Growing Grit to Produce Doctoral Persistence

Melanie D. M. Hudson, Lucinda S. Spaulding, Angela Y Ford, Laura E Jones
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 705-736

The purpose of this systematic grounded theory study was to generate a model explaining how grit and a growth mindset develop and influence persistence in doctoral completers. Since doctoral attrition has historically plagued institutions of higher learning, with conflicting explanations reported in the literature, program leaders will benefit by understanding factors associated with persistence.

Although the initial literature regarding doctoral persistence relied on the more traditional student involvement and integration models of higher education, the changing landscape of doctoral education—a steep increase in the number of distance education programs, as well as students’ time and energy constraints—calls for a closer look at individual student factors over engagement efforts.

The systematic approach of grounded theory was adopted to fulfill the purpose of constructing a model explaining the process of grit and growth mindset development in doctoral students who persist to completion. Both quantitative data from a total population of 51 completers, in the form of the Short Grit Scale instrument and Dweck’s Mindset Instrument, as well as qualitative data from interviews and reflective journals of a sample of 12 doctoral completers were analyzed to produce the Grit Growth Model suggested by the findings.

The Grit Growth Model contributes empirical evidence of the antecedents of the characteristics of grit and growth mindset, which has been limited in the literature to date. A unique contribution of this study is the suggestion of a departure from the typical approach of leaders in post-graduate institutions from a student-integration/engagement approach, to a more direct personal development strategy, with specific direction given by the Grit Growth Model, as well as the additional Student Development Model of Doctoral Persistence.

The findings produced the Grit Growth Model, which revealed sub-themes of expectations, engagement, service, and personal loss in the life experiences of the doctoral completers, as well as values surrounding religious faith and passion. Personal characteristics of flexibility and shame resilience were identified, and findings confirmed prior persistence literature that acknowledged the imminent value of personal and academic relationships. The central theme of personal and social responsibility (PSR) carries theoretical, empirical, and practical implications for doctoral or any other leaders who wish to develop grit in others, as well as individuals seeking to develop the trait within themselves.

Given the findings of this study, doctoral program leaders should make a concerted effort to add a direct student development focus to their portfolio of strategies to support student persistence, as visualized in the Student Development Model of Doctoral Persistence. Programmatic elements, such as direct provision of grit, growth mindset, and PSR resources through doctoral student communication platforms, could deliver persistence support by means of advancing student metacognition of these principles. Additionally, modules that introduce and inspire growth in these areas using the quantitative instruments for grit and a growth mindset, followed by reflective journaling, direct instruction videos, and post-tests, are suggested.

Future researchers in any field can build upon this model by replacing doctoral persistence with their own long-term goals or achievements and representing their findings by adjusting the model accordingly. In this way, the significance of the Grit Growth Model lies in its adaptability to future inquiry, providing a meaningful template to illustrate confirmatory or alternative findings.

For educators at any level or individuals who wish to develop grit and a growth mindset within themselves or others studying the array of categories of experiences and beliefs on the Grit Growth Model will illuminate multiple paths to follow on this quest. Accessing resources from Duckworth’s Character Lab (, Dweck’s mindset works© website (, or the AAC&U’s Personal and Social Responsibility site ( are suggested concrete starting points.

In subsequent research along these same lines, it would be desirable to solicit a follow-up interview to dig deeply into more nuanced life experiences that may not emerge in the initial interview. Additionally, due to the limitations of snowball sampling, future confirmatory research should focus on samples from a wider population who completed at a more diverse group of universities. Finally, although the interview sample size of 12 participants produced findings with theoretical saturation, a larger sample from a wider variety of disciplines and demographics, including unmarried doctoral completers, may paint a more complete picture of the common experiences and values of completers from a broader range of personal and professional backgrounds.

grit, growth mindset, doctoral persistence, higher education, personal and so-cial responsibility
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