Gardner / Conceptualizing Success in Doctoral Education
doctoral student success. While the analysis of the study was guided by the concept of disciplinary culture (Becher, 1981; Biglan, 1973a), the concep- tualizations of success in this study discussed by the faculty members often shared not only their disciplinary grouping but their completion rate as well. For example, both communication and psychology faculty discussed the need for self-direction in successful doctoral students while both computer science and mathematics faculty mentioned the ability to work hard as a key to success. It is perhaps the difference between tangible and intangible qualities that defines these departments’ conceptualizations and, therefore, their completion rates. In other words, it may be more difficult to define what constitutes“intelligence”or“working hard”than to define being inde- pendent or self-directed. Independently structuring and managing a study is much more clearly definable than “working hard” on the research. It may be that the students in these low-completing departments are struggling to meet undefined and intangible conceptualizations of success.
Conversely, some of the commonalities found in this study between de- partments owed a great deal to institutional influence. For example, while both English and mathematics faculty interviewees discussed the importance of securing a good job after graduation as “success,” this commonality may have more to do with the institution’s focus on rankings and status than any disciplinary influence. Further, the almost-mirror responses in computer science and engineering departments reflected not only completion rates but also the faculty’s view that the institution was failing to meet crucial needs for funding and support. This finding is particularly important when contrasted with the English Department which receives additional funding from the university for its graduate students. Certainly funding does not tell the whole story of completion and non-completion at this institution (or at any other), but the faculty’s perception of the importance of funding raises the question of whether every department could have “successful” students if only it received more institutional resources.
Another consideration is the cultural differences among the responses given by the faculty members. The affection for students manifest by faculty interviewees in the Communication Department, the university’s highest completing department, contrasts with the almost dismissive comments by computer science and engineering, the lowest completing departments. Of course, these differences may arguably characterize the paradigmatic as- sumptions of these disciplinary cultures (Biglan, 1973b); but, interestingly, only oceanography faculty articulated the need to help others and seek help from them, even though other departments such as engineering and computer science often also involve high levels of what Biglan referred to as “social connectedness” or the need for collaborative cultures for laboratory and group-focused research.