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The Review of higheR educaTion

SprinG 2009

for several years, always in the form of teaching assistantships, and admits approximately 18 new doctoral students each year.

For the mathematics faculty, success for their doctoral students meant securing a good position in academia after graduation. Key traits were pub- lishing and having the drive to “work very hard.” It is interesting to note, however, that the only faculty member in the entire study who equated success to actual degree completion was in the Mathematics Department. He remarked, “I would say the most successful student is the one who gets the doctorate, I think.”

In regard to publishing and the job market, one mathematics faculty member commented that a successful student is “someone who is actu- ally able to get a publication,” which would then lead to a “good post-doc and a good position at a university.” The department chair summarized: “There are different kinds of success and the definition for success for the department changes to some extent based on what the pressure is from the departmental competition. The kind of success this department is looking for most today is a successful research career after graduation.We would like to see all placed into nationally competitive groups or at least post-docs.” As for the ability and drive to “work hard,” these faculty members agreed, though phrased variously, that “it takes, number one, the desire to suc- ceed and the corresponding ability to work hard in the program.” Another commented that the most successful students “have to be willing to work very, very hard.” In this way, this department’s faculty attributed success to an innate ability to work hard—which is a trait inherent in the admitted student’s personality—paired with the external element, after the program’s completion, of the job placement.


I interviewed 38 faculty members in seven departments at one research- extensive institution to better understand their conceptualizations of success in doctoral education. I chose the academic department, which is “where the imperatives of the discipline and the institution converge”(Clark, 1987, p. 64), as the focus of the exploration. Analysis of the faculty members’ comments made it evident that both disciplinary and institutional contexts significantly influence how they understand and articulate success for their doctoral students.

Clark (1987) also remarked, “The disciplines have their own histories and trajectories, their own habits and practices” (p. 25). In this study, dis- ciplinary culture was apparent in faculty perceptions of doctoral student success. For instance, differences between the disciplines of communication and oceanography in how they organized themselves and their research (i.e., individual versus collaborative) were evident in their responses about

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