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Speculative Diction

War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave


The Times Higher Ed in the UK had a hit this past week, regarding the issue of doctoral supervision, with an article by Tara Brabazon titled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”. Worth noting alongside that one is a recent article by Leonard Cassuto that appeared in the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding doctoral attrition, which has long been notoriously high (at least in the United States – an average of around 40-50 percent). Attrition rates in Canada are, as far as I know, not generally available though some numbers from eight of the “U-15” were published in this article from Margin Notes blog (and a longer discussion of completion rates and times to completion is here).

I mention these two issues together because for my dissertation I’ve been going over the research on PhD supervision and attrition, including the work of Barbara Lovitts (who’s cited by Cassuto as well), Chris Golde, and Susan Gardner among others. This research shows clear connections between supervision styles, departmental “climates”, professionalization opportunities, “student satisfaction”, and the outcomes of PhD study – including attrition.

What necessitates this research is that there are long-held misconceptions about the causes of non-completion. A key finding is that often faculty attributions of student non-completion have looked very different from either the students’ understanding of their experiences (or of what other students experience), or from the reality of their reasons for leaving. Since those who leave don’t generally get to tell their stories, assumptions can be made that they simply “didn’t have what it takes” or that the admissions committee didn’t “select” the right candidates for the program. Not only does this download the blame onto the individuals who leave, but it also masks other entrenched problems that can then continue without serious examination. Additionally, it doesn’t mesh with research that’s shown the non-completers tend to look just as “prepared” for academic work as the students who finish.

While there is no single reason why students tend to leave (in fact it’s usually a combination of reasons), a major take-away from the scholarship on this topic is that the supervisory relationship is of crucial importance – not only in whether students graduate, but also in their subsequent (academic) careers. For example, Lovitt’s book Leaving the Ivory Tower confirms that supervisors who have already helped PhD students to complete are the ones most likely to continue doing so. However, the reasons are complex. These supervisors tended to have a give-and-take relationship with students rather than expecting the students to do everything on their own. They “scaffolded” and supported their supervisees, and cared about students’ intellectual development and overall well-being; they facilitated the students’ professionalization and their academic and social “integration” into the department and the discipline, through a variety of practices.

If there are no exit interviews with those who leave their programs, then it’s much easier to continue making erroneous assumptions about why they left in the first place. This is important because there are significant policy implications for the reasons we assign for attrition. For example, even Cassuto’s article places emphasis on selection of the “right” types of students, and on certain types of student responsibility such as seeking out the department’s attrition rate before applying – though this is not information that programs tend to provide to potential students. His taxonomy of students doesn’t include those who simply don’t know what support they will need, and don’t end up receiving it; it doesn’t include those who had the capacity to complete but were abandoned by their supervisors, sabotaged by departmental politics, or derailed by personal life circumstances. All these factors are discussed in the literature on PhD attrition.

Like most other issues in education there are many causes for problems with completion. Any relationship is a two-way street, as pointed out in this post by Raul Pacheco-Vega. There are plenty of faculty who are already engaging in the helpful practices described by Lovitts and other researchers, as well as PhD students who don’t put in enough work, or who probably shouldn’t have chosen to start the degree in the first place. But when it comes to implementing solutions, the nature of students’ supervisory relationships should be one of the primary targets of inquiry and intervention.

An example of an important issue that could be addressed is that of responsibility. Reasonable student expectations of faculty should be made clearer, and tacit institutional and professional knowledge – which is so crucial to students’ success in graduate programs – must be made explicit rather than being left to students to discover for themselves. If students understand what they should expect from a good supervisor – and for what they are responsible themselves – they may be able to make a more informed decision about this important working relationship (and whether in fact it’s working at all).

In some cases, this kind of change will take time and a great deal of consideration because if we take the research seriously, the problems extend beyond merely asking professors and students to engage more often in certain practices. They may be problems with the culture of a department or program, or in fact (considering some of the comments from Lovitts’ interviewees) the nature of academe itself, which is where we have to ask ourselves – what kind of a university do we want, and what kind of faculty will be working there? For example, if students also listed “personal problems” (as many of them did) including stress on existing relationships and the demands of raising children, does this mean those who desire a more balanced life will be inherently unsuited to academic work?

