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Program Environment
10 Ways to Keep Graduate Students From Quitting


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 seeking admission.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. Provide balanced information about graduate programs and their requirements.
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 appropriate choices.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 to administrators.

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).

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