair.
8. Academic Involvement - Interval four item scale with 5-point Likert-type response measuring satisfac-
tion with opportunities for academic involvement within the doctoral program.
9. Support Groups - Dummy coded nominal variable indicating participation in this type of support
group.
10. Mentor - Dummy coded nominal variable indicating utilization of a mentor.
Logistic regression was used to determine the effect size and variance explained by the model predictor varia-
bles on the degree completion of doctoral students (Leech, Barrett, & Morgan, 2005). Ishitani (2006) defined
degree completion outcomes as having dichotomous values (e.g., whether or not students maintained continu-
ous enrollment to graduation) at discrete points in time. For the purpose of this study, doctoral student degree
completion was defined as graduation from a doctoral degree program that would include completion of all
coursework, passing doctoral comprehensive exams, and fulfillment of the dissertation requirement of the aca-
demic department. This variable categorized a subject in one of two groups (no doctoral degree completion,
doctoral degree completion) and therefore was a dichotomous variable. According to Vogt, Regression analy-
sis seeks to explain or predict the variability of a dependent variable using information about one or more inde-
pendent variables(p. 269). Due to the nature of the dependent variable being dichotomous, the researcher uti-
lized logistic regression for statistical analysis. Logistic regression is commonly used to predict the occurrence
of an event, in this case doctoral degree completion. As such, logistic regression was specifically chosen be-
cause of the dichotomous nature of the dependent outcome variable.
A series of logistic regression equations were initiated to develop the most parsimonious model. The first
equation included independent variables centered on individual doctoral student characteristics. The second
equation included independent variables centered on doctoral program characteristics. After completing the
two initial regression equations, the researchers removed variables that did not demonstrate significance (p
< .05). A final model was presented containing all variables indicating significance.
Results
Contrary to our initial assertions, the regression revealed that if a respondent was employed full-time while
pursuing a doctoral degree, they were significantly more likely to complete a doctoral degree (Exp(β) = 4.392,
β = 1.480, p <.05). If, however, a respondent changed employment status after comprehensive exams, they
were less likely to complete the doctoral program (Exp(β) = .218, β = -1.524, p <.05). Thus, H1 was not sup-
ported, but H2 was. Enrollment status (Exp(β) = 1.694, β = .527, p <.05) positively influenced the odds of
completing the doctoral degree, thus H3 was supportednot supported. Although not included in our original
hypotheses, we also found that an increase in respondent age (Exp(β) = 1.043, β = .042, p <.05) positively in-
fluenced the odds of completing the doctoral degree
10 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
The regression results for the variables of departmental assistance (H4), social involvement (H5), and clarity
and understanding of academic procedures/requirements (H6) were nonsignificant, therefore our hypotheses
were not supported. Respondent satisfaction with the dissertation chair was found to be a predictor of program
completion (Exp(β) = 3.012, β = 1.103, p <.05), thus supporting H7. Lastly, increased satisfaction with aca-
demic involvement predicted a decreased chance of graduating (Exp(β) = .506, β = -.682, p <.05). Therefore,
H8 was not supported.
Table 2 displays the summary of model variables from the first logistic regression (i.e., student personal char-
acteristics). Within the model, three variables indicated significance: (a) age (Exp(β) = 1.052, β = .051, p
<.05), (b) job change after comps (Exp(β) = .221, β = -1.508, p <.05), and (c) enrollment status (Exp(β) =
1.990, β = .688, p <.05).
Table 2
Table 3 displays the summary of model variables from the second logistic regression regarding doctoral pro-
gram characteristics. Within the model, two variables were significant (p < .05): (a) satisfaction with disserta-
tion chair (Exp(β) = 2.750, β = 1.102, p <.05) and (b) satisfaction with academic involvement (Exp(β) = .558, β
= -.584, p <.05).
11 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
The research team conducted a final logistic regression combining those variables indicating significance from
the two previous models. To be as comprehensive as possible, in addition to the five variables identified in
each of the previous models, variables that indicated bivariate significance where also included in the final
model.
