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Research Experience

Scholars in different disciplines conduct research and publish results in very different ways. In the lab sciences, students spend large portions of time as members of a research team, whereas in the humanities students typically pursue their research individually. In the former setting, joint publication is common, whereas in the latter collaborative authorship remains the exception rather than the norm. Generally, it is in their doctoral programs that students first experience the full extent of these differences. These differences and their implications for a student’s definition of and progress on the dissertation may have a significant impact on both completion rates and time to degree.

Another influential field difference is the extent to which dissertation stage research is a continuation of, or marks a major break with, coursework. In some fields, students have little or no preparation for the dissertation-level research required once they finish coursework and complete their qualifying or comprehensive examinations. Students may therefore spend years in a program before gaining a full understanding of what a doctorate in the discipline will entail. In such instances, students may feel they lack the early support and guidance they need to complete with confidence.

Such field differences imply different models of the individual’s contribution to a doctoral degree as well as different social contexts for that contribution. Researchers often note that the degree of social interaction characteristic of the sciences, where an apprenticeship model, research teams, and a laboratory setting prevail, can provide a more supportive environment than the solitary, individual research with often extended periods without advisor feedback that is often characteristic of the humanities [1].

[1] Council of Graduate Schools. 2004. Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policy, Numbers, Leaderhship and Next Steps. Washington, DC; Nerad, M. and J. Cerny. [1991]. “From Facts to Action: Expanding the Educational Role of the Graduate Division.” CGS Communicator; Ferrer de Valero, Y. [2001]. “Departmental Factors Affecting Time-to-Degree and Completion Rates of Doctoral Students at one Land-Grant Research Institution.” Journal of Higher Education 72:3, pp.341-67; Nettles, M. and C. Millett. [2006]. Three Magic Letters: Getting to PhD. Baltimore, MD; The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Promising Practices

The PhD Completion Project supports interventions and innovative practices in addressing differences in the research experience that may affect doctoral degree completion and attrition. The interventions typically fall into one of two categories: (1) early stage research experiences, with an emphasis on students’ early introduction to original scholarship and their ability to discern early on whether a PhD in the field is right for them; and (2) advanced-stage research experiences addressing common stumbling blocks in the preparation and completion of theses and dissertations. Promising practices identified by participating universities in the area of enhancing the research experience include:

Early research

  • Identify top undergraduates and invite them to participate in a research institute late in their sophomore year to prepare and recruit these students to pursue doctoral studies [See also ‘Selection and Admissions’]
  • Enhance an intensive 8-week summer research institute experience for recipients of the university Merit Fellow Awards (underrepresented students). [See also ‘Selection and Admissions’]
  • Summer Pre-Doctoral Institute for underrepresented students
  • Launch “Early Start Program”

Advanced-stage research

  • Support the beginning of the dissertation research stage
  • Foster a research environment and a culture of competing for external grants
  • Provide opportunities for doctoral students to engage in research earlier in their graduate career