Cover Story

Thirty institutions, including 18 psychology departments, are trying out new ways to keep doctoral students on track, as part of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) PhD Completion Project. Promising areas include:

  • Student selection and admissions. Choosing students who are well-suited to a program and who understand from the beginning what it will require could be a simple way to improve completion rates, according to CGS vice president Robert Sowell. Projects in this area will examine whether providing more informative campus visits and adding information about program requirements to departmental Web sites could help schools recruit candidates best suited for their programs.

  • Mentoring and advising. Research shows that finding the right mentor or adviser is essential to finishing a doctoral degree on time; in fact, 63 percent of CGS survey participants report that it was a main factor in completing their degrees. Projects in this area include mentoring workshops for faculty, matching students with advisers early in their programs and developing tracking systems for students to measure their progress.

  • Financial support. Fields with more funding for students, such as life sciences, have higher completion rates than fields that provide less money. And in the preliminary data, CGS found that 80 percent of recent doctoral graduates cited financial support as an important factor in finishing a degree. In addition to finding ways to provide more funding, projects are examining the timing of funding-whether, for example, allocating 80 percent of funds to doctoral students and 20 percent to master's students would help students overall.

  • Program environment. A nurturing and supportive environment may help students find their way to graduation. To this end, programs are ramping up peer-support networks, including groups for minority students. Programs are also developing family medical leave policies for teaching and research assistants and testing the effectiveness of networking activities for students.

  • Research experiences. Nearly all doctoral programs require a dissertation project-and for most students, it's the highest hurdle to clear. To give students a boost, institutions are developing research opportunities for promising undergraduates, encouraging graduate students to apply for external research grants and helping them begin research earlier.

  • Administrative procedures. Programs can learn from their past by developing databases that track doctoral degree completion and attrition rates and by developing exit surveys to ask graduating students and those who drop out about their graduate school experience.

-L. WINERMAN