Table 4 displays a summary of the final logistic model. Results suggested that as a doctoral student increased
in age (Exp(β) = 1.043, β = .042, p <.05) and was employed full-time (Exp(β) = 4.392, β = 1.480, p <.05), the
likelihood of completing the doctoral degree increased. The model also revealed a suppressed relationship be-
tween changed job status after comprehensive exams and persistence (Exp(β) = .218, β = -1.524, p <.05). Ad-
ditionally, a minor finding concerning enrollment status was the indicated significance between enrollment
status and doctoral degree completion (Exp(β) = 1.694, β = .527, p <.05). Results suggested that the higher the
respondent was satisfied with their dissertation chair, the likelihood of completing the doctoral degree substan-
tially increased (Exp(β) = 3.012, β = 1.103, p <.05). Finally, By controlling for other variables, the regression
revealed a suppressed relationship between the respondentsincreased satisfaction with academic involvement
and a decreased odds of doctoral degree completion (Exp(β) = -.682, β = .527, p <.05).
12 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
Discussion
The findings of the current research could provide important opportunities for doctoral programs to adjust the
structure and the culture experienced by doctoral students. Policies within departments are designed to provide
certain experiences, opportunity, and learning desired by the department (Begin & Gerard, 2013; Malmbeg,
2000). The actual practice of carrying out the departmental policies affects the individual and group experienc-
es that both students and faculty encounter throughout a doctoral program.
The two strongest findings revolve around employment status change after comprehensive exams and satisfac-
tion with academic involvement. Our analysis indicated that if a doctoral student changes employment status
after their comprehensive exams, they are less likely to persist to graduation. Doctoral student completion may
increase if program advisers and dissertation chairs consider cautioning against, if at all possible, an employ-
ment status change after completing comprehensive exams. Many individuals within a doctoral program en-
dure the needed commitment of the degree plan in order to eventually create future career opportunities. Once
students complete the comprehensive exams and enter into candidacy, the road to completion becomes a large-
ly unstructured path of independent research. It is at this point, where a student needs further goal commitment
and focus on the research requirement. Opportunities for promotion and new career roles can also become
available due to the achievement of ABD status. It is at this point where the practice and guidance of faculty,
staff, and mentors can serve to remind the student that beginning a new career opportunity can severely siphon
away time, focus, and commitment to completing the degree. This would seem to be consistent with Tintos
(1993) model in that any new professional role will require a stronger investment of time and energy to adjust
and perform to the desired level. The requisite decrease in time and attention dedicated to the dissertation pro-
13 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
cess seems to have a negative impact on studentsultimate success. The results of this study can be used by
programs to demonstrate this negative effect on degree completion and caution against changing employment
status after completing the comprehensive exams.
Surprisingly, respondents who indicated increased satisfaction with academic involvement showed a decreased
chance of graduating. The indication that doctoral student completion may decrease if respondents indicated
higher satisfaction with academic involvement is a peculiar finding. We might consider that the students focus
and attention on the dissertation may be getting distracted due to other research interests within the depart-
ment. It also may explain that over involvement, over commitment of non-required activities and research can
sideline completion. Those students that take on too many volunteer research projects, attend a myriad of con-
ferences, and simply take on too many things not connected to completing the coursework and dissertation, are
inviting opportunities and excuses to reduce their focus on completing the doctoral degree. Tintos theory on
doctoral attrition seems to focus on the building of communities both socially and academically. The faculty,
staff, and mentor community the student builds could serve as a cautionary force in the area and help reign in
the students extracurricular activities to a manageable amount.
Implications and Recommendations
Doctoral programs should consider the implications of higher degree completion among older students and
part-time enrollment status when considering composition of incoming cohorts of doctoral students and the
structure of the coursework offered and the pattern of doctoral student enrollment status. When creating the
course scheduling and offerings, doctoral programs could focus on course times and structures that would bet-
ter appeal to older, part-time enrolled students. Although most programs have several evening coursework op-
tions, the structuring of a single day that offers two courses in one evening may better appeal to students. Start-
ing the first course in the late afternoon, followed by a small dinner break and then offering the second course
in that same evening allows students to devote only one night a week to class, yet attend two courses. This
block scheduling could be an attractive alternative in course scheduling. Weekend coursework and distance
education coursework can also allow for varied opportunities for students to attend either only on select week-
ends throughout a semester or at the convenience of their home through the use of an online format. Simply
working to offer these varied methods of scheduling may serve to remove impediments to efficiently complet-
ing the coursework component of the doctoral degree.
