The first of the Four Conditions stipulates that prospective students should fully understand the demands of graduate programs. Coleman (1970) describes an asymmetry in the amount of information about a prospective student which is available to the university, compared to the amount of university information available to the student. Due to this incongruence, many graduate students enter with false expectations concerning the realities of graduate school. Lovitts (2001) argues that the discrepancy between students’ expectations and the reality of graduate school contributes to doctoral non-completion. She found students who chose a program based on an accurate representation of graduate school (i.e., "a well-structured cognitive map") were more likely to complete their degree. Students with well-structured cognitive maps had lower rates of attrition and felt more informed about the amount of work and other expectations when they received a mentor, guidebook, and information on the web. Lovitts suggests that it is the university’s responsibility for prospective students which facilitate the development of well-structured cognitive maps.
We examined the admissions process of doctoral programs in order to understand more fully whether potential students comprehend the realities of graduate school. First, we studied who handled inquires from prospective students in doctoral programs. Second, we examined the methods by which prospective students obtained information from doctoral programs. Third, we examined the content of that information. Lastly, we determined whether or not this information was helpful in forming realistic expectations for the doctoral experience.
Most doctoral programs have similar procedures for handling inquiries from prospective students. Nearly all respondents (92%) stated that the director of graduate programs or graduate coordinators respond to the majority of questions from potential students. Additionally, in one-third of the doctoral programs surveyed, the administrative staff or graduate program assistants also communicate with potential students. Lastly, only 11% of faculty members were in charge of this step in the selection admissions process. It is important to note that most of the doctoral programs reported that more than one person was responsible for answering these inquires. This finding is at odds with the consensus in the literature, which suggests that faculty members and current graduate students should play a primary role in communicating information about doctoral study (Lawson, 1985; Lovitts, 2001).
A variety of information sources are offered to prospective doctoral students. For instance, 72% of the doctoral programs distribute links to the program's website and 36% of programs provide an electronic brochure. A personal e-mail answering specific student question(s) occurs in 47% of the programs reviewed. Other forms of communication were used less frequently, including a letter from the graduate director, contact information for faculty members, and a compact disc (CD) about the program. These practices depart from recommendations to provide sufficient information so students can form accurate expectations concerning the demands of graduate education (Lovitts, 2001). Specifically, the literature advocates providing degree completion rates and employment placements for recent graduates in a program (Golde & Dore, 2001). Additionally, campus visits, guidebooks, and other forms of information are recommended to close the gap between the expectations and realities of doctoral study.
Electronic recruitment efforts also were found to be essential, as all students in our interview study utilized program and university websites when researching doctoral programs. Likewise, all thirty-seven participating programs used electronic media in some manner to recruit students. We found that the websites must provide adequate information about all aspects of the program for potential students. One participating program saw an increase in the number of applicants from 100 to 130 when their website was improved. Changes to their website included marketing their program’s strengths, providing detailed information about faculty research, and including information about current doctoral students’ research and accomplishments. Additionally, program websites should include faculty and student e-mail addresses and phone numbers such that potential students can access further information. Moreover, one of the participating programs included information about former graduate students and encouraged potential applicants to contact them.
Another way for programs to recruit the right students and ensure that they have realistic information about doctoral study is through professional partnerships. In particular, forming research partnerships with undergraduate programs at the same university or elsewhere allowed potential doctoral students to gain experience and knowledge. One participating program reported partnerships with undergraduate programs that resulted in "higher quality students," and enabled the university to "help them proceed through the program more quickly, give them greater research opportunities, and better prepare them for the job market." Examples of such practices include providing a summer research program for undergraduate students, thereby allowing undergraduate students to gain experience in research laboratories for either course credit or as an employee. Other doctoral programs organized mentoring partnerships between undergraduate students and either faculty or doctoral students, in order for potential students to learn more about doctoral study and gain guidance in selecting a program.
Although it was clear that a variety of methods are being used by applicants when selecting a doctoral program, participants reported a few crucial characteristics. First, the programs should provide enough advance information so that applicants can make an informed decision as to whether or not they “fit” with a program (Barry, 2008). Additionally, this information should effectively communicate the demands of graduate school. Although this is typically the intended purpose of the information, faculty members acknowledged it is difficult to "communicate what graduate school life is really about." Accordingly, most students believe this process is simply a bureaucratic step to get into graduate school. In fact, most of the participating students never fully assessed their readiness for a doctoral program because they did not think to do so, trusted the admissions committee to make that decision, or were not given adequate information to make that decision. However, 21% of the participating students believed the admissions process did help them assess their readiness for doctoral study. Students who successfully assessed their own readiness reported that their advisors and/or graduate students communicated the demands of the program through personal contact and recruitment weekends.
Providing information about attractive funding to potential students was also found to be an effective method for recruiting qualified students. For instance, our participating programs and universities were offering more research assistantships because this method of funding is more conducive to degree completion (Lovitts, 2001). As reported by one participating program, one method for increasing the number of research assistantships is to "encourage and facilitate faculty attempts to obtain funding that includes research assistantship for graduate students, by directing faculty to grant-writing programs that require applicants include funds for graduate students research assistantships, and informing them [the students] of grant opportunities." Additionally, some of the participating programs hired additional faculty and lecturers in order to reduce the workload for students who are offered teaching assistantships.
Another important topic the Graduate School wanted to address was doctoral pursuit by underrepresented students. Specifically, only 8%, 5%, and 5% of graduate students are from Asian, African American, and Hispanic backgrounds, respectively (Sowell et al., 2008). Additionally, underrepresented doctoral students have higher attrition rates (50%) than majority students (Lovitts, 2001). Several programs participating in our study had already developed program-level practices to recruit underrepresented students and facilitate their doctoral completion. For example, those practices include forming partnerships with undergraduate programs containing a large proportion of underrepresented students, proactive recruitment, and offering funding specifically designated for these students were perceived as effective by programs.