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Gardner / Conceptualizing Success in Doctoral Education


ments must often deal with language barriers and the need to secure fund- ing to remain in the country. Many faculty members in both departments attribute their low completion rates to two things: (a) a comparative lack of university funding, which translates into few teaching assistantships for graduate students and few grants for faculty; and (b) a highly competitive global job market, which means that international students who are strug- gling financially can frequently be lured into industrial jobs.

Over the past 20 years, the Engineering Department has typically admit- ted approximately 15 new doctoral students each year, and the Computer Science Department has admitted, on average, 18 new doctoral students annually. When discussing the concept of student success, however, faculty members in these departments frequently diverged from the topic to speak about the difficulty experienced by faculty members. Faculty members were, in general, more inclined to talk about their own issues and concerns than those of students.

To the extent that the discussion could focus on students, however, suc- cess for doctoral students in these two departments equated to having high intelligence and ambition. One engineering faculty member, identified “intelligence” as the most essential characteristic. “They have the prepara- tion and background to do the research.” He similarly continued, “They’re sharp. They’re motivated. If they’re not sharp, it’s very hard for them to get into the level of research needed. If they’re not motivated, even if they get a Ph.D., they will not be really willing to go even further.” Another faculty member in engineering remarked, “These are students that are self-driven. They work very hard; but I think more, they are very smart.”

Computer science faculty saw similar traits in their successful doctoral students. One faculty member commented, “‘Successful’ probably meets several qualities: intelligence, preparation, required background of train- ing, knowledge, the desire and motivation to get it done, and the academic skill.” A second faculty member echoed: “I would say a successful student by our department’s standards is someone with a strong background in a traditional core computer science.” Like other departments in this study, then, success in engineering and computer science was equated to traits inherent in students before they entered the program, rather than traits they acquired in the program.

Mathematics. The Mathematics Department, in contrast, painted a dif- ferent but important picture from the engineering and computer science departments. While certainly a lower-completing department when com- pared to others at this institution and nationally, Mathematics Department faculty did not depict a culture of low completion. Rather, it more closely resembled the culture of the English Department in being very focused on rankings and status and on placing its students at “good” institutions. The Mathematics Department at this institution awards its students full funding

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