With age demonstrating a strong relationship with degree completion, it would benefit doctoral programs to
integrate admissions practices and services that accommodate older students. The composition of the doctoral
students included an average age of just over 43. The composition also included a high majority of students
employed full-time and a majority of students enrolled part-time. Therefore, it is obvious that the need is not only to
plan for future students of an older age, but the current student population already represents a higher range of
ages and would be well served by policies and services designed for their needs. A needs assessment of the
current population could serve as a direct opportunity to understand what this population may desire to best
succeed. Once these needs are understood, a program could then better serve the current students and the fu-
ture incoming students that will most likely be represented by an older, full-time employed, and part-time en-
rolled composition.
Doctoral programs and incoming doctoral students should consider the implications of higher degree comple-
tion among students satisfied with their dissertation chair. Careful planning and consideration of selecting a
dissertation chair in the early stages of a doctoral program could be facilitated by the program itself and could
be designed to fit into the structure and the culture of the doctoral program. The better a student is informed of
the interests and research of faculty, the better a student can select a chair that aligns to their research interest
and therefore have a stronger opportunity for higher dissertation chair satisfaction. This is consistent with the
research of Brown-Wright et al. (1997) who emphasized the important role of chair in the student mentoring
process.
The correlation results of positive influence of degree completion when students complete either dissertation
coursework or attend dissertation seminars could be important policy opportunities for doctoral programs. The
dissertation is an exercise of independent research by a student who more than likely is an inexperienced re-
searcher at best. Once the student is admitted to candidacy and begins the research component of the degree, a
high majority of the structure, previously provided through the coursework phase, disappears. Doctoral pro-
grams could provide coursework that is focused on practicing the methods of dissertation writing. The more a
14 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
student is exposed to structures, examples, and opportunities to begin guided work on the dissertation, the
more prepared the student will be to complete the daunting task of overcoming the ABD status and completing
the doctoral degree. This process of acculturation and assimilation into the technical process of dissertation
completion might provide students with the extra support they need to finish their program (Begin & Gerard,
2013). Seminars or programs offered through the department on dissertation writing could also serve as both
motivation and a tool to better equip a student with the ability to complete the doctoral degree.
Our findings regarding employment status would seem to go against a common perception that the more a stu-
dent works, the less time that student has to complete a doctoral degree and therefore leading to a higher attri-
tion rate. Table 4 indicates the high majority of respondents worked full-time while pursuing their doctoral
studies (73.6%). While the results must be considered with caution since only a minority of the respondents
were employed part-time, this may indicate a profile of a student that demonstrates a strong motivation, organ-
ization, and structure to complete a doctoral degree while remaining employed full-time.
Doctoral student completion may increase if program advisers and dissertation chairs consider cautioning
against, if at all possible, an employment status change after completing comprehensive exams. Many individ-
uals within a doctoral program endure the needed commitment of the degree plan in order to eventually create
future career opportunities. Once students complete the comprehensive exams and enter into candidacy, the
road to completion becomes an unstructured path of independent research. It is at this point, where a student
needs further goal commitment and focus on the research requirement. Opportunities for promotion and new
career roles can also become available due to the achievement of ABD status. Again, consistent with Tintos
(1993) work, it is at this point where the practice and guidance of faculty, staff, and mentors can serve to re-
mind the student that beginning a new career opportunity can severely siphon away time, focus, and commit-
ment to completing the degree. Any new professional role will require a stronger investment in time and ener-
gy to adjust and perform to the desired level. The results of this study can be used by programs to demonstrate
this negative effect on degree completion and caution against changing employment status after completing the
comprehensive exams.
The finding that doctoral student completion may decrease if respondents indicated higher satisfaction with
academic involvement is peculiar. This may be interpreted that possibly the students focus and attention on
the dissertation may be getting distracted due to other research interests within the department. It also may ex-
plain that over involvement, over commitment of non-required activities and research can sideline completion.
Those students that take on too many volunteer research projects, attend a myriad of conferences, and simply
take on too many things not connected to completing the coursework and dissertation, are inviting opportuni-
ties and excuses to reduce their focus on completing the doctoral degree. Tintos theory on doctoral attrition
seems to focus on the building of communities both socially and academically. The faculty, staff, and mentor
community the student builds could serve as a cautionary force in the area and help reign the students extra-
curricular activities in to a manageable amount.
