A Jump-Start Program for
Beginning Doctoral Students

Elaine R. Parent, Ph.D.

The Jump-Start program is designed to get entering doctoral students off to an informed, positive start in their graduate career. It is a proactive attempt to avoid what Tinto (1997) calls the negative effects of the transitions and discontinuities between the undergraduate and graduate experience, and their differing roles, relationships and responsibilities. It is designed to give students information early on that will lead to more realistic expectations and the kinds of knowledge that will help them ease their way into confident membership in the academic community.

The proposed Jump-Start program addresses these issues by a two-pronged educational program:

  1. For beginning a deliberate process of student acculturation into the department, the institution and the graduate experience, both socially and academically. It includes assisting students in learning about and understanding the rules, the roles and the relationships that govern how, as overlapping systems, the discipline, the institution and their department "work."

    It is a strategy for making implicit the kinds of learnings that students usually acquire implicitly, over time and often on a trial and error basis. Entering student cohorts work together formally in a variety of social and structured information-gathering activities, via interviews with faculty and administrators, in workshops and seminars. Guidance of a faculty advisory committee and structured mentoring relationships with advanced students are part of the intervention plan.

  2. By helping students strengthen the personal, social and intellectual competencies important for success as doctoral students and later, as practicing professionals in their fields.

    It is a systematic process of helping students identify and better understand the unique way that they each ‘work,’ as a system of systems - - physical, emotional and intellectual. It involves assisting them in identifying and strengthening the intellectual skills, abilities and attitudes that are important in the process of becoming a competent and confident researcher and scholar. It includes building upon their metacognitive abilities, so that students have a clearer understanding of not only what they know as well as how they know it.

    Similar emphasis is on understanding the relationships between their thoughts, feelings and actions and how to better sustain the motivational energy and goal-direction that is important for degree completion.


The Motivational Theory of Martin Ford

Both objectives (above) set the stage for helping students develop and sustain what Martin Ford (1992) calls their personal agency beliefs, the sources of motivational energy that can increase the probability of persistence and timely progress to completion of the degree.

According to Ford, the strength of personal agency beliefs is related to individuals’ beliefs about their personal capability to achieve a goal as well as their confidence in the potential responsiveness of the environment to their goal-seeking efforts. Knowledge of how things ‘work’ is an important ingredient in developing that confidence and sense of competence, in strengthening students' personal agency beliefs.

Developing and continually updating a Personal Game Plan, with specific goals and timetables, is one mechanism for ensuring that students make timely progress through each stage of their doctoral program. To do this, students construct and continually update their progress, in both intellectual, social and personal development areas, in a personal on-line information system.

This provides a way that students can 'tune into' their developing intellectual competence, to chart their gradual progress in moving from the status of a novice to increasing expertise in their discipline. It is part of the process of developing a sense of professional identity as a researcher and scholar in one's field.

The model builds upon a growing body of literature about the nature and the outcomes of the doctoral experience by researchers in the field. Included are the results of over 85 doctoral dissertations (Parent, 1999) published, at least in abstract form, since 1980. In one sense, they provide us with the voices of doctoral students, about their perspectives on their experiences and their reasons for degree completion or attrition.

The strong message from an analysis of these and other recent studies is the key role that two human factors play in determining the outcome of the doctoral experience. One is the presence or absence of supportive human relationships with others, both faculty and fellow students. Another is the importance of sustaining student motivation to complete the doctorate.

The Jump-Start intervention described above is a pro-active effort to set the stage for the development of these two important factors: (1) for early and systematic social and academic integration of the student into the department and (2) for a renewable source of motivational energy to sustain students' goal-directed efforts toward a timely and satisfying completion of the doctorate.


How the Results of Current Research on Degree Completion and Attrition are Incorporated in the Jump-Start Intervention

It acknowledges the importance of a timely progression toward the degree, by establishing specific academic and personal goals and timetables in a Personal Game Plan.

It meets the current emphasis on the need for research that is contextual or department-based. The model specifies working with separate, entering student cohorts in selected departments. This will permit accommodation and learning more about the important differences in departmental policies and practices, as they affect the doctoral student experience.

It meets the current emphasis on the need for longitudinal research, rather than retrospective studies. By tracking individual students and cohorts throughout their experience, it will be possible to learn more about the specific problems, (personal, social and intellectual), associated with each stage of the doctoral experience.

It is in accordance with the current emphasis on the need for qualitative as well as quantitative data, to learn more about the "complex series of events" that are part of the doctoral student experience.

As an educational model, it includes systematic attention to developing student intellectual, social and personal competencies, to facilitate both personal and professional development. It includes the kinds of transformative learning that can ensure developing the competencies important in becoming a successful researcher and scholar.

A holistic, systems perspective accommodates an emphasis on information, in this case information about how the three systems (discipline, department and personal) ‘work.’

It can provide an empirical test of the relevance of the Motivational Systems Theory of Martin Ford and the role of Personal Agency Beliefs in sustaining and strengthening student motivation for completing the doctorate in a timely fashion.