Chapter 2: Description of Projects
    Chapter 2: Description of Projects

    The Graduate School at the University of Georgia (UGA) has a deep commitment to improving doctoral completion at our institution. In recent years, our major efforts have involved two projects that were funded by the Council of Graduate Schools, the Ford Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc. Although many of our activities were conducted in collaboration with the University of Florida and North Carolina State University, in this monograph we will focus on the practices at the UGA specifically. Chapter 2 delineates the projects involving doctoral completion as well as the background, literature, and methods utilized.


    Strategic Intervention for Doctoral Completion Project

    The Graduate School began its explicit commitment to improving doctoral completion in 2004. From 2004-2007, the Graduate School and its partner institutions, the University of Florida and North Carolina State University, were appointed "Research Partners" and awarded a grant through the Council of Graduate School’s Ph.D. Completion Project. During this time, the three institutions worked collaboratively on the Strategic Intervention for Doctoral Completion project addressing this topic. During this project, the Graduate School and its two partner institutions evaluated thirty-seven doctoral programs primarily in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as in humanities and social sciences. Twelve programs from the University of Georgia participated.


    The Graduate School and its two partner institutions conducted numerous research activities during the project which are discussed in detail in the subsequent chapters. We developed a literature-based theoretical framework, which includes four conditions for optimal doctoral completion, in order to approach the subject in a comprehensive manner. This framework guided all activities of the strategic intervention project, including research studies, administrative actions, conferences, and supportive efforts that occurred.


    One study conducted during the project involved interviews with faculty and doctoral students regarding barriers to doctoral completion. Program Practices and Program Self-Assessment surveys were designed and conducted to determine whether or not the current policies of our doctoral programs possessed the conditions we felt were necessary for completion. Moreover, an accompanying review of statistical data allowed the thirty-seven programs and the participating institutions to determine their historical completion rates.


    Findings from these project studies, and other findings in the literature, were communicated to program leaders through several avenues during the Strategic Intervention for Doctoral Completion project. One avenue of communication was through research briefs and strategy sheets developed from faculty and student interviews, and best practices culled from the literature, and wherein the four conditions of the theoretical framework were utilized. Additionally, findings were communicated through presentations at national and regional conferences, meetings with administration and program leaders, and by hosting invitational conferences specifically on the topic of improving doctoral completion. Moreover, the research team created a project website ( that is available to all doctoral faculty and students. On the website, links to Project Publications, Presentations, and Conference Information are available. Additionally, the website provides other resources, such as a Problem-Solving Forum and links to findings related to doctoral completion, that are designed to promote the awareness of the issue and facilitate the improvement of doctoral completion rates.


    Initiative for Optimal Doctoral Completion

    In 2007, the Council of Graduate Schools awarded the University of Georgia Graduate School a continuation of its research with the Ph.D. Completion Project. Because one of the goals of the Graduate School is to improve completion rates in all fields, it was decided to expand our efforts to include all doctoral programs at our institution. In January of 2008, a university-wide Initiative for Optimal Doctoral Completion was launched by the Graduate School. This Initiative seeks to improve completion rates in all doctoral programs at the University of Georgia through our research findings and development activities and the subsequent data-based and systematic methods that were developed during the three-school Strategic Intervention for Doctoral Completion project.


    Several activities under this university-wide Initiative have occurred or are already underway. First, a website specifically for this project was created in order to better communicate with our doctoral faculty ( on the Initiative for Optimal Doctoral Completion page). Second, information sessions for department heads, graduate coordinators, and faculty from all doctoral programs were hosted by the Graduate School. These sessions were designed both to promote awareness of the importance of doctoral completion and strategies that are effective at facilitating completion. Handouts from the information sessions as well as live video streams of the presenters can be found on our website (the Information Sessions page).


    In addition, the Initiative research team also collaborated with the university’s own Institutional Research department and created a drillable database for all doctoral programs at the University of Georgia, which will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 3. During the Initiative, the research team also created additional tools, such as the Program Self-Study, for doctoral programs to utilize in their discussions and assessments of doctoral completion.


    Theoretical Framework

    When we first began intensively studying doctoral completion in 2004, a critical review of the literature suggested that, despite the widespread impacts of doctoral non-completion, the research base for understanding this phenomenon was uneven, conceptually scattered, and of questionable external validity. We immediately noticed the piecemeal approach many researchers took in examining and suggesting methods for improving doctoral completion. For instance, most of the research focused on one aspect of graduate education- for example, the positive influence of student cohesiveness to increasing the number of research assistantships available to students. Additionally, much of the literature consisted of non-empirical prescriptions for practical action, and theoretical studies. Having all been through doctoral education ourselves, we can affirm that doctoral study is multi-faceted and complex, and deserving of empirical analysis.


    Based on our initial summary of available literature, we sought to develop a theoretical framework that would aid in understanding doctoral completion. Due to the importance of a comprehensive framework when examining a research topic and the absence of one in the literature, we constructed a model that accounted for the multiple influences impacting completion of doctoral degrees. Additionally, we required that the model be grounded in the findings of past scholarship while remaining practical for implementation. Through the combination of these goals and collaboration with university administration, faculty, and doctoral students, our research team created The Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion.


