10 Ways to Keep Graduate Students From Quitting
By CARY NELSON and BARBARA E. LOVITTS
For the first time in 14 years, the total number of Ph.D.'s granted
by universities in the United States has fallen -- with engineering and
physical sciences showing the largest percentage drops. Whether this change
presages a teacher shortage of "crisis" proportions, to quote
the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, is questionable.
Higher-education institutions could remedy the situation almost immediately
if they encouraged students currently enrolled in graduate programs to
remain and earn their degrees
Graduate programs have been notoriously wasteful of their students for
decades. The national attrition rate across disciplines has averaged around
50 percent, and some departments have lost an even higher percentage.
With a seemingly endless supply of applicants, colleges and universities
have been able to treat graduate students as expendable commodities. Some
institutions enroll large numbers of students in master's-degree programs
to profit from their tuition payments, then deny even highly qualified
candidates admission to doctoral study. Others provide little or no advising
and other support, on the assumption that there will always be new students
Such attrition damages people. Students who leave graduate school, especially
those who depart after several years in a program, often must reconstruct
their lives at a time when they are demoralized and deeply in debt. They
have to fashion new career goals and self-images when they are ill-prepared
to do so. Many feel a sense of personal failure for years, never realizing
that the "failure" is often likelier institutional than personal.
Now, however, the endless supply of graduate students may be drying up.
Our interviews with directors of graduate study in humanities and social-sciences
departments suggest that, over the past five years, applications at some
institutions have dropped by as much as two-thirds. More-lucrative job
positions outside academe have lured away people who might have once considered
graduate school, or encouraged those currently enrolled in unsupportive
programs to drop out and pursue alternative careers.
As a result, economic pressures may finally force colleges to redress
the human cost of attrition. Although early departure may pay off for
some students, it can produce an unhealthy turnover rate on campuses.
Departments that rely on graduate students to teach introductory courses
will have to invest much more time and money to manage an increasingly
transient and less experienced teaching staff.
It is well past time for colleges to work to keep good graduate students.
If students deserve admission, they deserve the support and attention
they need to complete their degrees. The departments that lose 25 percent
of their students to attrition are not better at selecting graduate students
than those who lose 75 percent; they are simply better at retaining them
Our research demonstrates that colleges can take a number of steps to
create more-hospitable environments for graduate students:
- Prepare undergraduates for the culture of graduate school.
Academics often assume that a student's knowledge of the discipline
is all that matters, but advance awareness of the culture of graduate
school is equally important. Indeed, some activities, like undergraduate
involvement in research projects, can be counterproductive if a student
joins a graduate program that has no tradition of collaborative research
with faculty members. Students can harbor false expectations about the
nature of graduate training, which only fuel their disenchantment. To
avoid such misunderstandings, colleges that have doctoral programs,
or are located near another doctoral-granting institution, could offer
undergraduates the opportunity to spend time shadowing graduate students.
- Provide balanced information about graduate programs and
Departments want to put their best foot forward in the promotional information
that they distribute to students or post on their Web sites. But they
also have a responsibility to be frank about factors such as attrition
rates, the cost of living in the area, and the job placement of graduates.
The Web site and other informational materials should also detail the
requirements of the program, specify the levels and nature of financial
support that a student might receive, and identify graduates willing
to talk with applicants. In addition, the department should post faculty
résumés and sample publications online, along with a record
of Ph.D. recipients and the titles of their dissertations.
- Encourage candidates to visit the campus.
Departments have traditionally considered campus visits to be recruiting
opportunities -- which they are. But such visits also can help ensure
that candidates understand the specific nature of different graduate
programs. Some departments are intensely competitive, others more collegial;
some encourage multidisciplinary work, others discourage it; some support
particular subdisciplines or specializations, others do not. Such characteristics
are not always apparent to applicants, who often discover a department's
strengths and weaknesses only after they enroll. Institutions should
conduct regular campus tours; organizations that award graduate fellowships
might help provide financial support for such visits.
- Require prospective students to tailor their applications.
Applicants should do more than mention the names of faculty members
whom they have found on a department Web site as a reason for their
interest in a graduate program. Departments should ask applicants to
explain in some detail how and why they are drawn to a particular program
of study. By evaluating and commenting on specific faculty publications,
for example, students would learn more about a department and whether
it fits their goals.
- Expect all students not working in a laboratory to teach.
Teaching one course per year, even for fellowship recipients, can make
the difference between a graduate student who feels integrated into
the department and one who does not. To encourage such teaching, colleges
should also consider establishing graduate-student teaching awards.
Of course, fellowships that require teaching should pay more than fellowships
that do not. If payments are increased and spread over 12 months, students
can more easily devote the summer to academic pursuits.
- Pay a living wage to all research and teaching assistants.
Institutions should provide a combination of salaried teaching or research
assistantships and fellowship support that is adequate to allow a graduate
student to live through the year without going into debt. Although debt
levels have not ordinarily driven students to leave graduate school,
they are a major source of resentment for those who depart -- and they
may be a particular concern for economically disadvantaged students.
The institution also should offer full health-care coverage to all employees
and their dependents, which could go a long way toward helping graduate
students with children.
- Monitor advising relationships.
Whenever possible, departments should assign to each incoming student
an adviser in his or her field -- one who has a history of supervising
dissertation research and a commitment to graduate students. At the
same time, students should be informed that the assignment is provisional,
and that there are no penalties for changing advisers. Departments should
implement a system that allows students to choose their own advisers
and that provides information to help students understand how to make
- Offer continuing opportunities for professional growth.
Academic administrators can help graduate students expand their knowledge
and contacts in a number of ways. They can invite students to participate
in departmental governance, schedule regular seminars or lecture series
about research trends in the field and general higher-education issues,
encourage student membership in disciplinary organizations, and offer
paid subscriptions to professional journals. Institutions should also
provide financial support for lectures and conferences that students
organize, as well as for student travel for professional purposes.
- Create a hospitable departmental environment.
A good atmosphere may be intangible, but it is crucial. Colleges should,
for instance, arrange detailed orientations for all new students. Senior
faculty members should invite students to social events every semester.
It would also be valuable to establish a departmental lounge with comfortable
seating, good lighting, books and journals, bulletin boards with recognitions
of student achievement, and refreshments.
- Conduct exit interviews with all departing students.
Common negative experiences are a good indicator that something is wrong
with a program, but students who leave before completing a degree often
do so quietly. As a result, faculty members and administrators are denied
valuable feedback that would help them redress any underlying problems.
All departments, and especially those with high attrition rates, should
open channels of communication with students. Academic administrators
should seek out students before they leave and encourage them to participate
in exit interviews. They should distribute questionnaires to departing
students and conduct phone interviews with those no longer in the area.
In addition, they could ask neutral parties to organize groups of current
students to discuss their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with various
aspects of the program. The students' recommendations could then be communicated
Some departments do all of those things; others do few or none of them.
In our research, we found that departments in the latter group have significantly
higher rates of attrition. Our suggestions represent only some of the
ways that institutions might work to retain good graduate students. But
the fundamental message is clear: Departments should seriously consider
how they must adapt and change to ensure the success of all students whom
they consider worthy of admission
Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign and the co-author of Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary
for Higher Education (Routledge, 1999). Barbara E. Lovitts is a senior
research analyst at the American Institutes for Research and the author
of Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure From
Graduate Study (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).