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UGA Graduate School leads study, calls for action on doctoral completion

UGA Graduate School leads study, calls for action on doctoral completion

Athens, Ga. – Despite being academically capable, more than half of students in doctoral programs across the country do not complete their degrees, and the University of Georgia Graduate School is doing something about it. Following a unique, two-and-a half-year project on completion rates of doctoral students, particularly those among minorities and women, UGA recently brought together faculty from partnering institutions for a conference to share findings and collaborate on ways to improve doctoral graduation rates.

The conference, held Feb. 4-6 at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education and entitled “Taking Action to Optimize Doctoral Completion at the Program Level,” served as a central forum for the University of Georgia, the University of Florida and North Carolina State University to report research collected during their joint project, in which UGA served as lead institution.

“This is a critically important issue, and I want to commend our Graduate School for their excellent work with partner institutions to research viable solutions to improve doctoral degree completion rates,” said Arnett C. Mace, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UGA. “I especially want to thank the faculty at all three institutions who devoted their energies to this project.”

Funded by a $200,000 grant awarded in November 2004 by the Council of Graduate Schools, the study was part of the CGS Ph.D. Completion Project, a national initiative aimed at increasing completion of doctoral programs and providing practical models that can be used by graduate schools across the country to retain graduate students.

“When students fail to complete doctoral programs, the students pay financially and emotionally, and we all miss out on the research contributions they could have made to our society,” Maureen Grasso, dean of the UGA Graduate School, said. “In today’s global market, a highly trained workforce is critical to our national economy, so helping these students succeed helps us all. By spearheading this study, the University of Georgia is acknowledging the problem and positioning itself to be a leader in solving it, and as such, is making a major contribution to something that affects us all.”

Attrition from Ph.D. programs across the nation currently averages 50-60 percent, yet very little research has been conducted to address doctoral completion. The UGA, UF and NCSU project was based on a theoretical framework identifying conditions necessary for success in doctoral programs. The conditions included applicant expectations, departmental admissions criteria,

student support systems within a program and faculty relationships with students. A total of 37 programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, as well as humanities and social sciences, participated in the project. Administrators at the three institutions and CGS expect the study to serve not only as a benchmark for future inquiry, but also as a starting point for immediate change.

“The results of this study will help programs identify what they’re doing right and what improvements they can make to retain and graduate their doctoral students,” Grasso said.

Tom Valentine, associate professor in the UGA Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy and research project director for the study, agreed. “A very real strength of this project was the close working relationship that developed among the participating universities,” Valentine said. “Faculty from the doctoral programs were able to share ideas for improvement that ultimately will benefit students and faculty across the country.”

One theme that has surfaced from the research is that faculty within departments are the best ones to critically analyze the data and construct individualized initiatives to help their doctoral students.

“Each program is different – in culture, in student body – and so it is fundamentally necessary that there be a grassroots effort to help with retention,” Grasso said. “It can not simply be a one-size-fits-all approach from the top down by universities. We hope the data from this study will give departments a foundation upon which to start making changes that will help the United States live up to the potential represented in its doctoral students.”

“The University of Georgia and its partners in this project have established themselves as clear national leaders on the important issue of Ph.D. completion,” Daniel Denecke, director of the CGS Ph.D. Completion Project, said. “Our ability to see that the qualified students we admit to doctoral study succeed will determine the long-term achievement of our state, regional and national education and research goals. Through the combined efforts of faculty and the UGA Graduate School, the national dilemma of doctoral student attrition has a persuasive local university solution.”

As part of the project, the Graduate School created a Web site to present the research. The site also offers a case studies section, which describes typical scenarios of hurdles for doctoral students to overcome and encourages feedback from faculty and students. Researchers welcome the public to view the site at for more information about this study.

The University of Georgia Graduate School will celebrate its centennial in 2010. For more information about graduate programs at the University of Georgia, please see