Supervision and PhD completion

Two days ago I posted a tweet thread that has been bouncing around quite a bit and generating much more of a reaction than I expected.

That comment was provoked by something I was reading at that moment, in which the author mentioned ways of reducing PhD times to completion. But I didn’t want to speak only to that specific article or post it, because my point was about what I see more generally in op-eds and white papers, where “recommendations” never seem to have much to do with supervision (yes, many people pointed out to me –and I was aware – that funding usually isn’t mentioned either; I’ve seen it come up in other areas of discussion, such as critiques of contingent academic labour).

I was surprised this tweet got so much attention – it’s no different from what I’ve been arguing in my blog. Given the response to what I said, I thought I would put up a quick post with some links to other information and to a few things I’ve written about this issue in the past.

Here are a few blog posts I’ve written:

Related posts on the lack of data available for Canada:

A few years ago I also posted a bibliography of research on graduate education, it’s badly in need of an update but it’s a start if you’re interested (the link’s here).

This is really only the tip of the iceberg because it’s only what I happen to have written about; there are (of course!) hundreds of other articles and posts out there. Also, many others responded with stories and good points to add to what I was saying, for example several people raised the issue of supporting, mentoring, and compensating faculty supervisors so they can do better at this work. But I hope some of what I’ve shared here is helpful for those who’ve been asking for more information.

War of attrition – Asking why PhD students leave

After finishing up a bibliography of sources on graduate education, I wanted to write a post about some of the things I’d read on the topic. Because there had been recent articles about attrition and supervision, in this post I point out the link between them, citing some of the literature on PhD non-completion and its relationship to factors like academic and social integration, professionalization opportunities, and support/mentorship from faculty members. The original post is from July 17, 2013: War of Attrition.

The Times Higher Ed in the UK had a hit this past week, regarding the issue of doctoral supervision, with an article by Tara Brabazon titled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”. Worth noting alongside that one is a recent article by Leonard Cassuto that appeared in the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding doctoral attrition, which has long been notoriously high (at least in the United States – an average of around 40-50 percent). Attrition rates in Canada are, as far as I know, not generally available though some numbers from eight of the “U-15” were published in this article from Margin Notes blog (and a longer discussion of completion rates and times to completion is here).

I mention these two issues together because for my dissertation I’ve been going over the research on PhD supervision and attrition, including the work of Barbara Lovitts (who’s cited by Cassuto as well), Chris Golde, and Susan Gardner among others. This research shows clear connections between supervision styles, departmental “climates”, professionalization opportunities, “student satisfaction”, and the outcomes of PhD study – including attrition.

What necessitates this research is that there are long-held misconceptions about the causes of non-completion. A key finding is that often faculty attributions of student non-completion have looked very different from either the students’ understanding of their experiences (or of what other students experience), or from the reality of their reasons for leaving. Since those who leave don’t generally get to tell their stories, assumptions can be made that they simply “didn’t have what it takes” or that the admissions committee didn’t “select” the right candidates for the program. Not only does this download the blame onto the individuals who leave, but it also masks other entrenched problems that can then continue without serious examination. Additionally, it doesn’t mesh with research that’s shown the non-completers tend to look just as “prepared” for academic work as the students who finish.

While there is no single reason why students tend to leave (in fact it’s usually a combination of reasons), a major take-away from the scholarship on this topic is that the supervisory relationship is of crucial importance – not only in whether students graduate, but also in their subsequent (academic) careers. For example, Lovitt’s book Leaving the Ivory Tower confirms that supervisors who have already helped PhD students to complete are the ones most likely to continue doing so. However, the reasons are complex. These supervisors tended to have a give-and-take relationship with students rather than expecting the students to do everything on their own. They “scaffolded” and supported their supervisees, and cared about students’ intellectual development and overall well-being; they facilitated the students’ professionalization and their academic and social “integration” into the department and the discipline, through a variety of practices.

If there are no exit interviews with those who leave their programs, then it’s much easier to continue making erroneous assumptions about why they left in the first place. This is important because there are significant policy implications for the reasons we assign for attrition. For example, even Cassuto’s article places emphasis on selection of the “right” types of students, and on certain types of student responsibility such as seeking out the department’s attrition rate before applying – though this is not information that programs tend to provide to potential students. His taxonomy of students doesn’t include those who simply don’t know what support they will need, and don’t end up receiving it; it doesn’t include those who had the capacity to complete but were abandoned by their supervisors, sabotaged by departmental politics, or derailed by personal life circumstances. All these factors are discussed in the literature on PhD attrition.

Like most other issues in education there are many causes for problems with completion. Any relationship is a two-way street, as pointed out in this post by Raul Pacheco-Vega. There are plenty of faculty who are already engaging in the helpful practices described by Lovitts and other researchers, as well as PhD students who don’t put in enough work, or who probably shouldn’t have chosen to start the degree in the first place. But when it comes to implementing solutions, the nature of students’ supervisory relationships should be one of the primary targets of inquiry and intervention.

An example of an important issue that could be addressed is that of responsibility. Reasonable student expectations of faculty should be made clearer, and tacit institutional and professional knowledge – which is so crucial to students’ success in graduate programs – must be made explicit rather than being left to students to discover for themselves. If students understand what they should expect from a good supervisor – and for what they are responsible themselves – they may be able to make a more informed decision about this important working relationship (and whether in fact it’s working at all).

