By Jacqueline Beres
As a future doctoral student, I find this topic very interesting – and relevant. I previously hoped that my prior education would allow me to succeed in my future academic studies, and with considerable hard work, I would (hopefully!) complete my PhD and be well-prepared for the future. This may be a rather naïve approach and the notion of doctoral student preparation is a topic that evokes considerable debate and warrants future attention.
Preparedness for What, Exactly?
Doctoral student preparedness could be examined from a number of different perspectives, including students’ preparedness before, during, and after their PhD program. Essentially, this might mean assessing students’ preparedness for entry into PhD programs, their preparedness to successfully progress throughout the program, and their preparedness for a career upon completion of a PhD. This blog will focus on the latter two aspects.
Progression Through the Doctoral Program
Given the startling attrition rates of doctoral programs in the United States, which are often cited between 40-50% (Cassuto, 2013; Fullick, 2013) and the lack of public information regarding these same statistics in Canada (DeClou, 2013), progression through doctoral programs is not assured. Interestingly, the time required to complete a doctoral degree in Canada varies considerably based on academic discipline (Charbonneau, 2013; Tamburri, 2013). For example, completion rates within a nine-year time frame ranged from 78.3% of health sciences students to 55.8% of humanities students (Charbonneau, 2013; Tamburri, 2013). This nine-year window greatly exceeds the expected, and often funded, four year time frame (Tamburri, 2013).
Preparedness Upon PhD Completion
If students are successful in actually earing their doctoral degree, a number of recent reports have questioned doctoral students’ preparedness for the range of eventual careers that may follow (Carr, 2012; Maldonado, Wiggers, & Arnold, 2013). Despite many students’ hopes and intentions, the completion of a PhD no longer comes with a guarantee of a tenure track position, as the number of PhD graduates considerably exceeds the number of tenure track faculty openings (Maldonado, Wiggers, & Arnold, 2013). Instead, universities should also help students prepare for a career in other industries (Carr, 2012).
However, academic socialization, “the process by which one is taught and learns ‘the ropes’ of a particular organizational role” (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979, p.211) is usually completed by faculty members. As Fullick (2011) points out in her critical blog post, these individuals provide experiences that mimic their own lives – which usually focus exclusively on academia. Within academic preparation, there is also the contested issue of whether newly-minted faculty have sufficient training and preparation to handle the teaching requirements (Bok, 2013). While this is a critical topic within the area of doctoral student preparation, it exceeds the scope of this blog post, but nevertheless requires considerable attention elsewhere.
So What Can We Do About This?
Based on the information presented above, universities must provide transparent reporting of doctoral degree completion rates and time to completion statistics, along with other relevant data that would indicate doctoral student progression. Admittedly, it might not be self-serving for universities to release this data, so if needed, mandated action may be required.
Furthermore, it is clear additional research is needed. While authors have suggested there is no singular reason responsible for the current attrition levels (Fullick, 2011), further information could shed light on the predicted mix of factors that contribute to student distress. In conjunction with this additional research, action must be taken. Unless strategies are put in place to assist doctoral students, I see very little reason why the current reality would change, meaning students would continue to experience the lack of preparedness described above.
Finally, we must stop viewing attrition as a negative thing (Cassuto, 2013; Fullick, 2013). While this may initially seem to contradict the idea of being unprepared and subsequently withdrawing from doctoral studies, this does not explain the whole picture. Attrition only captures the number of students who did not complete their degrees. Since students are likely not given the chance to explain their decision to withdraw from doctoral studies, we should not assume that they have withdrawn because of a lack of preparation or because they “didn’t have what it takes” (Fullick, 2013, para. 3). As Cassuto (2013) points out, they may have simply realized they belong to a group whose successes lie outside of a PhD degree.
Bok, D. (2013, November 11). We must prepare Ph.D. students for the complicated art of teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Prepare-PhD-Students/142893/
Carr, G. (2012, October 26). Graduate students need preparation for life outside of university. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/ national/graduate-students-need-preparation-for-life-outside-university/article4699319/
Cassuto, L. (2013, July 1). Ph.D. attrition: How much is too much? Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/PhD-Attrition-How-Much-Is/140045/
Charbonneau, L. (2013, February 12). PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/margin-notes/phd-completion-rates-and-times-to-completion-in-canada/
DeClou, L. (2013). Linking levels to understand graduate student attrition in Canada (Doctoral dissertation). Available from Open Access Dissertations and Theses. (Paper 8771). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9846& context=opendissertations
Fullick, M. (2011, December 14). “My grief lies within” – PhD students, depression & attrition [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/speculative-diction/my-grief-lies-all-within-phd-students-depression-attrition/
Fullick, M. (2013, July 17). War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/speculative-diction/war-of-attrition-asking-why-phd-students-leave/
Maldonado, V., Wiggers, R., & Arnold, C. (2013). So you want to earn a PhD? The attraction, realities, and outcomes of pursuing a doctorate (@ Issue Paper No. 15). Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/Site CollectionDocuments/At%20Issue%20Doctoral%20ENGLISH.pdf
Tamburri, R. (2013, February 6). The PhD is in need of revision. University Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.universityaffairs.ca/the-phd-is-in-need-of-revision.aspx
Van Maanen, J., & Schein, E. H. (1979). Toward a theory of organizational socialization. In B. M. Staw (Ed.), Research in organizational behavior (Vol. 1, pp. 209-264). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.