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Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: a matter of sense, progress and distress


A central trend in qualitative studies investigating doctoral students’ dropout is to stress the importance of students’ integration and socialisation in their working environment. Yet, few of these studies actually compared the experiences of doctoral students who completed or quit their PhD. In order to overcome this limitation and identify the factors that differentiate these two groups, the present study interviewed 21 former doctoral students: 8 completers and 13 non-completers. The results show that what best differentiates these two groups of participants is the extent to which they feel that they are moving forward, without experiencing too much distress, on a research project that makes sense to them. We assume that this set of factors is central in the dropout process. Support from doctoral peers was found to play a positive role overall but did not contribute to differentiating the two groups, presumably because peers have a limited impact on dissertation progress. Supervisors’ support was central to the participants’ stories; it is thus assumed to play a role in the process, but this role is complex and needs further investigation. These results call for a stronger consideration of the doctoral task itself when investigating the process of persistence and attrition and for a more integrated framework that considers jointly both task- and environment-related aspects.

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Correspondence to Christelle Devos.

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This study was funded by the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (F.R.S.—FNRS) (grant number F.R.F.C. 2.4609.12)

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Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N. et al. Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: a matter of sense, progress and distress. Eur J Psychol Educ 32, 61–77 (2017).

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  • PhD
  • Doctoral
  • Attrition
  • Dropout
  • Motivation
  • Emotions
  • Supervisor
  • Peers