Doctoral student completion may increase if program advisers and dissertation chairs consider recommending
a part-time enrollment status. Yet conversely, doctoral programs should not shy away from those students em-
ployed full-time that desire to pursue a terminal degree. Tinto (1993) explained, Individuals whose education-
al and career goals are such as to require the completion of a doctorate are more likely to finish than other per-
sons whose goals are not so linked(p. 239). This result of full-time employment status indicating higher de-
gree completion is an implication that should be considered by doctoral students contemplating the start of a
doctoral degree and doctoral programs when considering composition incoming cohorts of doctoral students
and the structure of the coursework offered to accommodate doctoral student employment status.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
As with all research, the present research has limitations that should be explored. First, limiting the sample to
only a specified six-year time period may not be representative of the broader doctoral student population. In a
similar regard, selecting two research institutions in the Midwest may not allow for wide generalization to oth-
er institutions across the United States, particularly institutions with differing missions (e.g. primarily teaching
institutions) or institutions with targeted student populations (e.g. HBCUs). The study also eliminated students
pursuing a professional degree in the areas of Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry. Thus, it is possible
that elimination of these degrees and the constraining factors imposed on the design could have affected the
outcome of the study. While the results do not inform the larger literature base on doctoral education, the study
15 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
does provide insight to those factors that influence doctoral student persistence toward graduation in general,
and presents fruitful opportunities for future research. For example, future research might consider the role of
doctoral students at HBCUs or primarily Hispanic Serving Institutions (HIS) and compare and contracts find-
ings with the outcomes from this study. More, it might be interesting to study professional degree attainment,
alongside the PhD, or look more closely Carnegie classification as a factor in degree attainment.
Second, the survey used for this study was administered online, and while the online environment provides for
greater access to a population at a lower cost, it reduces the ability of the researchers to control the conditions
in which the survey is administered, holistically speaking. Because of this, it is possible that some students self
selected out because they did not have working knowledge of how to use a computer, or how to use the Inter-
net (although, we suspect this population might be small considering students were enrolled in earning a termi-
nal degree). It is perhaps more likely that of those who received the postcard in the mail, some did not have
access to the Internet or access to the Internet was inconvenient for them (e.g. requiring a necessary trip to a
public library). Notwithstanding, it is possible that this unintentionally affected who could take the survey and
thus, systematically excluded a portion of the population who could not obtain access to complete online sur-
veys. Despite the low probability, the chance remains that administrating the survey online could have biased
the results.
Finally, the response rate of the survey population was 8.7%, therefore interpretation of the results must be
done with caution. We recognize that this very low response rate presents a problem in interpreting the results
of our study. While we do not wish to diminish the importance of this consideration, we offer several ideas as
to why this might have occurred. Baruch and Holtom (2008) found that response rates are decreasing over
time and can be particularly problematic with populations that are difficult to reach. They suggested that in
cases where response rates are very low, as in our study, some explanation and further detail be given to help
the reader interpret the results judiciously. In that vein, we offer the following thoughts. We hypothesize that
the low response rate might have been due to the way in which the survey was administered. Because post-
cards were sent to the sample, it is possible that incorrect addresses were obtained. It is also likely that the na-
ture of completing the survey was not convenient enough. In a typical online survey format, participants simp-
ly click on a link and are taken to the survey. In our procedure, participants were required to input the web ad-
dress from the postcard into their browser and then complete the survey. Lack of time, incorrect transcription,
and other factors may have contributed to the low response rate. We also see this population as being particu-
larly difficult to reach. Again, we emphasize that university records that are a decade old may not be as fruit-
ful as more up to date records. Additionally, students who never completed their degrees may not have a sense
of goodwill toward the institution and may not be as cooperative in completing surveys. Future research
should work to increase the response rate and might do so by working with more recent student populations, or
local student populations that would allow for the research team to send the survey request using University
affiliated email, and therefore increase the response rate. This could be done with unique collaborations with
offices of Institutional Research, Student Affairs, and/or school of Graduate Education.
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Appendices
20 New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 30(3)
... Another source of disparity in doctoral education is the previously mentioned high rate of attrition-an occurrence that is multidimensional and multifaceted in nature (Gardner, 2009). According to Gittings, Bergman, Shuck, and Rose (2018), approximately 40% to 60% of all doctoral students do not persist to graduation. Moreover, underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities who pursue a doctoral education have higher attrition rates and lower degree-completion rates than their White peers (Sowell et al., 2015). ...
