The Influence of Family on Doctoral Student Success

Erin Breitenbach, Josh Bernstein, Candace L Ayars, Lynda Tierney Konecny
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 14  •  2019  •  pp. 761-782

This qualitative case-study explores how a doctoral student’s family influences the doctoral student’s success from the perspective of doctoral students who were enrolled in an online doctoral program.

Previous research has shown that family can significantly influence doctoral student success; however, it is not clear what is meant by family nor what the details of the influence of family look like from the perspective of the doctoral student.

A qualitative case-study method was used. More than 500 former students enrolled in an online doctoral program were emailed a web-based survey that elicited information about who they considered to be in their family, how they thought their relationship with their family changed while they were a doctoral student, and how much they thought their family understood what it means to be a doctoral student. One hundred thirty-three (24%) former students participated in the study. Qualitative data were analyzed both manually and electronically by three researchers who subsequently triangulated the data to confirm themes.

This study defines ‘family’ from the doctoral student perspective and provides an in-depth look at how family influences doctoral student success including explanation of family support and lack thereof that previously has been shown to be significant to facilitating or hindering doctoral student success.

Doctoral students mostly considered their immediate and extended family (i.e., spouses, significant others, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and parents-in-law) to be family, but some considered friends and coworkers to be part of their family as well. Most doctoral students experienced positive family support, but for those who did not, two major themes emerged as problematic: a reduction in the amount of time spent with family and family not understanding the value of earning a doctoral degree.

Institutions of higher education should consider these findings when creating interventions to increase retention of doctoral students. Interventions might include orientation programs to help family members understand the value of earning a doctoral degree, the time commitment necessary to complete a doctoral degree, and ways to support a family member earning a doctoral degree.

The findings inform future research by surfacing more specific information about what family support and lack thereof looks like for doctoral students and what interventions for improving family support might include.

Improving family support may improve doctoral student success by adding more doctoral-trained leaders, innovators, scholars, and influential educators to society and by supporting the financial investment of students and their families by decreasing attrition.

Future research should focus on creating quantitative instrumentation to measure the influence of family on doctoral student success. Student populations from different types of doctoral programs (e.g., PhD, MD, DO) might be studied as well. Interventions aimed at improving family support should be designed, implemented, and evaluated for effectiveness.

doctoral student, doctoral student success, retention, attrition, family support, family integration, qualitative, orientation
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