Systems Model for Doctoral Student Development and Retention
Elaine R. Parent,
The imperatives for learning more about how to intervene in the doctoral
education process, for retention purposes, are clear. Currently, 40-50%
of highly qualified, carefully selected doctoral students withdraw before
completing the doctorate. (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992).
Statistical reports of the number of students both beginning and completing
a graduate degree any given year, by discipline area and institution,
have been available for several decades. It has only been in the past
6-8 years that a limited amount of quantitative information about doctoral
student attrition has become available. This is partly because of the
increased data analysis and student tracking capabilities of institutions
and professional organizations. Also, a number of recent major studies
have focused on this issue: (Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992; Nerad and Cerny,
1991; Miselis, McManus and Kraus, 1991; Zwick, 1991).
However, exact information about the stages when students typically
withdraw from their doctoral program is scarce. Estimates vary according
to both discipline and institution. At one institution (the University
of California, San Diego), 40% of the students (averaged over all disciplines)
who enrolled during the 1982-87 period did not complete their degree.
Of this group, over half (52%) left by the end of the second year.
According to Bowen and Rudenstine (1992), the limited available data
on attrition prior to the start of the second year shows a rather consistent
pattern over time, with roughly 25% of entering students failing to
return for the second year.
for Conceptualizing the Doctoral Experience
The doctoral experience is described by Baird (1993) as a process of
socialization to an ultimate professional role, one that involves learning
the "specialized knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, norms and
interests of the profession." The graduate faculty is termed the critical
agent conducting this socialization since its members define knowledge
and disciplinary values. They model the roles of academics in the discipline
and provide practical help and advice. The other socialization agents,
and seldom given formal recognition according to Baird, are graduate
At the undergraduate level, this process is referred to as academic
and social integration. These same terms - - academic and social
integration - - are becoming familiar terms among the growing number
of graduate faculty, administrators and researchers concerned with doctoral
Baird summarized three currently extant models of the doctoral student
experience and presented a fourth that integrates all three:
The Katz (1976)
psychological model of the changes that students go through during the
doctoral education process
In the Katz framework, initial feelings of insecurity are gradually
replaced with a more realistic view of the demands of the discipline
and the faculty as well as the development of a professional identity.
Attrition and slow progress are connected in the early stages with a
strong sense of inadequacy and an overly idealistic view of the disciplineand
In the middle stage, a lack of interactions with other students and
faculty is a factor. This is followed later, according to Katz, with
insufficient focusing of interests and a lack of willingness to follow
oriented model of Tinto (1998)
In the Tinto model, three general stages after admission are outlined:
(1) transition to membership in the graduate community in the first
year, (2) the attaining of candidacy through development of competence
and (3) active research. Attrition and slow progress initially are connected
with low rates of social and academic interactions in the department
and low commitment to degree and career goals. Later, attrition is associated
with inadequate interactions concerning the students academic
competence. In the last stage, Tinto believes that the behavior of a
specific faculty member or members is a determining factor.
The Process Model
of Berkenkotter, Huckin and Ackerman (1991)
In their model of doctoral progress in the humanities, the focus is
on the development of literary competence - in mastering the
new ways of speaking, reading and writing that are the norm in the particular
disciplinary and departmental community that students are entering.
Each discipline has a way of knowing, and this is embedded
in the research methodology that students learn and in the language
integrated model of student development
Baird maintains that all three of the above emphasize the faculty as
the agents of the socialization process. He also describes the role
of student peers in helping students develop the coping strategies needed
for making the necessary transitions. The goal, for Baird, is to help
students become closer to both faculty and student peers as they move
through their graduate career. Attrition is viewed as related to inadequate
mastery of the forms of reasoning favored by the discipline and poor
support from spouses, employers and others.
A new model, described below, addresses these factors - - intellectual,
social and personal/motivational - - and goes further, to provide a
systems metaframework for intervention and change. The goals are to
(a) speed the social and academic acculturation of entering students
into their departments and to (b) build resources for sustaining student
motivational energy, for a timely and successful completion of the doctorate.
A Systems Model
for Facilitating Doctoral Student Development
This model is based in part on the Motivational Systems Theory outlined
by Martin Ford (1992), with emphasis on the pivotal role that personal
agency beliefs play in sustaining goal-directed motivational energy.
According to Ford, the strength of personal agency beliefs is
dependent on individuals beliefs about (a) their capability to
achieve a desired goal as well as (b) their confidence in the responsiveness
(or potential responsiveness) of the environment to their goal-directed
Knowledge of how things work, both personally and in the
environment, is an important ingredient in strengthening that kind of
confidence. In this context, students personal agency beliefs
will be related to (a) their confidence in their intellectual ability
to successfully complete a doctoral program as well as (b) their confidence
in the potential responsiveness of their department, and of becoming
integrated into that department, as part of a community of scholars.
The process of successful and timely completion of a doctoral program
of study is defined as developing competencies in three areas: intellectual,
social and personal/motivational. This involves gradual awareness and
understanding of the rules, the roles and the relationships
which determine how things work in three systems - - in the discipline,
in the department and in the individual person, as a system of systems
(physical, social and psychological).
Emphasis is on the importance of students gaining specific and
explicit knowledge early in their career, rather than depending on the
implicit learnings that take place gradually.
