Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors


Despite the increasing popularity of doctoral education, many students do not complete their studies, and very little information is available about them. Understanding why some students consider that they do not want to, or cannot, continue with their studies is essential to reduce dropout rates and to improve the overall quality of doctoral programmes. This study focuses on the motives students give for considering dropping out of their doctoral degree. Participants were 724 social sciences doctoral students from 56 Spanish universities, who responded to a questionnaire containing doctoral degree conditions questions and an open-ended question on motives for dropping out. Results showed that a third of the sample, mainly the youngest, female and part time students, stated that they had intended to drop out. The most frequent motives for considering dropping out were difficulties in achieving a balance between work, personal life and doctoral studies and problems with socialization. Overall, results offer a complex picture that has implications for the design of doctoral programmes, such as the conditions and demands of part-time doctoral studies or the implementation of educational proposals that facilitate students’ academic and personal integration into the scientific community in order to prevent the development of a culture of institutional neglect.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    European Commission, DG Research and Innovation. Researchers’ Report, 2014. Deloitte Consulting. Available at:


  2. 2.

    EUA 2005. Doctoral programmes for the European knowledge society. Report on the EUA doctoral programmes project. Retrieved from: www.eua.be.

  3. 3.

    We use the notion of “motives” to refer to the driving forces underlying students’ decisions, in our case, to consider to remain or drop out from their doctoral studies. We broadly rely on the Activity Theory’s notion of motive that is created through the tensions and contradictions within the elements of the system (Engeström 2001); that means we understand they are not only internal entities oriented to drive behaviour but a process of expression of a subject’s subjective configuration of his or her performance (Hedegaard et al. 2011).

  4. 4.

    The study was approved by the various ethics and research committees involved: Ethics Committee of Authors’ University (CER-URL-2013/005) Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Ref.: CSO2013-41108-R).

  5. 5.

    All the answers were in Spanish, and consequently, analysis were initially done in this language by authors who were native Spanish speakers. Translation into English of examples was done using forward-backward translation.


  1. Agudelo, D., Fuillerat, C. V., Bretón-López, J., Poveda-Vera, J., & Alvarez, I. T. (2003). ¿cómo tener éxito en un doctorado en Psicología?. Opinión de los directores de Tesis Doctorales más productivos de España. Revista internacional de psicología clínica y de la salud//International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 3(3), 565–593.

  2. Ali, A., & Kohun, F. (2006). Dealing with isolation feelings in IS doctoral programs. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 1, 21–34.

  3. Allan, P., & Dory, J. (2001). Understanding doctoral program attrition: an empirical study. Faculty Working Papers. Paper 17. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lubinfaculty_workingpapers/17.

  4. Ariza, T., Quevedo-Blasco, R., Bermúdez, M. P., & Buela-Casal, G. (2012). Analysis of postgraduate programs in the EHEA and the USA//Análisis de los programas de posgrado en el EEES y EEUU. Journal of Psychodidactics, 18(1), 197–219.

  5. Auriol, L., Misu, M., & Freeman, R. (2013). Doctorate holders: labour market and mobility indicators. Foresight-Russia, 7(4), 16–42.

  6. Bain, S., Fedynich, L., & Knight, M. (2010). The successful graduate student: a review of the factors for success. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, 3(7), 1–9.

  7. Bermúdez, M. P., Castro, A., Sierra, J. C., & Buela-Casal, G. (2009). Análisis descriptivo transnacional de los estudios de doctorado en el EEES. Revista de Psicodidáctica, 14(2), 193–210.

  8. Castelló, M., Iñesta, A., & Corcelles, M. (2013). Ph. D. students’ transitions between academic and scientific writing identity: learning to write a research article. Res Teach Engl , 47(4), 442–478.Special Issue

  9. Castelló, M., McAlpine, L. & Pyhältö, K. (in press-a). Spanish and UK post-PhD researchers: Writing perceptions, well-being and productivity. Journal of Higher Education Research & Development. (accepted)

  10. Cerrato-Lara, M. Castelló, García-Velázquez, R. & M. Lonka. (in press-b). Phd students’ writing conceptions in Spain and validation of the writing process questionnaire in two Spanish-speaking countries. Journal of Writing Research (accepted).

  11. de Miguel Díaz, F. M. (2010). Evaluación y mejora de los estudios de doctorado. Revista de educación, 352, 569–581.

  12. Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. J Educ Work, 14(1), 133–156.

  13. EUA. (2005). Doctoral programmes for the European knowledge society. Report on the EUA doctoral programmes project. Retrieved from: http://www.eua.be/eua/jsp/en/upload/Doctoral_Programmes_Project_Report.1129278878120.pdf

  14. Fuentes, V., García, M., & Aranda, M. (2015). “La tesis y sus vicisitudes”: análisis de la experiencia de doctorandos/as en España. Opción, 31(2), 313–332.

  15. Gaff, J. G. (2002a). The disconnect between graduate education and the realities of faculty work: a review of recent research. Lib Educ, 88(3), 6–13.

