Higher Education

, Volume 58, Issue 1, pp 97–112 | Cite as

Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States

  • Susan K. GardnerEmail author


Sixty doctoral students and 34 faculty members were interviewed in departments identified as having high and low doctoral student completion rates at one institution in the United States in order to examine the cultural contexts and structures that facilitate or hinder doctoral student completion. This paper outlines the differences in understandings of doctoral student attrition by role and by department using attribution theory. Implications for policy, practice, and further research are included.


Doctoral students Attrition Attribution theory 


  1. Attiyeh, G. (1999). Determinants of persistence of graduate students in Ph.D. programs. Princeton: Educational Testing Service.Google Scholar
  2. Baird, L. L. (1993). Using research and theoretical models of graduate student progress. In L. L. Baird (Ed.), Increasing graduate student retention and degree attainment (pp. 3–12). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  3. Berelson, B. (1960). Graduate education in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  4. Berg, H. M., & Ferber, M. A. (1983). Men and women graduate students: who succeeds and why? The Journal of Higher Education, 54(6), 629–648. doi: 10.2307/1981934.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Biglan, A. (1973). The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 57, 195–203. doi: 10.1037/h0034701.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2003). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theories and methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Google Scholar
  7. Bowen, W. G., & Rudenstine, N. L. (1992). In pursuit of the Ph.D. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Brewer, D. J., Gates, S. M., & Goldman, C. A. (2001). In pursuit of prestige: Strategy and competition in U.S. higher education. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  9. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2003). Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate: Brief Overview. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from
  10. Clark, S. M., & Corcoran, M. (1986). Perspectives on the professional socialization of women faculty: a case of accumulative disadvantage? The Journal of Higher Education, 57, 20–43. doi: 10.2307/1981464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cook, M. M., & Swanson, A. (1978). The interaction of student and program variables for the purpose of developing a model for predicting graduation from graduate programs over a 10-year period. Research in Higher Education, 8, 83–91. doi: 10.1007/BF00985858.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Council of Graduate Schools. (2004). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Policy, numbers, leadership, and next steps. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.Google Scholar
  13. Council of Graduate Schools. (2005). The doctor of philosophy degree: A policy statement. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.Google Scholar
  14. Council of Graduate Schools. (2008). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline program data from the Ph.D. completion project. Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  15. Ellis, E. M. (2001). The impact of race and gender on graduate school socialization, satisfaction with doctoral study, and commitment to degree completion. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 25, 30–45.Google Scholar
  16. Ethington, C. A., & Pisani, A. (1993). The RA and TA experience: impediments and benefits to graduate study. Research in Higher Education, 34(3), 343–354. doi: 10.1007/BF00991848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  18. Gardner, S. K. (2007). “I heard it through the grapevine”: doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. Higher Education, 54, 723–740. doi: 10.1007/s10734-006-9020-x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Girves, J. E., & Wemmerus, V. (1988). Developing models of graduate student degree progress. The Journal of Higher Education, 59(2), 163–189. doi: 10.2307/1981691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Glaser, B. (1978). Theoretical sensitivity: Advances in the methodology of grounded theory. Mill Valley: Sociology press.Google Scholar
  21. Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: Explaining first-year doctoral attrition. In M. S. Anderson (Ed.), The experience of being in graduate school: An exploration (pp. 55–64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  22. Golde, C. M. (2005). The role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition: lessons from four departments. The Journal of Higher Education, 76, 669–700. doi: 10.1353/jhe.2005.0039.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Golde, C. M., & Dore, T. M. (2001). At cross purposes: What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from
  24. Gonzalez, J. C. (2006). Academic socialization experiences of Latina doctoral students: a qualitative understanding of support systems that aid and challenges that hinder the process. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 5(4), 347–365. doi: 10.1177/1538192706291141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Herzig, A. H. (2004a). Becoming mathematicians: women and students of color choosing and leaving doctoral mathematics. Review of Educational Research, 74(2), 171–214. doi: 10.3102/00346543074002171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Herzig, A. H. (2004b). ‘Slaughtering this beautiful math’: graduate women choosing and leaving mathematics. Gender and Education, 16(3), 379–395. doi: 10.1080/09540250042000251506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. House, J. D., & Johnson, J. J. (1993). Graduate record examination scores and academic background variables as predictors of graduate degree completion. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 53(2), 551–556. doi: 10.1177/0013164493053002025.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lott, J., & Gardner, S. K. (2008). Doctoral student attrition in the STEM fields: an exploration of event history analysis. The Journal of College Student Retention (in press).Google Scholar
  29. Lovitts, B. E. (1996). Who is responsible for graduate student attrition—the individual or the institution? Toward an explanation of the high and persistent rate of attrition. New York: Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  30. Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  31. Maher, M. A., Ford, M. E., & Thompson, C. M. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral students: factors that constrain, facilitate, and differentiate. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 385–408. doi: 10.1353/rhe.2004.0003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Margolis, E., & Romero, M. (1998). “The department is very male, very white, very old, and very conservative”: the functioning of the hidden curriculum in graduate sociology departments. Harvard Educational Review, 68, 1–32.Google Scholar
  33. Maxwell, J. A. (1996). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  34. McCormick, A. C. (2001). The Carnegie classification of institutions of higher education. Menlo Park: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.Google Scholar
  35. National Science Foundation. (2004). Alliances for graduate education and the professoriate. Retrieved February 26, 2006, from
  36. Nerad, M., & Miller, D. S. (1996). Increasing student retention in graduate and professional programs. In J. G. Haworth (Ed.), Assessing graduate and professional education: Current realities, future prospects (pp. 61–76). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  37. Nerad, M., & Miller, D. S. (1997). The institution cares: Berkeley’s efforts to support dissertation writing in the humanities and social sciences. In L. F. Goodchild, K. E. Green, E. L. Katz, & R. C. Kluever (Eds.), Rethinking the dissertation process: Tackling personal and institutional obstacles (pp. 75–90). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  38. Nettles, M. T., & Millett, C. M. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Noble, K. A. (1994). Changing doctoral degrees: An international perspective. Suffolk: Edmundsbury press.Google Scholar
  40. Pion, G. M. (2001). The early career progress of NRSA predoctoral trainees and fellows (No. 00–4900): National Institutes of Health.Google Scholar
  41. Price, J. (2006). Does a spouse slow you down?: Marriage and graduate student outcomes. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  42. Smallwood, S. (2004). Doctor dropout. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 19A.Google Scholar
  43. The Carnegie Foundation. (2005). The Carnegie classification of institutions of higher education. Retrieved September 12, 2007, from
  44. Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  45. U.S. News and World Report. (2007). America’s best graduate schools. U.S. News and World Report.Google Scholar
  46. Walker, G. E., Golde, C. M., Jones, L., Conklin Bueschel, A., & Hutchings, P. (2008). The formation of scholars: Rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  47. Weiner, B. (1995). Attribution theory in organizational behavior: A relationship of mutual benefit. In M. J. Martinko, B. Weiner, & R. G. Lord (Eds.), Attribution theory: An organizational perspective (pp. 3–6). Boca Raton: CRC press.Google Scholar
  48. Zwick, R. (1991). Differences in graduate school attainment patterns across academic programs and demographic groups. Princeton: Minority Graduate Education Project, Educational Testing Service and Graduate Record Examinations.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Higher EducationUniversity of MaineOronoUSA

Personalised recommendations