Doctorates: why so many give up

November 19, 1999

Numbers of doctoral candidates are increasing - but so are drop-out rates. What factors determine success and failure at this level? Steve Dinham and Catherine Scott did a study to find out

There has been a great global expansion in the number of institutions offering doctoral programmes and in the numbers of candidates enrolling in them. And a plethora of various "specialist" or "professional" doctorates has been introduced for virtually every discipline.

But alongside - some would say due to - this expansion there has been a problem. Drop-out rates in doctoral programmes, always high, seem to be increasing in most countries, while times for successful completion are lengthening, resulting in both personal and institutional cost.

Concern over this situation has led policy-makers and administrators to try to tighten up the funding and organisation of doctoral programmes. But such administrative measures may not be sufficient or even appropriate.

We recently completed an international study to explore what might explain both success and failure at this level. Our sample consisted of successful doctoral candidates. By drawing on an international sample of people from different doctoral systems, disciplines and times since completion, we hoped to discover those features of the experience of doctoral study that might be universal and those that are more contextual and personal.

We collected our information using an email survey, recruiting participants via invitations posted on electronic discussion lists. The survey was completed by 139 people - 65 men and 74 women. Most (84 per cent) were awarded a doctor of philosophy, with 11 per cent awarded a doctor of education. The majority of the study participants were from the United States (56 per cent), followed by Australia (25 per cent), with the rest from the United Kingdom, Canada and continental Europe.

We explored all aspects of the experience of being a doctoral student, from the choice of institution and the process of enrolment and induction, through to the undertaking of the degree and effects of study, to the examination/defence process and life beyond the degree. The tales told were a fertile cross section of the varied experiences and outcomes of doctoral study.

While the time spent studying for the doctorate was plain sailing for many participants, among the experiences of the rest were just about every problem that can afflict a responsible adult, from financial difficulties to marital breakdown, ill health and random disasters. One participant reported: "A new computer virus wiped out my office and home machines and the entire thesis had to be typed again by a copy typist."

Outcomes also varied substantially. Some had completed their doctorate and then moved in a new direction, while others used their degree as a platform for further work and to build a career. In some cases, people appeared to have redefined themselves after the award of their doctorate, becoming almost different people. There were reports of pride and a real sense of achievement. Other participants were disparaging, however, and even bitter about what they had experienced.

Relationships had foundered. One participant, recently separated, had thrown his newly won certificate on a backyard fire. The responses of "significant others" were as varied, with parents, spouses, children and friends reported to be "proud" and even "in awe". Others experienced jealousy, disbelief, disinterest or antipathy from friends and/or family. One participant reported that the doctorate cost him his job because of professional jealousy. He has since found employment abroad and observed: "I guess the final irony is that success at the tertiary level has forced me to leave the country."

While many of the difficulties experienced were outside institutional control, some were attributable to causes within the jurisdiction of the universities. Problems can begin even before the programme gets going, as in the case of the entry application that was "lost" for six months. Indifference, inefficiency, unhelpfulness and even hostility and discrimination provoked some to think again about their choice of institution. On the other hand, some related how a sympathetic word or letter from an administrator or academic to an initial inquiry was enough to sway an applicant's choice of institution.

The nature of problems experienced after enrolment seemed near-universal across countries and institutions. They arise from the nature of the doctorate, which is a highly individual experience, conducted outside the structures characteristic of undergraduate or taught masters degrees, and dependent on the skills, knowledge and goodwill of supervisors who are often under great pressures themselves.

There appears to be plenty of room for examination and reform of many aspects of doctoral programmes, including attention to proper induction of postgraduates into both the institution and the discipline, the provision of training and support for supervisors, and the overcoming of problems associated with matters such as departmental politics, clashes of methodology and intellectual property.

Given our findings, we would argue for a balanced approach between structure and process, the needs and strengths of individuals, and the inter-personal intangible dimensions of the doctoral experience. We are not advocating spoon-feeding or hand-holding, but rather sympathetic, informed support and guidance for what is a major and largely individual undertaking.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the study findings were those related to research dissemination, which only a minority of those surveyed had managed to achieve. In part, this situation was found to be attributable to a lack of advice and support provided to doctoral students as to how to go about publishing and disseminating their findings. But it is also attributable to the fact that for many students, the university supervisor-student relationship is perceived to end at graduation or completion. It would help all concerned if the findings of doctoral study were as widely disseminated as possible.

If asked to nominate the chief requirements for successful completion of a doctoral degree, most would probably nominate intellectual capacity and perseverance. While these are integral to success, our study of the doctoral experience has shown that there are other more extraneous factors that can be of equal and even greater importance.

Steve Dinham is associate professor, School of Teaching and Educational Studies, University of Western Sydney, Nepean . Catherine Scott is coordinator of research development, University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury . Both have PhDs.

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