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Gardner / Conceptualizing Success in Doctoral Education

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Like the communication faculty, the psychology faculty identified self- direction as the students’ second attribute of success. One commented, “A successful student is organized, knows what they’re supposed to do, com- municates well with their mentor, reads the guidelines and follows them.” Another faculty member adamantly asserted,“A successful student has two things: natural talent and self-discipline.” Similarly, a third faculty member observed, “The folks who are extremely hard-working and extremely self- disciplined—they do better. The kind of people who work on Saturday and work on Christmas break. They go back to work before anyone tells them they need to be back at work.”

The faculty members in psychology resoundingly agreed that the main reason their completion rate was so high was because they could be highly selective in admissions.Only psychology and English faculty mentioned high selectivity as the underlying reason for their above-average completion rates, and their highly selective admissions were, in turn, the result of increased funding from the university, something only a handful of departments on campus have received. One psychology faculty member maintained,“I think our students are successful because we get good students from the get-go. Psychology is so highly competitive to get in. So, I think one of the reasons we have a high graduation rate is because we pick the cream of the crop from the beginning.”Another psychology member insisted,“The single most important factor, bar none, factor of 10—if you do an experiment around a regression it would account for at least 90% of the variance—is admis- sions. Poor admissions decisions are unfixable.” This shared recognition by psychology faculty may be an acknowledgement that their students’ultimate success has little to do with the program itself.

English. The English Department in this study has a completion rate be- low that of communication, oceanography, and psychology, but its 56.4% completion rate is considered high when compared to other humanities disciplines, in which completion rates nationally range from 13% to 37% (e.g., Nerad & Cerny, 1993; Zwick, 1991). English, as a discipline, is classi- fied as another soft pure nonlife discipline by Biglan (1973). Because the English Department receives additional university funding for student re- cruiting, it can fully fund most of its students for four years. This funding comes in the form of one teaching assistantship per semester, a nationally competitive arrangement particularly attractive to prospective students. On average, the English Department admits 17 new doctoral students each year and also serves a large undergraduate population. Ultimately, while considered middle-of-the-road in terms of completion rates for this study, English faculty nevertheless exude pride in their students’ success and their program. During interviews, they frequently alluded to their department’s national ranking and reputation.

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