Chapter 8: Summary of Recommendations for Improving Doctoral Completion
    Chapter 8: Summary of Recommendations for Improving Doctoral Completion

    The administration and research team at The Graduate School at The University of Georgia has put copious amounts of time and effort into the study of doctoral education and its completion rates. In this final chapter, we offer eight practical suggestions for improving doctoral completion based on our research studies and findings from the doctoral completion literature. These recommendations are intended for both university administrators and faculty members of doctoral programs.

     

    Administration Must Assume Proactive Leadership


    Administrators must serve doctoral students by demonstrating leadership in the area of improving doctoral completion rates. As mentioned earlier in the monograph, the Dean of The Graduate School at The University of Georgia and her research team did this through several methods. A literature-based theoretical framework, through which doctoral completion could be examined, was constructed. This framework allowed The Graduate School to better understand and research the issue.

     

    Furthermore, our administration was proactive in conducting an institution-wide self-study of doctoral completion, which involved collecting completion data as well as completing research related to the practices and policies that were being implemented by our doctoral programs. Faculty members also became increasingly aware of this issue, and also were inspired to participate in improving their doctoral programs, as the administration demonstrated its leadership.

     

    Administration Should Provide Faculty with Needed Data


    As one may expect, The Graduate School administration and the research team learned early in the project that faculty could be resistant to "top-down" administrative mandates that directly impact their programs. Several faculty members from the participating programs initially disliked the idea of improving their program completion rate as something that would add to the numerous deadlines that were already approaching, and undermine some of the valuable interventions already in place to improve doctoral education. However, whether it was at a conference or in a meeting with The Graduate School administration, faculty tended to be more motivated by their program's actual data, and how their program compared to similar programs both internally and at other institutions. In other words, it is important to "let the data drive."

     

    With the notion of being proactive in mind, The Graduate School at The University of Georgia distilled several types of useful data. As outlined in previous chapters, it was helpful to provide program leaders with their program’s rates of completion, attrition, Time-to-Degree, and Time-to-Withdrawal. These statistics can be found on our website (www.grad.uga.edu/cgs on the Program Data page). Additionally, their own program’s statistics allowed program leaders to compare themselves to similar programs and across their university. The Statistical benchmarks also allowed for another method of comparison. Partnership with the University of Georgia’s Institutional Research department yielded an interactive, drillable database for every doctoral program at our institution (https://facts.oir.uga.edu/facts/Retention.cfm).

     

    In addition, our efforts produced quantitative and qualitative research studies. Various methods were utilized to communicate data summary findings to faculty, such as conferences, research briefs, strategy sheets, and informational meetings. More information about these findings can be found on our website (www.grad.uga.edu/cgs on the Project Publications page). Faculty appreciated both the quantitative and qualitative data. Moreover, the faculty were eager to collaborate with our research team to examine their own program’s data.

     

    Administration Must Respect the Uniqueness of Each Program and Accept that Change Happens at the Program-Level


    Once the faculty were made aware of their own program's completion rates, they were motivated to organize their own "grass roots" initiatives for improving doctoral education in their programs. It is crucial for change to occur at the program level because faculty are more aware than administrators of everyday occurrences in their programs and when faculty take ownership of change it is lasting. Additionally, The Graduate School administrators must recognize that each program has its own unique practices, policies, and challenges.

     

    There are several ways faculty can effect program-level changes. To begin with, it is essential for faculty to understand their program’s standing with regard to doctoral completion and practices. Faculty can accomplish this by examining the doctoral completion rates and Time-to-Degree statistics for their program. Additionally, faculty must objectively delineate the current practices and policies that are being implemented in their doctoral program. This can be done by completing a Program Practices Survey and utilizing the Faculty Discussion Guide. Moreover, it is crucial for faculty to monitor their program’s practices and policies systematically and on an ongoing basis. This action can be accomplished through utilizing the Program Self Assessment which is a more thorough document than the Faculty Discussion Guide, and should be implemented in the beginning of the program's improvement process. Lastly, faculty also can use the Program Self-Study Guide in order to monitor their program's progress regularly.

