Assessing Doctoral Student Preparedness

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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.

References

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.

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5 thoughts on “Assessing Doctoral Student Preparedness

  1. Jacqueline,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post this week and the additional resources you’ve referenced. Although I do not intend to apply my candidacy to any PhD program at this time (or in my foreseeable future), I do empathize with doctoral student distress, as it relates to key issues of preparedness. Further, I appreciate your attention on this matter given the context in what this attributes to, or means for, institutions of higher academia.

    While your blog did not focus on student preparedness for those entering their PhD program, I would be interested in Canadian-based research identifying what universities are doing to prime candidates prior to entrance. I wonder if there is a correlation between universities that focus on such initiatives, and student PhD success (or perhaps attrition) rates? Perhaps this is an area you’ve determined requires additional research and attention.

    I found the information around expected completion timelines fascinating. Again, an area I am sure is lacking considerable research, but I am left considering what tangible and unspecifiable factors contribute to inflated duration for completion. While financial and physical resources may be a factor, I am sure there are many personal life events, challenges and opportunities that can also attribute to one’s completion extension. Perhaps more attention is required to help set/guide student expectations, in preparing them for “the long hull”, if in fact nine years is a more representative time-frame. I agree with your point that universities must be more transparent in providing statistical data – and like your suggestion of surveying doctoral students in an effort to determine their perspective around changes to their [perhaps] original planned course of study.

    Your analysis of doctoral student preparedness after graduation is honest. I am a strong proponent of career and professional development services within post-secondary. Your reference to faculty mentoring students in a way that mimics their own experiences is eye opening, and I agree that this is an area that requires some considerable attention.
    I came across this blog post from Helen K. Ezell that outlines high-level steps of preparedness for obtaining a doctoral degree. Based on your research, I wonder how much of this you would agree with?

    Preparation for the Research Doctoral Degree
    By Helen K. Ezell (adapted for the Web from Guide to Success in Doctoral Study and Faculty Work (2002).
    http://www.asha.org/students/academic/doctoral/chap2/

    On a personal level, I think you are going into your PhD program well prepared, and without naïve expectations. Congratulations on your admittance.

    Leahann

  2. Jacqueline, your blog post strikes a chord with my personal and professional interest. My Ph.D. (completed September 2012) examined support for graduate students’ teaching development and drew heavily on both TA and graduate student development literature. There are several resources in the U.S. regarding “Preparing Future Faculty” programs that were funded initiatives to examine and support the skill development necessary to be successful. For example, research by Donald H. Wulff and Ann E. Austin (http://ca.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787966347.html).

    My research looked at both formal and informal supports, including those that graduate students may bring with them from external and previous experiences or networks, and those provided during their studies.

    The challenge of attrition, in part because number such as those you listed have not be traditionally reported, is one rarely discussed, including the cost to the program of recruitment without competition. Individuals may start a doctoral program and not complete it for many reasons. Some of these reasons might be better supported earlier (e.g., decision that a Ph.D. is not needed for the preferred career), discussed (e.g., limitation on funding) or avoided/remedied (e.g., supervisor-student conflict). Program design (coursework or not, cohort or individual-mentorship), admission requirements, formal supports, mentorship training etc. often seek to reduce attrition.

    Another challenge is identifying (clearly) what a Ph.D. is and isn’t. Is it faculty preparation? Opportunity to pursue intrinsically interesting ideas? Professional preparation for management/administrator roles? All of the above? As you noted, few graduate students will go on to traditional faculty positions, and even those who do have different expectations placed on them then were place on their supervisors. Which skills, knowledge and values are needed, and what should various program aim for?

  3. I wonder if PHd candidates should be required to have some work experience prior to entrance? From what I’ve experienced in my own undergraduate was the professors who had a good level of work experience prior to completing their PHd were more engaging instructors.

    If teaching will remain a significant role of a PHd graduate (which arguably it wouldn’t) I think more weight should be placed on their work experience. I also think Masters Graduates could fill teaching roles or assist in them to a greater extent to perhaps allow PHd to have more time allocated to research since that is their area of expertise.

    Just a thought.

  4. Hi Jacqueline,

    In conversations about “responsibility” – for being transparent about attrition/employment rates, for knowing as the graduate student what the attrition/employment rates are like, for providing professional/academic support and development – I wonder whether we might think about how the idea of “responsibility” gets played and played out.

    As your post identifies, there is a growing chorus exhorting graduate students to take heed of the climate of post-secondary education and a growing disconnect between the academic expectations (a 300 page dissertation/book, really? why not reimagine the dissertation?) and the “employment outcomes.” I suppose assigning responsibility to the institution for such circumstances is meant to quash the neoliberal impulse to blame the student – self-actualize, already! – and assigning responsibility to the student is meant to recognize that a claim of naivety or ignorance (or perhaps exceptionalism? no, no, sure other people can’t get tenure track jobs, but surely *I* am not like *those* students) no longer holds water.

    I wonder what gets lost in the shifting of responsibility/blame. Are we (I speak now as a national “we”) missing opportunities to reimagine the PhD from the ground up: its purpose, its function, its role within both the institution and the wider community, its audience and its outcomes?

    When you imagine the ideal PhD program – and the ideal PhD graduate – what do you envision?

    Thanks for the post,
    Erin

  5. Carleton University seems to have picked up on PHd candidates need for further education and preparedness at least in terms of preparing PHd candidates for a teaching role. They have created a course consisting of nine three hour sessions focusing on providing PHd candidates with hands on teaching and evaluation practices (Carleton University, 2014).

    This course assists PHd candidates to prepare lesson plans, organize classes, create a syllabus, provide feedback to students, and evaluate their own teaching styles.

    I think this kind of program is something any PHd candidate could benefit greatly from since it does not appear that these items are covered well enough in core PHd curriculums. It would be great to see Universities like Brock looking at Carleton Universities program “Preparing to Teach” to see if it can be modelled at Brock as well.

    Carleton University (2014). Educational Development Centre: Preparing to teach. Retrieved from: http://carleton.ca/edc/programs/certificates/preparing-to-teach/

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