Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

The Impact of Community for Part-Time Doctoral Students: How Relationships in the Academic Department Affect Student Persistence

Academic journal article International Journal of Doctoral Studies

The Impact of Community for Part-Time Doctoral Students: How Relationships in the Academic Department Affect Student Persistence

Article excerpt

Introduction

Projections of the number of doctoral students who leave their programs range from 30 to 70% (Berelson, 1960; Council of Graduate Schools [CGS], 2008; Hawley, 2010; Lovitts, 2001; Nettles & Millett, 2006; Tinto, 1993). Despite many national programs (e.g., Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2008; CGS, 2008; Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2005) and institutional efforts to decrease attrition of doctoral students, there has been little to no change in attrition rates in the past 50 years (Berelson, 1960; CGS, 2008).

Pursuing a Ph.D. as a full-time student is correlated with persistence and degree attainment (Clewell, 1987; Girves & Wemmerus, 1988; Nettles & Millett, 2006; Ott & Markewich, 1985 because full-time students have more opportunities to interact with faculty and peers. However, the number of part-time students pursuing doctoral degrees continues to grow. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, approximately 33% of all Ph.D. students in the United States are enrolled part-time, with some disciplines reporting numbers as high as 57% (CGS, 2012). Despite these percentages, part-time students are rarely included in the literature on the doctoral student experience (Berelson, 1960; Golde, 1998, 2005; Hawley, 2010; Lovitts, 2001; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Tinto, 1993; Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001; White & Nonnamaker, 2008).

The increasing numbers of part-time doctoral students combined with attrition rates of up to 70% (Berelson, 1960; CGS, 2008; Hawley, 2010; Lovitts, 2001; Nettles & Millett, 2006; Tinto, 1993), warrant special attention on this population of doctoral students. A line of research that holds promise to improve attrition rates revolves around a sense of community between the student and the academic department. Accordingly, this study examined the ways that part-time Ph.D. students develop community within the academic department and how a sense of community is related to student persistence. Specifically, this study investigated two questions: 1) In what ways do part-time doctoral students develop a sense of community within their academic departments? and 2) How does a sense of community influence the persistence of part-time doctoral students?

Literature Review

Many researchers have found a strong link between attrition and a lack of community between the student and the department of study (Antony, 2002; Lovitts, 2001; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000). A lack of interaction with faculty and peers can lead to a graduate student experience characterized by loneliness, stress, isolation, and confusion (Gardner, 2008; Hadjioannou, Shelton, Fu, & Dhanarattigannon, 2007; Lovitts & Nelson, 2001; Weidman et al., 2001). However, frequent positive interactions produce strong connections to the department and create a system of supportive relationships (Weidman et al., 2001). Research indicates that the highest attrition rates are found in the humanities and social sciences (average ten year attrition rate of 32% (CGS, 2008)), where programs of study are typically individualized and students are expected to conduct research independently. Conversely, the lowest attrition rates are in the sciences (average ten year attrition rate of 26.2% (CGS, 2008)), where students are often required to conduct collaborative research and meet regularly with laboratory groups (Baird, 1990; Deem & Brehony, 2000; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Nettles & Millett, 2006).

Defining Doctoral Student Community

Community in educational contexts is frequently associated with foundational ideas of belonging and mattering as they relate to meaningful relationships with others and becoming a valued member of a sustained, collective group (Tinto, 1993; Wenger, 1998; White & Nonnamaker, 2008). For this study, community is defined as the development of social networks through relationships in the academic setting. …

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