     

    Programs Must Give Potential Students the Information They Need


    The best practices with regards to Condition 1 of the Four Conditions focus on providing sufficient information prior to a student's enrollment so that they realistically grasp the demands and expectations of doctoral study. Researchers suggest that having realistic knowledge about graduate study prior to beginning a doctoral study is one characteristic that differentiates completers and non-completers (Lovitts, 2001).

     

    In order to communicate these study demands, programs we reviewed provided information in a variety of mediums, such as websites, personal contact, career days, and summer research programs. Furthermore, recruiting weekends also were utilized, although less often. The students who participated in our study reported that a program's website, their advisor's work, the location of the institution, and the promise of funding all contributed to their selection of a graduate school.

     

    In addition to understanding the best methods, it is important to delineate what information is helpful to potential students. It has been recommended that "information about doctoral education, program expectations, and career prospects must be more transparent to students from the moment they begin to consider a Ph.D." (Woodrow Wilson Foundation, 2005). Specifically, past studies (Golde & Dore; 2001; Lovitts, 2001) and our findings concur that providing realistic information about completion rates, job placements of alumni, and Time-to-Degree statistics would allow applicants to have an accurate estimate of both their potential for completion and how long it may take them to complete their doctoral program. Programs must also communicate to potential students the skills and knowledge they expect their doctoral students to possess. Specifically, a few of the participating programs in our study recommended that some potential students gain more research experience and/or take more coursework prior to enrollment.

     

    In addition to providing adequate information about the doctoral program, prospective students should also be encouraged to make realistic assessments about themselves based on the information they received from prospective doctoral programs. This is extremely important as most of the doctoral student participants from our interviews believed the applications process was a bureaucratic step to get into graduate school. In fact, most (79%) of the participating students never fully assessed their readiness for a doctoral program because they did not think to do so or trusted the admissions committee to make that decision. In particular, applicants must examine whether or not they have enough personal resources- both financial and other support- to endure doctoral study. Applicants should also be encouraged to assess whether or not they believe they possess the necessary skills and knowledge that are necessary for their doctoral program.

     

    Programs Must Select the Right Students


    Doctoral programs must properly screen potential students in order to strive for an optimal doctoral completion rate. It is important to identify potential non-completers during the admissions process, as it is the earliest possible stage to do so. Admitting only the right students would facilitate an increase in completion rates as well as preserve the economic resources and efforts of students, faculty, and universities.

     

    In the admissions process, undergraduate grades, GRE performance, essays, reference letters, and curriculum vitae are routinely collected in order to gain more information about prospective students. However, faculty members should also view these objective measures with caution. Our findings and those from past studies (Smallwood, 2004) concur that the primary difference between doctoral completers and non-completers are internal characteristics that are currently not being measured by these objective assessments.

     

    As stated previously, 80% of students and 20% of faculty believe in the importance of gauging internal student characteristics (Barry, 2005). In particular, a student's aptitude towards persistence should also be investigated, either through interviews or a questionnaire, given that it is demonstrated to be the most important characteristic associated with doctoral completion.

     

    Additionally, the current study and others have found that campus visits allow for faculty to better assess a prospective student’s compatibility with the program (Barry & Grasso, 2008; Lovitts, 2001). Campus visits should be a time to meet current students, as well as for faculty to educate applicants about faculty research, program expectations, the university social life, and funding opportunities. Furthermore, reference letters and essays should be required during the admissions process; they can also be helpful in determining whether or not an applicant’s interests "fit" with those of the program. Another practice for assessing proper "fit" is including currently enrolled graduate students on the admissions committee. Furthermore, potential students should simply be asked whether they have comprehensively assessed their readiness for the doctoral program, as well as if their goals and interests "fit" with the program.

