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What leads students to complete PhD degrees?

It's the time of year when students are working intently to complete final drafts of dissertations to schedule the PhD defense in time for spring graduation. Maybe it is because of a pending job offer that requires a PhD – or funding is running out – or simply that they are ready to be done! While many students will finish, some will not meet that aspirational goal this spring. In fact, out of a 3,202 10-year average PhD enrollment, in any given spring, there are about 219 students who earn their PhD degrees.

If you would have asked me before, the two factors leading to completion are intelligence and simple determination. But I've learned that there is so much more.   

Instead, I asked, what factors lead to students completing their degrees – does this vary by discipline, and do financial awards help? I went to the literature to answer this question and I looked at our data. 


Crunching the numbers 

Numerous studies have explored which factors influence PhD completion rates. The study methods included student surveys, institutional data, and analysis, including complex systems. Across all studies, the quality of the supervisor-PhD candidate relationship, including how much time supervisors spend with students, open communication and aligned expectations, influence student completion rates. 

Other factors include academic interests (passion about the project, a sense of freedom with the work). Outside factors, such as family support and obligations, were also mentioned. Individual characteristics were mentioned, such as their mental health, sense of self-discipline and feelings of belonging (van Rooij et al. 2021; Young et al. 2019). Findings also show that men tend to be happier than women. 

Moreover, I considered how I relate to these findings and what I did. First, I had a great advisor and was excited about my project. Also, I had a group of four friends and we called the group our “dissertation support group” or DSG. Our DSG met weekly and we shared progress, plans, and just general tips. Just the peer pressure (which was a good thing) helped me stay focused. I even had a silver charm with “DSG” inscribed, which I kept on my keyring for a long time to remind me there are always people around to support me.

 

What did ASU find out?

Institutional data tells us that ASU students advance to candidacy on average in 3-4 years. After candidacy (ABD status), it takes most students 1-2 years to finish all the PhD degree requirements (Figure 1). This is great news – because it means that roughly 85% of our PhD students finish within six years. 

Room for improvement

When it comes to this topic, I found a variety of recommendations – mainly coming from students and advisors. Briefly, students say they need more administrative support, better opportunities for community building, improved office space, including access to computer technology and more programming for professional development, such as time management, writing, and financial literacy (Halbert, 2014). Advisors say that higher dollar amounts on scholarships, less red tape and help for inexperienced supervisors would help students complete (Halbert, 2014). 

ASU’s response is improving student space in Interdisciplinary B, advocating for and creating more scholarships and fellowships, designing mentoring programs for faculty and supporting programs with best practices for PhD programs on creating professional development programs for students. These are steps in the right direction!

Overall, my hope is that we continue to do better by exploring how these rates and data vary by discipline, race, gender, ethnicity, funding status and other factors found in the literature. My plan is that we will begin implementing changes that support our mission to enrich and advance the graduate experience.  

– Dean Wentz, Vice Provost and Dean, Graduate College 

 

 


References 

De Valero, Yaritza Ferrer. "Departmental factors affecting time-to-degree and completion rates of doctoral students at one land-grant research institution." The Journal of higher education 72, no. 3 (2001): 341-367. 

Eble, Michelle F. "Transdisciplinary mentoring networks to develop and sustain inclusion in graduate programs." College English 82, no. 5 (2020): 527-535. 

Halbert, K. "Factors affecting Doctoral progress: a report on the perspectives of Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidates and their advisors." School of Education, James Cook University (2014). 

McAlpine, Lynn, Montserrat Castello, and Kirsi Pyhaltö. "What influences PhD graduate trajectories during the degree: a research-based policy agenda." Higher Education 80, no. 6 (2020): 1011-1043. 

Pitchforth, Jay, Stephanie Beames, Aleysha Thomas, Matt Falk, Anna Farr, Susan Gasson, Tuti Thamrin, and Kerrie Mengersen. "Factors affecting timely completion of a PhD: a complex systems approach." Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 12, no. 4 (2012): 124-135. 

van Rooij, Els, Marjon Fokkens-Bruinsma, and E. Jansen. "Factors that influence PhD candidates’ success: the importance of PhD project characteristics." Studies in Continuing Education 43, no. 1 (2021): 48-67. 

Young, Sonia N., William R. VanWye, Mark A. Schafer, Troy A. Robertson, and Ashley Vincent Poore. "Factors affecting PhD student success." International journal of exercise science 12, no. 1 (2019): 34.

 

Written by Dean Libby Wentz, edited by Marjani DeHoff