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Gardner / Conceptualizing Success in Doctoral Education


The findings from this study are important in several ways. First, from a policy and practice standpoint, it is important to understand how attri- tion and completion may be influenced by the department’s cultural per- spectives of what it takes to succeed. This finding was particularly evident in discussions of admissions procedures and expectations of students in each area. Departments and institutions must engage entering students in explicit discussions about these expectations. In addition, faculty and administrators should ensure that coursework and research opportunities align with these expectations. For example, if students are expected to be self-directed as a measure of success, structuring research opportunities to allow them to experience this self-directedness is important. Similarly, if students are expected to publish their work, aligning course assignments and research opportunities so that students engage in the publication process is also necessary. Another strategy may be matching incoming students in a mentoring-type relationship with more advanced students who exhibit these traits and habits.

Second, it is important to better understand the structure and procedures that may facilitate or impede students’ success in a particular discipline. Certainly, if departments expect their students to obtain “good jobs” upon graduation, orienting professional development opportunities and mentor- ing toward the job search process and job market is imperative. Moreover, if faculty members expect particular behaviors from students, then faculty members, as mentors and role models for these students, should exhibit these behaviors themselves. One example might be the concept of balance in the English faculty members’ conceptualizations of success. If students can observe successful examples of balancing teaching with research, they may be better able to demonstrate it themselves.

Third, the concept of funding must be explored in both institutional and departmental contexts. Psychology and English faculty members were adamant about the relationship of funding and high completion, much as computer science and engineering faculty members were in regard to low completion. Certainly, funding makes a difference in a student’s stabil- ity throughout the graduate program, and opportunities to conduct and therefore disseminate research may be linked to his or her funding (Abedi & Benkin, 1987; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992); but the link between funding and student success must be considered on more comprehensive levels. For example, one psychology faculty member made it clear that her depart- ment’s high completion rates stemmed from the fact that they had more money to offer and therefore could choose the“best”students. Does success in doctoral education rely more on the department or on the individual student? Put another way, would this institution’s psychology doctoral students be “successful” anywhere? For institutions like this one, which are

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