Professors seek to find ways to reduce time spent studying for doctoral degrees
August 27, 2015
As the costs of a college education continue to soar, and politicians scramble for ways to make the academic experience more economically feasible, two Virginia Tech engineering education professors are investigating helpful strategies for avoiding pitfalls that prolong completion times when pursuing doctoral degrees.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $1.28 million to Virginia Tech engineering education faculty members Stephanie Adams and Holly Matusovich to offer a Dissertation Institute to evaluate issues that could lead to shortening a student's time to earn a doctoral degree.
Specifically, Adams and Matusovich, both previous recipients of an NSF CAREER award, will focus on studying a group of 170 underrepresented students pursuing doctoral degrees in engineering through attending a Dissertation Institute.
"The attrition rate in doctoral programs is one of the most vexing problems that the U.S. graduate education faces," according to the national Council of Graduate Schools' report, The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States.
In particular, a disproportionate number of minority students are experiencing difficulties negotiating the various phases of the dissertation process. According to the same Council of Graduate Schools, white students have the highest cumulative ten-year completion rates at 55 percent, compared to 51 percent for Hispanic Americans, 50 percent for Asian Americans, and 47 percent for African Americans.
Cumulative data varies across individual fields of learning, but the ten-year overall completion rate for doctoral degrees in engineering is 63.6 percent.
"The data suggest that individuals, graduate schools, and society would benefit from efforts to reduce time to degree and degree completion rates," according to a proposal written by Adams and Matusovich. "It is important that students complete degrees in as efficient a manner as possible if the U.S. is to continue to remain globally competitive in the 21st Century."
The two researchers plan to gain a better understanding of the motivational factors that promote and detract from a student's progress towards a degree. As examples, they will: investigate how certain behaviors foster or hinder success; find ways to increase engagement in positive behaviors and eliminate destructive behaviors; create paths to maneuver through the dissertation phase from selection of a topic to completing the dissertation; and develop realistic program completion goals and plans for implementing them.
Some universities have already initiated individual programs to increase graduate student enrollment and retention at their institutions and have met with certain success. Washington University in St. Louis matched the number of assistantship stipends available to the number of admitted graduate students. The University of California at Davis created a program that focused on a better mentoring program. And the University of Maryland in Baltimore County started the first Dissertation House, a compact series of mini-day workshops, seminars, and activities for preparing students to finish their dissertations.
Virginia Tech's Matusovich, who received her NSF CAREER award in 2011 to study how students are motivated to learn engineering practices, has already initiated a program that promotes shared accountability for making time to write. The program has expanded from her individual research group to becoming more widely accepted across the department and now includes two self-sustaining groups that include faculty and students that commit to writing and working together in a shared space for a full day.
"Graduate students do in fact attribute higher writing productivity to having a community of practice that provides support and motivation," Matusovich asserted.
Adams, who received her NSF CAREER award in 2003 to design and validate a model for effective teaming in engineering education, and Matusovich plan to design a small-scale initial implementation of the Dissertation Institute as a pilot test to be showcased at the 2016 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition. After the pilot is reviewed, plans to offer initial Dissertation Institutes are targeted for the University of Maryland at Baltimore County in conjunction with Virginia Tech's National Capital Region campus, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of California at Irvine, and Texas A&M University at College Station or the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan.
They chose these sites due to their level of underrepresented minority students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.