Exploring Effective Support Practices for Doctoral Students' Degree Completion

By West, Ilda Jimenez Y.; Gokalp, Gokce et al. | College Student Journal, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Exploring Effective Support Practices for Doctoral Students' Degree Completion


West, Ilda Jimenez Y., Gokalp, Gokce, Pena, Edlyn Vallejo, Fischer, Linda, Gupton, Jarrett, College Student Journal


The increase in time-to degree and attrition rates of students in doctoral programs highlight the importance of identifying challenges students face and developing support services to address them. This study explored the barriers and challenges Ed.D. students face while pursuing their degree along with the effectiveness of a doctoral support center (DSC) in assisting doctoral candidates. A survey administered to 103 students inquired into participants' experiences with their program, dissertation chair, and the DSC. In addition, nine student volunteers participated in focus groups and responded to questions related to the DSC, the program, and the advisor. Time management and relationship with chairs were identified as the most common challenges, while classmates, dissertation chairs, and the DSC were identified as major sources of support for students.

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Since 1920, when Harvard University granted the first Doctorate of Education degree (Ed.D.) to students seeking a prestigious degree reflecting their leadership skills as education practitioners, dozens of Ed.D. programs have emerged across the United States (Mayhew & Ford, 1974). The hundreds of degrees awarded yearly allowed educators to become competitive and uniquely poised for leadership positions in K-12 and higher education institutions. On the one hand, earning an Ed.D. placed educators one-step above those with masters degrees; on the other hand, it distinguished them from educators with a doctorate of philosophy in education degree (Ph.D.) who were focused on research. In today's competitive economy, a job-seeking candidate with an earned Ed.D. who shares equal amounts of professional experiences with other candidates is likely to have access to more career opportunities (Hite, 1985).

While Ed.D. programs continue to expand, little has been published about students' experiences in these programs. Are students thriving in these programs? Are Ed.D. programs effectively supporting doctoral students to degree completion? What are institutions implementing to support working, professional doctoral students? How do student support structures such as a Doctoral Support Center effectively address the needs of Ed.D. students? With the exception of a small number of studies that focus on professional doctoral programs (Allan & Dory, 2001; Scott et al., 2004), fewer focus specifically on the doctorates in education (Pauley, 1999; Malone et al., 2001, Guthrie & Marsh, 2009). Almost all research studies regarding doctoral education concentrate on students in Ph.D. programs. For Ph.D. students, the average time to complete a doctorate program is seven to eight years or as long as 13 years in some cases (Berger, 2007, Bowen & Rudenstein, 1992), and the average drop-out rate is near or above 50% (Bowen & Rudenstein, 1992; Council of Graduate Schools, 2008). For Ed.D. students, the rate of completion varies depending on the institution and program format; Bair and Haworth (1999) place the completion rate for professional doctoral programs between 40-60%, similar to Ph.D. completion rates. The dropout rates of doctoral students highlight the importance of identifying the challenges students face. Universities must turn their attention to Ed.D. programs and their student support structures for two important reasons. First, universities which hire education leaders increasingly desire and require candidates who have earned an Ed.D. (Hite, 1985; The California State University, 2001). Second, given this demand, professional doctoral programs continue to grow within the landscape of higher education (Anderson, 1983). To improve services for professional doctoral students, researchers need to examine students' experiences in their respective programs and the unique structures designed to support their educational goals.

At the center of this study are the following guiding research questions: What are some of the challenges students face in a doctoral program and how do they navigate them? …

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