... Moreover, underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities who pursue a doctoral education have higher attrition rates and lower degree-completion rates than their White peers (Sowell et al., 2015). Additional causes of attrition include, imposter syndrome, parental level of education, family obligations, age, lack of interaction with faculty mentors, employment issues, and financial resources (Bergman, Gross, Berry, & Shuck, 2014;Gittings et al., 2018;Litalien et al., 2015;Martinsuo & Turkulainen, 2011;Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2019). Further, the Council of Graduate Schools (n.d.) identified six sources of attrition related to institutional and doctoral program characteristics, including selection, mentoring, financial support, program environment, research mode of the field, and processes and procedures. ...
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In this multiyear, statewide investigation, the degree to which changes had occurred in the numbers and percentages of doctoral degrees awarded to White, Hispanic, and Black students in Texas public postsecondary institutions from the 1999-2000 academic year through the 2018-2019 academic year was examined. The highest numbers of doctoral degrees were awarded to White students, followed by Hispanic students and Black students, respectively. Statistically significant differences were present for the percentages of doctoral degrees awarded to Hispanic and to Black students between the 1999-2000 academic year and the 2018-2019 academic year. The percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to White students decreased by nearly 21%, whereas the percentage of master’s degrees awarded to Hispanic students and to Black students increased by 11.07% and 9.39%, respectively. As such, the ethnic/racial diversity of doctoral degree recipients increased over the academic years of data analyzed herein.
... Les données ont été recueillies auprès d'anciens doctorants américains. À nouveau, les doctorants en emploi avaient plus de probabilité d'aboutir leur thèse et ce d'autant plus que cet emploi les occupait à temps plein (Gittings et al., 2018). En revanche, dans une étude néerlandaise, la satisfaction du doctorant relativement à un emploi parallèle dépend de la nature de cet emploi. ...
... La nuance entre ces deux types de financement n'est pas toujours précisée, alors même que l'organisation du travail et l'envie de persévérer pourraient être vraisemblablement modulées d'une situation à l'autre. Les conclusions des études rapportées (Gittings et al., 2018 ;Matheka et al., 2020) ne peuvent donc pas être généralisées mais permettent d'envisager avec nuance l'idée qu'occuper un emploi en parallèle de la thèse n'est pas systématiquement un frein à l'obtention du doctorat. ...
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Un travail de recherche qui ne progresse pas, une supervision insatisfaisante, des perspectives de carrière incertaines ou encore le sentiment de ne pas appartenir à une communauté scientifique, telles sont les difficultés que rencontrent nombre de thésards pendant leur doctorat. Si ces difficultés font l’objet d’un nombre croissant de publications, peu de travaux se sont attachés à mettre en lumière les déterminants du vécu positif du doctorat. En effet, le vécu d’une thèse peut être extrêmement enrichissant. Dans cette revue de la littérature, notre objectif est d’exploiter les connaissances actuelles permettant d’envisager l’expérience du doctorat comme positive pour en extraire des pistes susceptibles d’améliorer cette expérience. Dans un premier temps, nous exposons les éléments de la littérature qui démontrent que, bien que le doctorat puisse être vécu comme une épreuve difficile, il peut également être vécu comme une expérience très positive. Dans un second temps, nous proposons des pistes d’améliorations de l’expérience du doctorat. Dans l’ensemble, cet article, présente un intérêt pour les doctorants désireux d’approfondir leurs réflexions sur leurs conditions de travail, mais aussi pour tous ceux qui les entourent, tels les directeurs de thèse, les directeurs d’unités de recherche, et les directeurs d’écoles doctorales.
... Despite sustained calls for a better understanding of the patterns of and reasons for doctoral attrition (Council of Graduate Schools, 2009;Golde, 2005), the factors that drive PhDRs to withdraw from their programmes are not well understood. Attrition research typically investigates institutionally and nationally captured information about PhD enrolments and so it is known that variables such as older age, female gender, part-time candidature, working in a humanities discipline, and lack of funding/stipend are associated with higher rates of non-completion (Gittings et al., 2018;Torka, 2020). However, these findings afford little insight into the doctoral experiences that lead some doctoral researchers, and not others, to consider leaving their programmes. ...
