Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Surviving the Doctoral Dissertation Experience: The N.W. Sisters' Study

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Surviving the Doctoral Dissertation Experience: The N.W. Sisters' Study

Article excerpt

Abstract

The purpose of this year-long study was to examine and describe both the individual and shared experiences of a group of four women as they went through their Doctor of Education (Ed. D.) program. The main research question was: What do you perceive as the factors that were integral to your achieving success in the doctoral program? Data from this qualitative case study were gathered through group interview sessions. Subsequent analysis of interview transcripts revealed the following factors that were integral to achieving success: sense of humor, family values, empathy, perseverance, spirituality, accountability to the group, collaboration, good advisors, ability to rebuild after setbacks, having role models, group support, and seeing the benefits of obtaining the doctorate. The goal of this study is to encourage other women to overcome the ABD (All But Dissertation) hurdle by giving them some tools to help complete the journey.

Keywords: women's doctoral experiences, dissertation support groups, doctoral persistence

Introduction

The high attrition rate among students in U.S. doctoral programs is of serious concern. While there is no longitudinal database that could yield a national average attrition rate across all fields in doctoral programs, the most frequently cited estimate is 50 percent. That is, 50 percent of those who begin work to attain a doctoral degree in the United States do not complete their program (Denecke, 2004; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Smallwood, 2004).

The attrition toll is especially severe on women. Although women's rates of enrollment have grown significantly over the past decade, there is also much evidence to show that women withdraw from doctoral programs of study at higher rates than men (Kerlin, 1997; Smallwood, 2004). There are many reasons for withdrawal, including: family responsibilities, job-related pressure, financial strains, lack of information, the absence of community, and poor quality in the adviser-advisee relationship (Kerlin, 1997; Lovitts, 2001).

This attrition rate constitutes a waste of time and resources, but perhaps the most important reason to care about attrition is the effect it has on students' lives. "This is tremendously painful," says Barbara E. Lovitts (2001), who left two doctoral programs before finishing a third one, in sociology, at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1996. "These are people who have never failed before in their lives. They were Summa cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. And for the first time in their lives they've experienced failure. It takes people a lot of years to get over it."

The purpose of this year-long study was to examine and describe both the individual and shared experiences of a group of four women as they went through their Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program. These women had voluntarily formed a cohort to support each other through the dissertation experience. All of them earned their doctoral degrees prior to commencing this study. The statistically significant accomplishment that all members of this cohort completed a doctoral program of study intrigued them to examine the reasons for this success and after all four women completed the doctoral program, they spent a weekend away at the Oregon Coast to celebrate the last woman's successful defense of her dissertation. Towards the end of the weekend, after much relaxation and laughter, they decided to embark on this serious study. The main research question they asked themselves was: What do you perceive as the factors that were integral to your achieving success in the doctoral program? The ultimate goal of this study is to encourage other women to overcome the ABD (All But Dissertation) hurdle, and to persuade them to complete their doctoral journey.

Demographics of Subjects

All four participants were women who had successfully completed their Ed.D.s in Educational Leadership at a large, urban university in Oregon. …

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