Students and researchers often cite financial support as being among the most influential factors on PhD completion and attrition. On the surface, there would appear to be a direct correlation between the financial support package that students receive and the likelihood that they will complete. Fields in which funding for students is relatively plentiful (such as the life sciences) tend to exhibit higher than average completion rates and shorter than average time to degree, whereas in fields where full and continuous funding for students is less common (such as the humanities), completion rates are typically lower and time to degree, longer.
Below the surface, however, it may be that while some level of funding provides the minimum conditions for a student’s degree completion, the structure of financial support and the ways that other factors interact with that support play an equal or even larger role in the likelihood that students will complete. For example, some programs offer continuous funding to students through the summer, while other programs do not; and some universities may have more flexibility than others in the timing and number of teaching and research assistantships allocated to students depending on institutional constraints such as budget, student demand, and university requirements. How student support is structured, and whether or not assistantships can be timed to coincide with students’ professional growth needs, can influence degree completion as well as time to degree.
One challenge in studying the effect of financial support on degree completion, nationally, is that some universities and programs that are able to offer doctoral fellowships in amounts greater than the national average may also be in a position to provide extensive support and services to students in other areas that are believed to have a positive impact on completion rates. For example, one factor that has perhaps received the greatest attention by researchers is academic and social integration . Depending upon how financial support through assistantships and fellowships is structured, it can either enhance or inhibit academic and social integration. Tying fellowships to activities that promote academic and social integration of students is one of the common themes across participating universities that have implemented improvements in financial support for doctoral students.
 Lovitts, B. . Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield; Golde, C. (2000). “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Student Descriptions of the Doctoral Attrition Process” The Review of Higher Education, 23:2, pp. 199-227.
The PhD Completion Project supports sustainable interventions and innovative practices in the provision and structuring of financial support designed to optimize completion and enhance academic and social integration. Promising practices identified by participating universities in the area of financial support and structure include:
- Guarantee multiyear support by allocation of funding to departments
- Monitor the timing of teaching/lab rotations and other obligations conducted early in academic training career
- Monitor student requests for conference travel support, and provide competitive travel grants to support students with candidacy who have been invited to present at major conferences
- Increase fellowship funding and connect funding allocations with department completion/continuation of improvement efforts and accomplishments
- Structure science and engineering fellowships to combine financial support with student involvement in research within the student’s academic department
- Promote graduate student applications for external fellowships and provide staff help for proposal development and submission
- Improve financial packages by:
- Increasing stipend levels to the median of the university’s peer group in each broad disciplinary area of the graduate school
- Increasing the number of selective university fellowship awards
- Increasing the number of summer research awards in the humanities and social sciences
- Providing health insurance premium coverage
- Change model for graduate assistantship allocation to a “PhD preferred” model, whereby 80% of doctoral students and 20% of master’s students will be funded
- Hold continuing graduate assistantship positions to strategic performance indicators of satisfactory degree progress
- Develop “best practices” for tracking student progress and amount and type of student financial aid
- Initiate fellowship block grants and supplemental graduate fellowships
- Develop, enhance and assess programs to integrate fellows into the process of graduate education
- Explore higher stipends for dissertating students
- Create more one-quarter releases from teaching for dissertating students
- Increase stipend support for summer research