A Phenomenological Study of Attrition from a Doctoral Cohort Program: Changes in Feelings of Autonomy and Relatedness in the Dissertation Stage

Ellie M. Burns, Catherine W Gillespie
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 13  •  2018  •  pp. 517-537

This study examined why Ed.D students discontinued their doctoral programs during the dissertation phase as well as how a student’s needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence were met during different stages of the program.

Time to complete the doctoral degree continues to increase. Between 40-60% of doctoral students are making the decision to discontinue work toward a degree they have already invested significant amounts of time, money, and energy into earning.

This phenomenological study utilized the lens of Self-Determination Theory. Seven participants (three women and four men) with between nine and sixteen years of post-secondary education, were interviewed three times each to gain a better understanding of the factors that impacted their attrition.

Past research has suggested using a cohort model to encourage retention of doctoral students. All seven participants were enrolled in cohort programs. This study incorporated suggestions from prior research such as a cohort model of learning and ensuring the students’ needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are met. The study investigates the experience of students in cohort programs who did not finish their dissertations.

This study found that the doctoral students who did not complete their dissertations experienced changes in feelings of autonomy and relatedness between their coursework and their dissertations. This made it difficult for them to persist through the dissertation stage of the program. Changes in autonomy and relatedness, when coupled with changes in advisors, career, or family responsibilities resulted in students reprioritizing their goals and thus leaving the dissertation incomplete.

Evaluate students’ autonomy needs as they progress through the program and attempt to pair students with advisors based on needs. Offer opportunities for students to gather and work on the dissertation after they finish the coursework stage of the program.

Understand the importance of advocating for one’s own needs as one moves through the doctoral program. Attempt to finish the dissertation as quickly as possible after the coursework stage of the doctoral program. Do not to allow the dissertation to move to the back burner.

Attrition at any level of post-secondary education is costly to both students and institutions. Doctoral students are often funding their own education while balancing careers and families. There is great potential financial impact on society if more students’ complete programs that they have already invested in heavily.

Examine the needs of autonomy in people who complete the doctoral program. Assess student needs and compare the results with advisor behaviors. Conduct a study with participants who have not earned a specialist degree. Conduct a study to determine the degree to which finances played a role in a students’ decision to discontinue working toward the doctoral degree. Study the impact of taking time off after completing the coursework and comprehensive exam stage of the program.

retention, attrition, doctoral program, cohort, self-determination theory
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