A Systems Model for Doctoral Student Development and Retention

Elaine R. Parent, Ph.D.

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.


Metaframeworks 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 student peers.

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 student attrition.

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 professors.

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 faculty leads.

The sociologically- 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 student’s 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 used.

Baird’s (1993) 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 efforts.

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 identity.

Understanding How These Systems 'Work':

(the three R's: Rules, Roles and Relationships of)

The Discipline

The Academic Department

The Individual Person


Information about how things 'work' in the Discipline

The rules that determine:

  • The source and nature of data
  • The rules of evidence
  • The accepted research methods
  • Current and emerging paradigms
  • How knowledge is structured and represented

The Roles that can be assumed and how to assume them:

(what is involved in being an active and successful professional in the discipline)

  • Contributions to the research literature
  • Memberships in divisions of the discipline
  • Membership on journal editorial boards
  • Membership in local, regional and national organizations

The Relationships 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 funding
  • Areas of university systemwide oversight

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.


Information about how things 'work' in the Department

The rules that determine

  • departmental 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 staff.


Information about how things 'work' in the Individual Student

Our personal rules

  • 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, parent, etc.

The Relationships with others

  • Building the kinds of relationships with fellow students and faculty that are important in developing collegial relationships, in becoming part of a "community of scholars.
  • "

Sources of Information for student understanding of how s/he ‘works,’ as a system of systems:

(physiological, 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 chosen discipline.

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 student’s 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.


Retention issues 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 skills.
  • 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 and scholar.
  • 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

  • Constructivist 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.
Elaine R Parent, Ph. D.