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A Sociological Lens on Graduate School Attrition

by Carla B. Howery, Deputy Executive Officer

Higher education has flagged a concern with overproduction of PhDs, but has given short shrift to an inverse problem – a high rate of graduate student attrition from PhD programs, coming close to 50 percent in many fields. Because graduate education is a scarce and costly “good,” it is important to understand the dynamics of the attrition process. What improvements could be made in students’ selection of a program and the programs’ selection of them? Once in graduate school, what are the important factors that lead to timely completion of the PhD?

Although there is not much research on attrition, sociologist Barbara Lovitts, American Institutes of Research (Washington, DC), ameliorates the void. She took C. Wright Mills to heart by taking a look at her own “biography” as a graduate student through the lens of organizational analysis. Her dissertation (from University of Maryland) formed the basis of a new book, Leaving the Ivory Tower (Roman & Littlefield, 2001) about the causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study.

Lovitts left two PhD programs herself before finally completing her PhD in sociology at the University of Maryland. She was alarmed not only at the high rate of attrition in programs, but also at the “silence” that accompanies those exits. In particular she noted that students who depart without finishing their degrees tend to blame themselves rather than the system for their presumed failings. This self-blame inhibits students from giving voice to their discontent. Instead, they exit silently and alone, and faculty members and administrators—those who are in a position to make changes—are denied the feedback they need to understand and address the attrition problem. “The social structure of graduate education and its underlying social forces are thus maintained intact” (p. 257).

Lovitts surveyed former graduate students from nine fields, including sociology, who were enrolled at two large universities in 1982-84. She interviewed both “completers,” and “non-completers” along with selected faculty members and the Directors of Graduate Study, as well as made site visits to the campuses and departments. Her findings, briefly summarized here, shed considerable light on the structural and processual factors that contribute to:

• Funding patterns, especially the prevalence of fellowships which—although they allow students more time to pursue the degree—prevent the sort of integration into the intellectual and social life of the department that bolsters retention;

• Lack of collective attention to student progress, which is a result of the failure of faculty members to see that successful graduate work is far more than classwork alone, but rather requires that the whole department be a resource for students who are shaping their intellectual agenda;

• Lack of “fit” between student interests and capabilities and the department’s faculty and culture. This comes, in part, from departments’ desire to get the “best” graduate students by focusing on test scores, recommendations, and prestige of the undergraduate school—rather than factors that may be more critical to the student’s success and satisfaction in the department;

• Inadequate faculty support, particularly in the critical time period before students select dissertation advisors and committees. Once students have dissertation advisors, those faculty members assume responsibility for students and provide the sort of mentoring that would likely enhance retention at earlier stages in students’ graduate careers;

• Students’ lack of “cognitive maps”—that is, shared mental models of the complex academic and social systems of graduate departments. These would help students make sense of what they experience in their graduate training, inform their decision-making, and help them craft a plan of action that would facilitate their passage through the system;

• Lack of faculty awareness of the attrition rates within their departments, which, Lovitts found, they consistently underestimated. Lovitts’ research also documented the importance of connecting with the graduate student subculture, which seems to come more easily to students who share an office, serve as teaching or research assistants, and otherwise spend time on campus and are in frequent daily contact with other graduate students. These students—unlike the ones who have fellowships, no financial support, or who for other reasons are not connected the subculture—are more likely to develop useful cognitive maps, to discover that other graduate students share their insecurities, and, thus, to complete their degrees. “Pluralistic ignorance flourishes in graduate school, “ says Lovitts. Graduate students assume that everyone else knows what is going on and what to do and they are hesitant to ask for fear of appearing unworthy to be in the program.

Attrition rates do vary by field. One reason they are a bit lower in the physical sciences, according to Lovitts, is that in those fields, research is done in teams. In those fields, students enter research groups early in their graduate careers and the subject matter is vertically integrated. As a result, they can develop a clear picture of their graduate programs and the type of work they need to do to complete their degrees. They are provided “more opportunities for academic and social integration with members of their departmental community” than are students in the humanities and non-laboratory based social sciences, where subject matter is horizontally integrated and most research is done individually and in isolation—in libraries, archives, and in the field. In short, the structural and cultural organization of the sciences means students are more likely to finish their graduate training (p. 260).

Another finding showed the impact of the truism that access to quality advising is unequally distributed. “A student’s relationship with his or her adviser is probably the single most critical factor in determining who stays and who leaves” (p. 262). Students often do not or cannot make a careful selection of adviser and are hesitant to change advisers if they do not feel the relationship is working well. Lovitts’ findings suggest that non-completers are more likely to work with low-PhD productive faculty than completers. Low PhD productive faculty are less engaged with their students, less engaged in department activities, and less engaged in cutting-edge research than high-PhD productive faculty” (p. 262).

To reduce the high rate of attrition, Lovitts suggests that sociologists should be especially skilled at reflecting on the department culture and improving department climate. “The ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality…serves to reinforce existing cultural norms, because it ensures that only those graduate students who conform to the norms will survive,” she notes. More contact with applicants before the admission decision and additional information for them before they arrive will help them develop more viable cognitive maps.

Intentional integration through orientation programs, social and academic events, experiences in departmental governance, teaching and research experiences (especially for students not funded in these ways), and ensuring a group research experience can help reduce attrition. In short, Lovitts suggests that departments, through the Director of Graduate Study, work with every student to show the department as a whole is taking responsibility for offering intellectual and professional development opportunities and for encouraging involvement in and identification with the department and the field of sociology.

This research comes at a time of renewed attention to improving graduate education. For example, Chris Golde at University of Wisconsin has extensively surveyed graduate students about their views of graduate work at different points in time and their views of the future professorate1 . ASA is part of a national project on Preparing Future Faculty that seeks to augment graduate education to include preparation for faculty roles in different kinds of institutions. The ASA MOST Program focuses on four graduate departments that are making changes, as a department, in their curriculum, climate, mentoring, outreach, and research training to better engage all students. The Council on Graduate Schools, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center each have initiatives to enhance graduate education and reduce some of the difficulties that Lovitts’ data document. Attrition is costly to all parties and putting the best minds to solving it seems a worthy endeavor.