Facing Reality: What Are Doctoral Students' Chances for Success?

By Church, Sarah Elizabeth | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Facing Reality: What Are Doctoral Students' Chances for Success?


Church, Sarah Elizabeth, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Doctoral education in the United States had been scrutinized because of high-attrition rates reported as an average of 50 percent. Emerging from Lovitts (2001), this research examined students' attendance at Mock Orals (MO) and its relationship to their academic and social integration, cognitive maps, goals, rates of attrition, and retention in a doctoral program at a private metropolitan university. In contrast to the traditional dissertation model, the MO--activities designed to prepare doctoral students for their oral-defense presentations by engaging them in periodic bi-annual practice presentations. Data indicated that 87.5 percent of matriculated students had been graduated--a higher than the national 50 percent completion rate by more than one third. Conversely, 12.5 percent of the students were Non-completers.

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Conversations with doctoral students enrolled in other programs have repeatedly brought to light the frustrations that many experience during dissertation stage. Indeed, the national average across decades and disciplines is 50 percent completion and conversely non-completion. Although I cannot cite it, I vaguely recall a newspaper account several years ago of a doctoral student in Florida who literally shot his mentor because he could not get enough time with that person or definitive direction to complete his research.

This scenario does not represent either my or my colleagues' experiences in our doctoral program. Because I was aware of these statistics indicating the low graduation rate of many students enrolled in advanced graduate work, who ultimately were named All But Dissertation (ABD), I wondered why my experience was different from what other universities were providing. I explored this topic with colleagues enrolled in the same program and we discussed the possibilities.

We concluded it could not be the curriculum because students were completing the coursework. It could not be identification of a topic because the ABDs had initiated research; they just had not completed it. It could not be the fact that most of us had multiple responsibilities, families to care for and careers that required attention and focus, because each of us had similar responsibilities. Of course, it might have been the professor each had chosen as mentor but mentors vary in every institution and it was not likely that God had graced us with the one perfect professor who would lead us through various obstacles that inevitably arise during the completion of any demanding scholarly venture. So what was it? The one component that we each experienced and that few other institutions provided was the Mock Orals.

What are Mock Orals?

A vivid contrast to the isolation of the traditional model of the dissertation process was the MO, a component of a doctoral degree program at a private metropolitan university. The MO were a group of activities designed to prepare doctoral students for their oral-defense presentations by engaging in a practice presentation. The value was in both the rehearsal of the oral defense presentation for the student who had completed the doctoral research and for the other students at all stages of the degree process, seeing and understanding what they would have to be prepared to do for their own future oral defense. The audience for the MO included in-progress students, program graduates, guests, university faculty, and professionals.

The MO provided doctoral candidates with a different experience from the isolation and angst provoked by an unorganized support system as Damrosch described (2000, November 17). They constituted a structured procedure that prepared students for their oral-defense examinations and, simultaneously, served as a cornerstone for creating the social and professional affiliations that numerous candidates in other institutions complained they lacked (Tinto, 1993). In addition, the MO apparently compelled certain students to continue to participate in them long after their terminal degree had been awarded. …

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