Gardner’s research is raising awareness about the issues higher education must address if high-risk student populations are to succeed. In one of her most recent studies of the effects of academic discipline and institutional cultures on attrition, she interviewed 60 first-generation doctoral students and 34 faculty in six fields and found major disconnect between the two groups.
Faculty largely blamed attrition on students “lacking” what it takes to succeed, many noting that those students “shouldn’t have come” in the first place. Graduate students perceived personal problems as the chief reason their peers left their programs. They also cited departmental issues, poor advising, and inadequate institutional and faculty preparation to meet expectation. They said their peers who dropped out discovered they had the “wrong fit” with their programs, something they could not have known prior to acceptance.
While both faculty and students cited personal problems as the reasons for attrition, only students knew the specifics.
“Faculty responses were indicative of feeling removed from the issue of attrition, that it was largely a problem they attributed to students,” says Gardner. “Students were quick to point to programmatic, departmental and institutional issues as reasons for attrition. Such mismatched understandings of attrition may contribute to further erosion. Conversations among faculty and students about expectations and causes of departure should occur.”
“Without precise understanding of why attrition occurs, faculty may inadvertently pass along misunderstandings, not only among themselves but also to their students,” she says.
The Ph.D. student produces original research and is expected to be a “steward of the discipline,” Gardner says. In what is a complicated socialization process, the candidate has to learn to be a student, researcher, professional and leader to a degree not found on the undergraduate or master’s degree levels. For that reason, Gardner says, doctoral advising and mentoring are so important.
“It goes back to the idea of where we learn what we learn,” she says. “What do we teach students?”
Doctoral advising is a challenging, long-term commitment that requires one-on-one attention. Literature exists about effective advising for undergrads, but little about how to be a doctoral adviser. In her research, Gardner has found that faculty who had a good doctoral experience replicate it for their students; if their experience was poor, they try to offer the opposite or comparable, thinking it a matter of paying dues for the highest degree.
“For some (doctoral students), this is a hazing experience. Is that what we want?” says Gardner.
Reframing begins with recognizing that there may be different realities facing first-year doctoral students, Gardner says. For instance, first-generation doctoral students need skills in how to sell themselves.
“Their working-class values don’t necessarily translate to the careers they aspire to,” she says. “Tooting their own horns is discomforting. How do we teach these students to talk about themselves so they don’t feel egotistical, but understand that this is part of the process?”
The second step is socialization, engaging faculty and students in a discussion of doctoral program logistics, rules and expectations — both explicit and implied. The third step, Gardner says, is the reaffirmation of a university administration with built-in supportive structure, such as a support group for first-generation students and counseling services.
“What’s going on in people’s lives and what institutions do to support them are real influences that ultimately encourage students to go on,” says Gardner. “Faculty also need to understand the difference an individual can make in the lives of first-generation college students. It’s that one person saying to them, ‘You should go to graduate school and here’s how it works.’”
Image Description: Painting by Breanna Brown