    The Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion (Table 1) were developed to cogently classify the aspects of graduate education which facilitate completion of doctoral degrees, and as a method for conceptualizing our future research. Condition One focuses on recruiting the right people for doctoral study and ensuring they possess an accurate understanding of the rigors of doctoral education. The next step, Condition Two, involves admitting only those applicants who are the right candidates for doctoral study. Condition Three emphasizes forming productive professional relationships between faculty and doctoral students so that the latter group receives the support necessary for advancement in their respective fields. Condition Four consists of promoting an environment in which students support each other’s endeavors in a manner that prepares them for professional relationships that are collegial in nature. Each of these conditions and their related practices are discussed in more detail below.


    Table 1


    Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion



    #1: The right people apply for doctoral study.

    Applicants must be realistic about the demands and expectations of doctoral study.

    #2: The right applicants are admitted as doctoral students.

    Admissions committees must properly screen applicants and, upon enrollment, orient them to the program.

    #3: Students and faculty form productive working relationships.

    Faculty members and students must interact in a mutually respectful and task- oriented manner.

    #4: Students experience social support from fellow students.

    Students must recognize themselves as members of a community of learners facing common challenges and opportunities.


    Once The Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion were developed, they served as a guide for our understanding of doctoral study and the subsequent research we conducted. Additionally, it is important to note the choice of the adjective optimal utilized in our theoretical framework’s title. Originally the word maximum was used; however, faculty input resulted in this change. Because all admissions criteria are imperfect predictors, a common opinion of faculty members at the three participating institutions was that a 100% completion rate should not be the goal. We repeatedly heard from programs that everyone who is accepted in a doctoral program should not complete as that would lead to a decline in the value of the doctoral degree, amongst other problems. While we recognize the potential problematic consequences of a 100% completion rate, we chose to focus instead on the efficacy of the application and selection procedures, as a means to properly screen applicants.


    Data Collection

    Next, the Graduate School proactively designed and implemented several research projects. Our goal was to understand doctoral education at the University of Georgia and at the graduate programs of our two research partners at the University of Florida and North Carolina State University, more intimately. More specifically, we sought to chronicle doctoral completion statistics at each university and in each field. Additionally, we sought the perceptions of doctoral education by those who knew it best- faculty and doctoral students. Although we would often hear anecdotally about the policies and activities of some doctoral programs, we wanted to examine each program and its practices in greater detail, in order to best communicate innovative and effective ideas. The actual data can be viewed on our website (, under the Program Data page), and is described below.


    1. Completion Statistics.


    The first set of data collected by the Graduate School was statistical data for each participating doctoral program at the University of Georgia. Specifically, we contributed to the Council of Graduate School’s (CGS) national database by submitting attrition and completion templates that accounted for each subpopulation (e.g., by gender and race), as well as by field and broad discipline. Second, using the data submitted to CGS, we created our own completion statistics in order to meet the goals and requests of our doctoral faculty. These data involved university-wide and program-level completion rates, attrition rates, Time-to-Degree (TTD), and Time-to-Withdrawal (TTW) statistics. Third, we created benchmarks for each of the statistics so that doctoral programs could gauge their own standing with regard to these indicators. Examples of these statistics and the process of data dissemination are described in detail in Chapter 3.


    While completion and attrition statistics are one indicator of the quality of doctoral education, we also wanted to learn more about doctoral education from the programs themselves. The Graduate School conducted two studies in order to more fully understand what practices are most effective in doctoral education. First, the Program Practices Study examined what practices related to each of the Four Conditions were currently in use in doctoral programs. Second, interviews with doctoral students and faculty were conducted to understand their perceptions of the efficacy of those practices.


    2. Program Practices Study.


    The Program Practices Study was designed to examine what policies and processes each of the original thirty-seven doctoral programs were currently utilizing with respect to doctoral education. As stated earlier, the overall purpose was to determine if programs had practices in place that concerned each of The Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion. Additionally, the Graduate School wanted to communicate and disseminate innovative practices to other universities once they were identified.


    Each program was asked to complete a Program Practices Survey. The survey contained ten open-ended questions concerning the practices implemented by their program with regard to each of the four conditions. Specifically, the coordinators responded about their program’s policies and activities with regard to: potential doctoral students; admissions decisions; orientation and advisement; and social interactions. The entire survey took approximately twenty-five minutes to complete and the response rate was 100%. Findings from the Program Practices Study as they relate to each of the four conditions are discussed in Chapters 4-7.


    3. Student and Faculty Interviews.


    Sixty participants (thirty faculty members and thirty doctoral students) from the thirty-seven participating programs represented in the Strategic Intervention for Doctoral Completion project participated in this study. Two researchers from the University of Georgia conducted the interviews. The researchers used a semi-structured interview guide containing six to seven questions (depending on the whether the participant was a student or faculty member) which focused on The Four Conditions for Optimal Doctoral Completion that we identified as our theoretical framework. The interviews took an average of thirty to thirty-five minutes each and were recorded and later transcribed. Participants answered the following questions during the interviews:


    • Why do some students complete doctoral studies and others do not?
    • What program information is provided to potential students so that they may select the most appropriate program? Is this information useful?
    • What is your program’s graduate admissions protocol? Is this process effective?
    • Describe the relationship between doctoral students and their advisors.
    • What are the different ways students support each other or don’t support each other?


    After the interviews, the data were then examined through qualitative content analysis by our research team. The primary findings are described in Chapters 4-7 as they relate to each of the Four Conditions.


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