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

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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.

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  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. 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. 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.


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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).

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Correspondence to Montserrat Castelló.

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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).

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