PhD students’ “dissatisfaction” should not be dismissed as merely the whining complaints of the academically inadequate. When students don’t know what to expect, they don’t have the opportunity to align their decisions and behaviour with the appropriate expectations; when they don’t receive adequate support, they may not know how to get what they’re missing, or indeed that they’re missing something in the first place (until it’s too late). Not only that but if we ignore these issues, do we not face a reproduction of what may be the worst aspects of academic life, in the name of “trial by fire”? Those who “make it through” are often assumed to have some inherent set of qualities that make them a better “fit” for academic life. But closer attention shows that this clearly isn’t the case, which means – even if the attrition rates are lower in Canada – we need to seek out appropriate explanations.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Linda Kirkman / July 17, 2013 at 22:25

    Very interesting reading. The references to two-way processes and being scaffolded makes me feel sad about my previous supervisor and how I was neglected. Also I feel good about my persistence and progress now. Twitter acted as a kind of supervisor in the early days.

  2. LD / July 18, 2013 at 09:39

    Nice post Melonie! As someone currently undertaking research on doctoral attrition and time-to-completion, I couldn’t resist chiming in.

    I am currently doing interviews with short and long completers, former students (withdrew prior to completion), and faculty, and I have to say that the role of the supervisor cannot be underestimated. I have not completed one interview without the mention of the importance of the supervisor. I am often told that the “supervisor is key.”

    Given the importance of the supervisor, securing interviews with faculty is of central importance to my research, but unfortunately it is easier said than done. Faculty have rejected me more times than not for interviews, and I have even been told to abandon my research. Clearly, there is a problem.

    While there are many wonderful faculty out there, there are far too many who take for granted their tenure track position, do not produce students, live off of government (public) money, and are unwilling to discuss the issues. So needless to say, I’m happy to see you bringing these issues to light.

    I would also add that as someone who is interested in speaking with former students, they are a difficult audience to reach. Further, many of them haven’t come to terms with the fact that they are indeed “dropouts” which is in itself, problematic.

    I think this is such an interesting and important topic, and deserves much more attention.

  3. Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD / July 18, 2013 at 19:11

    Thanks for linking to my post, Melonie! The topic of PhD attrition is one that I’m incredibly interested in (not the least of reasons, because I was three times on the verge of quitting my PhD). In all of these occasions, it was my PhD advisor (in addition to several senior faculty members and one junior one, my best friend) who encouraged me to reconsider and ponder if I would like to quit or remain in the programme and move forward. Also, I had a very strong support network, and both my parents are academics (as are two of my brothers, both holding PhDs from foreign universities). To me, quitting was, in the end, NOT a possibility, but not because I didn’t feel that I could quit, but because I felt that I owed it to myself. The support of my PhD advisor, my doctoral committee, my best friends and my parents was incredibly valuable.

    And here I am, a PhD holder and a professor who now supervises PhD theses too.

    That said, I very strongly respect those who choose to quit their PhDs. If any of my PhD students ever decided to quit, I would be fine with that, as long as THEY would be fine with that. To me, they are not a failure.

  4. Aimée Morrison (digiwonk) / July 18, 2013 at 18:36

    It continues to amaze me that academics receive even less instruction in how to supervise graduate students than they do in how to teach undergraduates.

    As someone who has been pushing for some time for changes on this front, I note that many academics consider their supervisory duty to be primarily one of gatekeeping: to ensure that the finished product is of a quality expected in the discipline and field in which they are expert.

    However, as your citations make abundantly clear, effective supervision is much more a duty of coaching or mentoring: to ensure that the student gains the appropriate skills to conceive, begin, work through, and complete that “finished product”.

    Supervision is teaching. Done well, it’s an awful lot of work. Done poorly, it has terrible costs to students.

  5. MLR / July 19, 2013 at 09:40

    Melanie: this is the second time I have seen that someone is (ironically) doing a Ph.D. thesis on why people don’t finish doctorates. Both your work and that earlier research fails to take into account sexual harassment. As someone who abandoned a thesis after all the course work & comps, I can tell you that in the early 80’s some grad departments were minefields of sexual politics for young women. That’s a huge part of the story that is never told. Perhaps the situation has improved now that policies are in place but ask some women now over 50 why they quit and I’m sure that you will hear about sexual harassment ranging from the subtle to the truly coercive. Too many of us were at the mercy of male supervisors who played serious games with our lives and careers.