     

    Programs Must Facilitate Positive Student and Faculty Relationships


    Tinto (1993) supported the notion that a positive student-faculty dynamic is essential to doctoral completion. Due to the importance of student-faculty relationships in doctoral study, programs must take a proactive approach. First, programs must increase the number faculty-student interactions through socials, brown bag seminars, happy hours, picnics, and other events, to build on those relationships and succeed in integrating students into their program. Additionally, because a key predictor of completion is whether or not the student knows the program's expectations, faculty must communicate this knowledge through orientations and formal handbooks, rather than through mere word-of-mouth. Students must also be integrated into the formal processes of the program through their participation on committees for potential faculty hires, admissions, and curriculum. Student-faculty mentoring relationships can also have a significant impact on a student’s successful integration into the program. Furthermore, students and faculty who make contributions to the program should be acknowledged.

     

    The majority of participants in our research studies affirm the importance of a student's advisor. In particular, it is important for the advisor to clearly state his or her expectations of the student and of their partnership. Lovitts (2001) found that successful supervisors participate frequently in meetings with each advisee, spend more hours per week interacting with their advisees, help advisees with job searches, engage in more professional activities, see students in both informal and formal settings, and co-author journal articles or chapters with advisees. Additionally, the advisor can practice effective mentoring by being consistently available to the student. It is also helpful for advisors to give regular and constructive feedback about the student’s performance. Lastly, it is certainly important for the advisor to ensure the student has adequate exposure to and experience in research. Research assistantships, symposiums, seminars, and colloquia are appropriate arenas to bolster the student’s learning comfort level in performing research.

     

    Programs Must Encourage Student Cohesiveness


    Overall, most faculty and students who participated in our research agree that students in their program enjoy a strong social network. Both sets of respondents also report that they believed that the graduate school experience creates a "common bond" among students. Faculty also report that many friendships which begin in graduate school last a lifetime.

     

    Although the majority of our participants reported a strong degree of student cohesiveness in their program, certain factors reportedly resulted in the unraveling of that bond. For instance, many reported that initial cohesiveness declines when the students conduct independent research or when they compete for the same scarce resources. Additionally, divides between students can exist based on culture, research team, or cohort. A few participants reported the students in their programs generally associated only with other students of the same nationality or race. This is particularly alarming in that minority students reported higher levels of academic and social stress and lower levels of support (Rocha-Singh, 1992).

     

    Several program-level practices are suggested for improving student cohesiveness. Faculty and program leaders should create a specific plan for providing students with opportunities for social interaction. For example, seminars, symposiums, or informal events are common practices. Other programs appoint a social chair or social advisor who is responsible for hosting events. Additionally, faculty should create a physical space, such as a student lounge or open offices, which facilitate interaction between students. Programs can also establish peer advisement and mentoring programs for all incoming doctoral students. Programs should encourage student involvement in recruitment, seminars, professional organizations, and discussion groups. One unique program practice was a student-student mentoring program that included focus groups on work/life balance and professional issues pertinent to the discipline. Other effective practices include having a student social chairperson who is responsible for planning and organizing events for students.

     

    Conclusions


    It is our hope that others will find this work of value in addressing doctoral completion on their campuses. It is clear to us that lasting change must originate at the program level. In addition, we know that the graduate dean can motivate that change through the use of data by "shining a mirror" on each program and asking "Is this where you want to be?" The use of data can be very effective in initiating the conversation that can result in programmatic change. We found that having a theoretical framework and an action plan based on that framework along with data were extremely valuable in assisting departments to see the continuity of what they were doing as they made decisions to improve doctoral completion. The theoretical framework formed the foundation and assisted us in framing all conversations and university wide forums on doctoral completion. The success we experienced with respect to programmatic change at The University of Georgia is the direct result of framing the conversation and using data to inform faculty. While we realize that not all of the recommendations and ideas in this monograph will be appropriate for every institution, it is our hope that we have inspired you to think about doctoral completion and to take the action necessary for your institution.

     

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