For motivational purposes, the model stresses the importance of developing
understanding, by the student, of how s/he works, as a system of systems
- physical, social and psychological. This can help set the stage
for the kind of personal integration and intellectual commitment that
leads to success in a doctoral program as well as to professional advancement
later. It is related, as well, to the gradual development of a professional
How These Systems 'Work':
R's: Rules, Roles and Relationships of)
The Academic Department
how things 'work' in the Discipline
- The source and
nature of data
- The rules of
- The accepted
- Current and emerging
- How knowledge
is structured and represented
that can be assumed and how to assume them:
(what is involved
in being an active and successful professional in the discipline)
to the research literature
- Memberships in
divisions of the discipline
- Membership on
journal editorial boards
- Membership in
local, regional and national organizations
between local, state and national organizations:
- Betweem the academic
department/institution/ and the national audience. ie. the status
and reputation of the institution, the department and its faculty.
- Sources of external
- Areas of university
Sources of Information
for understanding how the discipline works
- Identifying and
researching the principal organizations of the discipline (e.g. American
Psychology Association, American Sociological Association) and their
official publications, their on-line databases.
- A survey of the
literature on the discipline itself to include; reference sources
such as the annual reviews, abstracts, citation indexes, histories
of the discipline.
- Student interviews
with department chair, members of the faculty.
how things 'work' in the Department
policies and procedures, the distribution of resources, the progression
from one doctoral stage to another.
The Roles that
can be assumed and how to assume them: what is involved in being an
active and successful member of the department:
- The roles played
by the department chair, the faculty graduate advisor, the chief administrative
offices, the graduate coordinator, administrative staff
- Between faculty
members and the department chair, with the Academic Senate, the various
departmental committees (admission, policy, etc.).
- Between faculty
and students in their RA, TA and fellowship roles.
Sources of Information
for understanding how the department and the institution work
- Official university
and institutional policy and procedure manuals specifying rules and
relationships between the university system and the institution and
between the academic department and the institution.
- Information about
student support systems and how to access them, including counseling,
housing, health, teaching development and academic support services.
- Interviews with
major institutional administrative officers (vice-chancellors/presidents,
heads of student support services, the Graduate Division, etc.)
- Interviews with
departmental personnel: chairman, graduate advisor, and administrative
how things 'work' in the Individual Student
- Bringing into
active awareness the personal rules that the student uses in determining
what is O.K. and not O.K. for his/her to think, feel and do, in all
aspects of everyday life.
The Roles that
can be or are assumed during the doctoral experience:
- Integrating and
balancing the often-conflicting roles involved in being a successful
student, a TA or a RA, as well as various family roles, such as spouse,
- Building the
kinds of relationships with fellow students and faculty that are important
in developing collegial relationships, in becoming part of a "community
Sources of Information
for student understanding of how s/he works, as a system
social and psychological)
The mechanism for this activity is a Personal Game Plan that
students begin developing early in the educational process. The focus
is on specifying in detail the steps involved in a successful and timely
completion of the doctoral degree. The larger context would be to have
students move ahead to a satisfying, professional career in his/her
Each student will develop a definitive action plan and timetable for
each of the subgoal stages involved in completing the doctoral degree
as well as for moving on into professional life. Since everyday life,
both as a student for 6-9 years and later as a professional, involves
playing multiple roles, social and psychological goals as well as intellectual
goals are specified as well.
Personal-motivational issues are also incorporated into the academic
career and life planning process. This is done by having students assess
those facilitating and limiting conditions, both personal and environmental,
which will affect the success of their goal-seeking activity, in each
area. Periodically, they will be asked to indicate their degree of confidence
in their ability to achieve each goal and determine the kinds of information
they need and the actions to take to increase their sense of competence,
their personal agency beliefs.
In a larger perspective, it means specifying what they need to know
and to do in order to accomplish their goals in each area of
their lives, for the immediate and in the long-term future. Focus is
on the importance of achieving balance in the way they use their life
energy, in order to better meet the demands and responsibility of the
various roles they play in their everyday lives.
Most students enter a doctoral program with a proven track record of
intellectual competence and academic success, and with a strong urge
to pursue graduate study. Somewhere along the line, many begin to doubt
both their own competency and the potential available resources and
responsiveness of their chosen academic environment and they leave.
The result is evident in the current 40-50% attrition in first-rate
doctoral programs in this country.
One way to sustain and build on the students initial motivational
energy is to provide the mechanisms for a continuous feedback system
of objective information about each students developing competencies
as a scholar in his or her chosen field. The mechanism would be an individual,
personal on-line database and information system, to record student
gains in their mastering (and their understanding) of the intellectual
content of their discipline. Also part of that information system would
be a way for students to systematically chart their progress to date
in meeting the clearly specified goals and objectives in their Personal
Game Plan. In many ways, it resembles the Management by Objectives programs
used in organizations.
The planning process also includes experiences that will help students
to increase their metacognitive skills, to become more aware of their
thinking and interpretive processes and how, as individuals and as scholars,
they 'work.' It includes having students become more aware of the personal
pattern of attitudes, skills and abilities they bring to the graduate
experience as well as ways these strengths can be further developed.
addressed in the model
- Fostering student
awareness of their developing intellectual competence by maintaining
a self-interpreted information feedback system, by a focus on metacognitive
- Attention to
building student-faculty and student-student relationships, to ensure
social and academic integration into the department.
- Identifying ways
of helping students develop a sense of competence as a researcher
- Sustaining and
increasing motivational energy by ensuring self-managed feedback about
developing competencies as well as perceived resources and support
available in the environment.
The Model builds
on the literature in the following areas
approaches to learning and identifying the conceptual stages involved
in moving from a novice to an expert in knowledge of a field.
- The motivational
theory of Martin Ford (1992) and the importance of personal agency
beliefs in sustaining motivational energy for goal-directed activity.
- The importance
of planned strategies for student acculturation and for academic and
social integration into the department and the discipline.