  16. Gaff, J. G. (2002b). Preparing future faculty and doctoral education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 34(6), 63–66. doi:10.1080/00091380209605571.

  17. Gardner, S. (2006). “I heard it through the grapevine”. Doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. High Educ, 54, 723–740.

  18. Gardner, S. (2008). Fitting the mold of graduate school: a qualitative study of socialization in doctoral education. Innov High Educ, 33, 125–128.

  19. Gardner, S. (2009a). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States. High Educ, 58, 97–112. doi:10.1007/s10734-008-9184-7.

  20. Gardner, S. (2009b). Conceptualizing success in doctoral education: perspectives of faculty in seven disciplines. Rev High Educ, 32(3), 383–406.

  21. Haworth, J. G., & Bair, C. R. (2000). Learning experiences that make a difference: findings from a national study of doctoral education in the professions. Sacramento: Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).

  22. Hedegaard, M., Edwards, A., & Fleer, M. (2011). Motives in children’s development: cultural-historical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  23. Humphrey, R. (2012). The impact of research training and research codes of practice on submission of doctoral degrees: an exploratory cohort study. High Educ Q, 66(1), 47–64.

  24. Lewis, C. W., Ginsberg, R., Davies, T., & Smith, K. (2004). The experiences of African American Ph.D. students at a predominantly white Carnegie I—research institution. Coll Stud J, 38(2), 231–245.

  25. Lonka, K., Chow, A., Keskinen, J., Hakkarainen, K., Sandström, N., & Pyhältö, K. (2014). How to measure PhD students’ conceptions of academic writing—and are they related to well-being? Journal of Writing Research, 5(3), 245–269.

  26. Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: the causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

  27. Lovitts, B. E., & Nelson, C. (2000). The hidden crisis in graduate education: attrition from Ph. D programs Academe, 86(6), 44–50.

  28. Manathunga, C. (2005). Early warning signs in postgraduate research education: a different approach to ensuring timely completions. Teach High Educ, 10(2), 219–233.

  29. McAlpine, L., Paulson, J., Gonsalves, A., & Jazvac-Martek, M. (2012). ‘Untold’ doctoral stories: can we move beyond cultural narratives of neglect? Higher Education Research & Development, 31(4), 511–523. doi:10.1080/07294360.2011.559199.

  30. MEC. (2015). Datos y Cifras del Sistema Universitario Español. Curso 2014–2015. Retrieved from: http://www.mecd.gob.es/educacion-mecd/areas-educacion/universidades/estadisticas-informes/estadisticas/alumnado/2014-2015_Av.html.

  31. Nulty, D. D. (2008). The adequacy of response rates to online and paper surveys: what can be done? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(3), 301–314.

  32. Pilbeam, C., Lloyd-Jones, G., & Denyer, D. (2013). Leveraging value in doctoral student networks through social capital. Studies in Higher Education, 38(10), 1472–1489.

  33. Pyhältö, K., & Keskinen, J. (2012). Doctoral students’ sense of relational agency in their scholarly communities. International Journal of Higher Education, 1(2), 136–149. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v1n2p136.

  34. Pyhältö, K., Stubb, J., & Lonka, K. (2009). Developing scholarly communities as learning environments for doctoral students. Int J Acad Dev, 14(3), 221–232.

  35. Pyhältö, K. M., Peltonen, J., Rautio, P., Haverinen, K., Laatikainen, M., & Vekkaila, J. E. (2016). Summary report on doctoral experience in UniOGS graduate school at the University of Oulu. Acta Universitatis Ouluensis. http://jultika.oulu.fi/Record/isbn978-952-62-1084-1.

  36. Smith, R. L., Maroney, K., Nelson, K. W., Abel, A. L., & Abel, H. S. (2006). Doctoral programs: changing high rates of attrition. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 45(1), 17–31.

  37. Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: factors doctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7, 199–219.

  38. Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition research (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago.

  39. Trigwell, K., & Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2005). The research experience of postgraduate research students at the University of Oxford. Oxford: Institute for the Advancement of University Learning, University of Oxford.

  40. Weidman, J. C. (2010). Doctoral student socialization for research. In S. K. Gardner & P. Mendoza (Eds.), On becoming a scholar. Socialization and development in doctoral education. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

  41. Zeng, M., Webster, B. J., & Ginns, P. (2013). Measuring the research experience of research postgraduate students in Hong Kong. High Educ Res Dev, 32(4), 672–686.

Download references


This study was partially funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Societal Challenges R+D+i programme FINS-RIDSS -CSO2013-41108-R and Researcher Training programme BES-2014-068397) and the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports (University Professor Training programme FPU13/06957).

Author information

Correspondence to Montserrat Castelló.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Castelló, M., Pardo, M., Sala-Bubaré, A. et al. Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors. High Educ 74, 1053–1068 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0106-9

Download citation


  • Doctoral education
  • Dropping-out
  • Socialization
  • Researcher education
  • Personal and institutional factors