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Higher Education Practices That Promote PhD Completion

Dr. Shelley Gray, Arizona State University

The cumulative 10-year completion rate for PhD students averages less than 50% in the United States (Council of Graduate Schools, 2008). Given the high level of personal and institutional investment required to support students for even 1 year in a PhD program, it is incumbent on graduate programs to lower attrition and increase completion rates so that financial, educational, and personal resources are not wasted.

The Council of Graduate Schools (2010) recently released a report entitled Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success. Data came from 21 higher education institutions endeavoring to improve their completion rates. Six types of interventions emerged as promising practices: (1) improving administrative mechanisms to help ensure that incoming students and programs are a good fit; (2) improving mentoring and advising to insure that these activities are practiced evenly and well within and across graduate programs; (3) providing the types of financial support that "optimize completion and enhance academic and social integration" (p. 3); (4) creating an academic environment with expectations for high performance and strong student support; (5) providing research experiences that foster social interaction, including pre-program experiences and opportunities for lab rotations early in the PhD; and (6) providing curricular support in areas such as writing and teaching, professional development to help students be prepared to enter the academe, and administrative support including tracking of student progress.

Of these, the most important factor in a student's decision to stick with a PhD program is the faculty advisor. Lovitts and Nelson (2000) reported that students completing their PhD are twice as likely to be satisfied with their advisor as students who leave. This suggests that students and advisors should have the opportunity to visit with each other before their match is finalized, and that graduate programs should monitor the quality of advising and mentoring their students receive. After all, people perceive their mentoring roles differently and bring different skills to the task. In fact, traditional approaches to higher education mentoring that limit a student to one primary advisor may limit students' experiences and outlook on life in academia (de Janasz, Sullivan, & Whiting, 2003). Approaches such as mentor circles, where mentors and students work in small groups, can increase connectivity and a student's successful integration into their graduate program (Darwin & Palmer, 2009).

A hospitable graduate program environment is also critical for student retention (Nelson & Lovitts, 2008). Nelson and Lovitts suggested that all new students should be oriented to their program and that faculty should interact with students regularly, including in social situations. Space dedicated to doctoral students where they can work and interact is important for making academic life inviting and for developing friendships and social networks that will serve students well in their professional careers. Students should have the opportunity to include their families in the social life of their department and programs should endeavor to recognize student achievement in ways that include families.

One key to timely program completion is to ensure that students are aware of critical milestones in their PhD program and how long it should take to complete each one. Programs should develop PhD handbooks that set high expectations for students and reflect the joint commitment of faculty and staff to ensuring an "on-time" graduation. Advisors should review expected progress with their advisees at the beginning of their program, including consequences of lagging behind. In addition to their advisor, the student's program committee should track their progress and communicate formally on a regular basis about successes or the need for adjustments. Departments and the graduate college should support these efforts by making student tracking resources available to students and faculty.

Of all the policies with the potential to improve student retention, perhaps the likeliest to succeed are those that—before admission—help ensure a good match between the student and the advisor and a good fit of the student to the culture and expectations of the program. Such policies include requiring an actual visit to the program, meetings with their potential advisors, discussions with current doctoral students, and the opportunity to see the living conditions and educational setting where they will spend the next several years of their life. In her advice to prospective PhD students, Hitt (2009) suggested that motivated students may fail if they find themselves in environments that differ from their expectations. For example, some students do very well in competitive environments, but others require less demanding situations to flourish. Advisors who discuss program culture with prospective students before they commit to attending their program do everyone a favor.

Most of the promising practices for increasing retention and decreasing attrition seem like common sense, but the fact is that few graduate programs have all the pieces in place. Who in your program would enthusiastically take on the role of improving your doctoral training? It will take leadership to improve our programs and to solve the shortage of PhDs.


Council of Graduate Schools. (2008, September). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline demographic data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. Retrieved from [PDF].

Council of Graduate Schools. (2010, March). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Policies and practices to promote student success. Retrieved from

Darwin, A., & Palmer, E. (2009). Mentoring circles in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 29, 125–136.

Hitt, E. (2009). Finding a partner for your Ph.D.

de Janasz, S. C., Sullivan, S. E., & Whiting, V. (2003). Mentor networks and career success: Lessons for turbulent times. Academy of Management Executive, 17(4), 78–91.

Lovitts, B. E., & Nelson, C. (2000). The hidden crisis in graduate education: Attrition from Ph.D. programs. Academe, 86(6). Retrieved from

Nelson, C., & Lovitts, B. E. (2008). Program environment: 10 ways to keep graduate students from quitting. Retrieved from

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