"According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, despite a dearth of comprehensive national statistics, several studies have indicated that the attrition rate in doctoral programs could be as high as 50 percent (Smallwood, 2004)."

Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#720 Doctoral Dissertation - Looking Back, Looking Forward


The posting below looks at dissertation process from the inside out. It is by Eduardo Lage-Otero, doctoral candidate, Educational Communication & Technology Program, Department of Administration, Leadership & Technology, New York University. [elo204@nyu.edu]. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Political Bias in Undergraduate Education

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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The closer I get to completing my dissertation, the more I think about the beginning stages of this rocky journey, and all the tasks I should have done earlier and all the knowledge I wish I had then. This presentation looks back at that process to see how it can be made less daunting for future doctoral candidates. And it also looks forward, providing some suggestions on how to tackle this complex issue. With that introduction over, let me start then with a brief discussion on the challenges present in the area of doctoral studies.

Doctoral Studies

The ABD, or "all but dissertation" stage of the doctoral process-starting roughly from the completion of all course requirements and ending with the successful defense of a dissertation-has traditionally been a problematic one for students. The challenges graduate students encounter during this period can stretch the process far more than they had anticipated and potentially lead some students to drop out without having attained their goal. These challenges can be of a personal nature-such as financial difficulties and family obligations-or academic, for example, difficulty in coming up with adequate research topics or, quite often, writer's block. This situation has resulted in a growing concern in Higher Education about the increased time-to-degree ratio for doctoral students and its impact on attrition rates. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, despite a dearth of comprehensive national statistics, several studies have indicated that the attrition rate in doctoral programs could be as high as 50 percent (Smallwood, 2004). In the Humanities and Social Sciences, women and minority students (such as international students) are leaving in even higher numbers. In particular, according to a recent report by the Council of Graduate Schools, time-to- degree has been rising nationally, with the median placed at 7.6 years. This problematic situation calls, if not for reform, then at least for a broad conversation about what it means to be admitted into a doctoral program and what it takes to obtain a doctoral degree.

When I started my doctoral studies, I knew little about the degree requirements and had only a vague idea about what my dissertation topic would eventually be. As I reviewed the collection of forms and policies in the comprehensive "Handbook for Doctoral Studies" (2002) available from the Steinhardt Office of Graduate Studies, the document clearly mapped the various milestones I could expect to pass on my journey: matriculation, school-wide course requirements, pass/fail options, fees, candidacy status, dissertation proposal, dissertation policies and procedures, dissertation format, and eventually, graduation.

After several years of doctoral work, I have become familiar with this path to a doctoral degree, even if I'm not entirely sure where this road is taking me. I have completed my course requirements, finished a pilot study, filed a dissertation proposal and struggled with the IRB requirements at two institutions of higher learning. Much less clear, however, is how to write a dissertation that will go beyond the requirements for degree completion and serve as a stepping-stone into a hopefully fulfilling academic career. In many students' cases, this challenge may very well be the primary reason several years pass before they finish a doctorate and, for an increasing number of graduate students, the reason for dropping out altogether.

Faculty Role

So, what are some potential solutions to reverse this trend? What should be the role of the dissertation committee once a doctoral student reaches the ABD stage? Is there a pedagogy associated with advising doctoral students?

As part of their teaching responsibilities in academe, faculty members are expected to help doctoral candidates get through this challenging and often frustrating process (Kamler & Threadgold, 1996). However, little emphasis is placed at the institutional level on how one becomes a dissertation advisor. University professors commonly argue that their busy research agendas and heavy teaching loads leave little time for attending teacher training workshops, much less learning how to improve their advising skills. Sinclair (2004) pointed out how "some supervisors take a 'hands off' approach to supervision that leaves candidates largely to their own devices" (p. 6), an approach linked to delayed or failed dissertation completion.

Arguably, supervision plays a critical role in aiding doctoral students to complete their degrees as well as contributing to their formation as future instructors and advisors. As Connell (1985) pointed out, supervision "has to be seen as a form of teaching. Like other forms, it raises questions about curriculum, method, teacher/student interaction, and educational environment" (p. 38). The importance of formal training in supervision therefore cannot be underestimated as it reflects a need to develop strategies that will successfully guide doctoral students to the timely completion of their degrees. In particular, given the emphasis on admission-graduation rates within universities (Edwards, 2002), improved supervision of doctoral students holds much potential in increasing the number of doctoral students finishing their doctoral degrees on time or at all.