... Members of C6 were four times as likely to have TOD as those not experiencing any risk factors (C1). This confirms earlier studies which have found problems with supervision to contribute to doctoral attrition (Cornér et al., 2017;Gittings et al., 2018), notwithstanding the fact that the role of supervisors is sometimes less prominent in studies of doctoral resilience or satisfaction (e.g., McCray & Joseph-Richard, 2020). One of the supervision problems that our study measured was the perception that supervisor/s do not 'make a real effort to understand the difficulties I face'. ...
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Although high PhD attrition rates are a matter of international concern, the factors that lead doctoral researchers to leave their programmes are not well understood. The present study addresses that issue by exploring factors that prompted thoughts of discontinuing among 1017 PhD researchers (PhDRs) at a public, research-intensive Australian university. We analyse the prevalence, strength and clustering of the most frequently identified factors, including mental health difficulties, financial pressures, and problems with supervision. The investigated factors were all strongly associated with thoughts of discontinuing; mental health difficulties were among the strongest factors, and financial stress was the most prevalent. An exploratory cluster analysis revealed that the risk factors co-present in distinctive ways such that six discrete groups of PhDRs are identifiable with varying risk profiles and socio-demographic characteristics. We discuss the research, policy and practice implications of these findings.
... Third, advisor (and mentor) relationships significantly impact the experience and persistence of doctoral students based on their level of access and working relationship (NASEM, 2018) and represent a significant opportunity structure for students as these relationships are tied to persistence and attrition in graduate education. Students' relationship to their dissertation chair, often the primary advisor, exerts significant influence on completion of the doctoral degree (Bégin & Gérard, 2013;Gittings et al., 2018). Traditionally underserved students often do not have access to advisors or mentors who share their identities and experiences (NASEM, 2018;Sowell et al., 2015). ...
... However, the advisor role may be filled by multiple mentors who together contribute to the success of the student (Higgins, 2000). A doctoral student's relationship to their dissertation chair, often the primary advisor, exerts significant influence on the completion of their doctoral degree (Bégin & Gérard, 2013;Gittings et al., 2018). Unfortunately, traditionally underserved students often do not have access to advisors or mentors who share their experiences (Sowell et al., 2015), creating a knowledge and experience gap advisors need to overcome to facilitate interpersonal opportunity structures. ...
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Background The retention of traditionally underserved students remains a pressing problem across graduate engineering programs. Disciplinary differences in graduate engineering identity provide a lens to investigate students' experiences and can pinpoint potential opportunity structures that support or hinder progress based on social and personal identities. Purpose This study investigates the impact of discipline, gender, race/ethnicity, advisor relationship, and years in a program on graduate engineering identity variability. Methods Cross-sectional survey data from a national sample of doctoral engineering students were analyzed with multilevel modeling. Multilevel modeling measured the differences at the individual and discipline levels for graduate engineering identity and the domains of engineer, researcher, and scientist. Independent variables included were gender, advisor relationship score, race/ethnicity, and years in a program. Results The engineer identity sub-construct of recognition significantly varied among engineering disciplines. Traditionally underserved students (i.e., Women and minoritized racial/ethnic groups) expressed lower engineering recognition levels, with this relationship varying based on discipline. Overall, our model explained 30% of the variation in engineering recognition among disciplines. Conclusions The disciplinary variation in graduate engineering identity combined with the significance of gender and race/ethnicity indicates traditionally underserved students do not experience equivalent opportunity structures compared with their well-represented peers. Modifying traditional opportunity structures to serve students better may provide the needed changes to engage and retain traditionally underserved populations.
... The composition of doctoral students changed over the past several decades, with an increase in part-time and distant students who have significant life and work commitments becoming the majority over full-time students (Gittings, et al., 2018;Wilson & James, 2021). The stress of doctoral studies (uncertainty, self-doubt, and isolation, etc.) and the resultant mental health issues (depression, fatigue, and lack of meaningful relationships, etc.) impact students' well-being and continue to plague doctoral students (Byrom et al., 2020;Jackman et al., 2021;Schmidt & Hansson, 2018), which could be exacerbated by poor supervision and difficulty translating research methodologies into manageable projects. ...
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... When students drop out, the losses include reduced revenue, reputational harm, lower returns on investment, and reduced funder confidence (Cook and Rushton, 2010). Gittings et al. (2018) reported that attrition ultimately impacts the economy of the country negatively. ...
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