In some cases, this kind of change will take time and a great deal of consideration because if we take the research seriously, the problems extend beyond merely asking professors and students to engage more often in certain practices. They may be problems with the culture of a department or program, or in fact (considering some of the comments from Lovitts’ interviewees) the nature of academe itself, which is where we have to ask ourselves – what kind of a university do we want, and what kind of faculty will be working there? For example, if students also listed “personal problems” (as many of them did) including stress on existing relationships and the demands of raising children, does this mean those who desire a more balanced life will be inherently unsuited to academic work?

PhD students’ “dissatisfaction” should not be dismissed as merely the whining complaints of the academically inadequate. When students don’t know what to expect, they don’t have the opportunity to align their decisions and behaviour with the appropriate expectations; when they don’t receive adequate support, they may not know how to get what they’re missing, or indeed that they’re missing something in the first place (until it’s too late). Not only that but if we ignore these issues, do we not face a reproduction of what may be the worst aspects of academic life, in the name of “trial by fire”? Those who “make it through” are often assumed to have some inherent set of qualities that make them a better “fit” for academic life. But closer attention shows that this clearly isn’t the case, which means – even if the attrition rates are lower in Canada – we need to seek out appropriate explanations.

The absurdity of numbers

Building on the same themes I discussed in “Proof of the pudding“, this post returns to the “completion agenda” in the United States and the role of for-profit colleges, the question of who is getting what out of higher education, and some issues with the concept of “human capital” as a driver of policy. Here is a link to the original post from February 20, 2011: The absurdity of numbers.

A number of recent posts on Inside Higher Ed have highlighted national (U.S.) debates on post-secondary policy and its relation to Barack Obama’s economic/policy plan. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the importance of education and research funding, even as the Tea Party have lobbied the Republicans to try to reduce funding. Meanwhile legislation has been introduced for the purpose of regulating private, for-profit career colleges, and it’s being battled every step of the way by the lobby groups associated with said colleges and by their political various allies.

All these developments relate in some way to the pressure to increase enrollments and “completion” rates—what some have referred to as the “completion agenda”—from post-secondary institutions. And that imperative is about developing a “knowledge economy”, so that the United States can remain competitive in the assumed global zero-sum game in which national prosperity is at stake.

In Canada, federal and provincial governments have taken up precisely the same strategy of pushing for more graduates, both in undergraduate and in graduate education (witness in Ontario the provincial Liberals’ goal to create 14,000 more graduate student spaces from 2002-3 levels, by 2010—see OCUFA, 2007).

Like others, I question the use of these kind of numbers as a means of gauging a nation’s success at, or progress toward, developing a sustainable “knowledge economy”. Human capital may be available, but this doesn’t mean that the “capital” will be put to use (i.e. that people, with their skills, will be able to find employment) in the immediate or near future. Are there sufficient job opportunities for those who make the “individual investment” in PSE, such that the investment will “pay off”?

The numbers conceal a potential over-production of graduates through the assumption that more college/university degrees automatically means more access to gainful employment for all those who graduate, as well as producing a more “innovative” workforce. (I’ve previously written posts about relative value vs. inherent value in education, and the policy implications.)

The focus on these numbers also hides the uneven quality of mass post-secondary education and the unequally shared burden of its increasing cost. For example, in the United States the for-profit career colleges often market to traditionally under-privileged groups who cannot access more prestigious institutions, but who ironically end up paying hefty tuition fees anyway—and finding themselves burdened with debt by the time their studies are over. It’s a debt they have trouble re-paying due to difficulties with obtaining appropriate employment after graduation.

Along with student “completion” comes the imperative to discover its causes, a search that has produced a whole range of new objects for measurement. One example is the project to measure levels of “student engagement” (gauged by the National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE). Tests of student learning “outcomes”, and the development of standardised curricular goals, are also related to this process of environmental assessment.

Responsibility for failure must also be assigned, such as in this article where the author discusses reports that argue that “many American colleges are failing to graduate their students, at a time when the Obama administration and leading foundations are trying to ramp up the number of Americans earning a postsecondary credential.” So the university/college becomes a new target for critiques and for governmental interventions designed to ensure “quality” and positive “outcomes” for graduates.

In some ways, the obsession with numbers is really just a sign that education and its “products” are considered to be more important than ever—for their economic value—and thus they become, increasingly, sites of scrutiny for a plethora of “publics”, including not only governments but also parents, students, employers, and the media. But focussing on and rewarding outcomes, usually “completion” as either a proportion of the eligible age cohort or of the national adult population overall, means that institutions are more likely to implement “quick” technocratic fixes to what is generally a much deeper structural problem. Do we really need more graduates who are struggling to find work and to alleviate debts? How can we create a situation where these graduates are more likely to be solvent and employed upon, or shortly after, finishing their PSE courses?

A larger number of PSE graduates is only desirable, economically, if it produces the intended effect; but what we see instead could be an increase to the number of young people who are actually unable to participate fully in this economy even though they may technically possess the credentials for doing so. Unless this issue is addressed, the “production” of more PSE graduates is much less likely to benefit either the national economy or the individual graduates themselves.

Reference: OCUFA, 2007. Quality at risk: an assessment of the Ontario government’s plans for graduate education.