Is there a theory of supervision or a learning theory that can offer some guidelines in this area? Among existing learning theories that can inform the relationship between the doctoral candidate and supervisor, and contribute to a positive outcome from such interaction, Cognitive Apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991) is usually mentioned as a valid model to develop a conceptual understanding of research- based techniques (Pearson & Brew, 2002). Of the various elements in this theoretical construct, it is mentoring, however, that holds the most potential to significantly improve doctoral supervision, develop a holistic vision of the doctoral process, and increase the number of doctoral students finishing their dissertations.

On mentors

Whatever the label used in the literature to refer to the relationship between a doctoral candidate and a faculty member directing a dissertation-supervisor, advisor, mentor, counselor, role model, guide, collaborator, coach, facilitator-there is general agreement that having a mentor during one's graduate work significantly increases the chances of finishing a degree, and facilitates subsequent entry into the academic world

As Galbraith (2003) put it, "while advising is a short-term process where the focus is on giving information and guidance to the learner, mentoring is a more intricate, long-term, one-on-one relationship that goes well beyond simply providing information. True mentoring is a complex process between professor and college adult learner that supports a mutual enhancement of critically reflective and independent thinking" (p. 16). In articulating a potential mentoring model, Galbraith (2003) identified the ideal mentoring exchange as a "series of mentor-mentee dialogues noted for collaborative critical thinking and planning, mutual participation in specific goal setting and decision- making, shared evaluation regarding the results of actions, and joint reflection on the worth of areas identified for progress" (p. 11).

In this ideal relationship established between the dissertation advisor and the doctoral candidate, the graduate student receives constant and timely feedback on progress made. This type of interaction and feedback can be accomplished in a variety of ways but it should be frequent enough to maintain a periodic dialogue on the issues and research questions raised by the investigative work conducted by the student. As is often the case, the writing may not be as fluid and frequent as the supervisor might have expected but even in these circumstances, it is important to maintain a regular conversation to help the student continue the process of elaborating on a dissertation topic.

Based on the numerous benefits of mentoring outlined in the literature and the potential impact they may have on reducing student attrition and encouraging timely completion of the dissertation, it would seem logical to implement a formal mentoring component into the tenure and evaluation process, recognizing mentoring as an essential part of the duties of dissertation advisors and rewarded by the school administration in tenure and promotion reviews. Despite the advantages this model holds, the reality can be quite different.

Developing a new doctoral supervisory model

As graduate students enter the last stages of the doctoral program, the expectation is that they will need little help in conducting research, writing their dissertation, and obtaining the teaching experience needed to become university instructors if academia is their professional field of choice. The assumption is that doctoral students have by now become scholars in the making, with clear goals, adequate investigative tools, solid research agendas, and the determination to achieve the goal they stated early on in their doctoral admission forms. Although a percentage of doctoral students do fit into this profile, according to the statistics available on time-to- degree and doctoral attrition, these may arguably be outliers. The reality in many programs in the humanities and social sciences is that doctoral students at the dissertation-writing stage experience a trial-by-error approach or as Pearson and Brew (2002) put it, "there is evidence to suggest that supervisors frequently base their approach on their own, often unexamined, experiences as a research student" (p. 146). Frequently, this results in frustration on the part of students and may eventually lead them to drop out of the program.

It is clear that doctoral supervision encompasses a complex set of issues with numerous interrelated variables that prevent a one-size-fits-all approach. However, if teaching and mentoring are core values of an institution of Higher Learning and not just means to a research end, the need to address these issues at the doctoral level is self- evident. Although the difficulty of such a task may seem daunting, the benefits are likely to be of great significance to many current and future doctoral students.


Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator (Winter), 6-46.

Connell, R. W. (1985). How to supervise a PhD. Vestes, 2, 38-41.

Edwards, B. (2002, December 1-5). Postgraduate supervision: Is having a ph.D. Enough? Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Brisbane, Australia.

Galbraith, M. W. (2003). The adult education professor as mentor: A means to enhance teaching and learning. Perspectives: The New York Journal of Adult Learning, 1(1), 9-20.

Kamler, B., & Threadgold, T. (1996, November 25-29). PhD examiner reports: Discrepant readings, conflicting discourses. Paper presented at the AARE Conference, Singapore.

OGS. (2002). Handbook for doctoral study 2002-2004. New York: Office of Graduate Studies. The Steinhardt School of Education. New York University.

Pearson, M., & Brew, A. (2002). Research training and supervision development. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2), 135-50.

Sinclair, M. (2004). The pedagogy of 'good' PhD supervision: A national cross- disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision: Department of Education, Science and Training.

Smallwood, S. (2004, January 16). Doctor dropout. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50.

Yahner, R., & Goodstein, L. (2005). Graduate student mentoring: Be more than an advisor. Retrieved February 4, 2005, from http://www.gradsch.psu.edu/facstaff/practices/mentoring.html