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Home - Two Worlds – Spring 2010

Editor’s note: Full-length version of story.

In a way, I’m kind of caught in between these two groups: the working-class group and the world of academia. I don’t fully belong to either group anymore. I kind of have one foot straddling the line.”

- Kathryn, a doctoral student in psychology

By their very nature, doctoral programs are rigorous, intense and steeped in something of a pay-your-dues tradition. As one doctoral student said, “If graduate school was easy, everybody would have a Ph.D.”

But today, doctoral education also is facing one of its toughest challenges. The attrition rate for doctoral students in the United States is 43 percent, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Researchers looking at the causes of the high rate find no single catalyst, but note that the incidence varies greatly according to academic disciplines — from as low as 24 percent in the biomedical and behavioral sciences to a high of nearly 67 percent in the humanities and social sciences.

Attrition at this level in higher education comes with a particularly high price tag for universities, the faculty and the students. A University of Notre Dame study found that it would save $1 million annually in stipends alone if attrition were reduced 10 percent. As a result of what some are calling “the central issue in doctoral education in the United States today,” researchers and institutions like the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have initiated studies to better understand the causes and consequences.

For higher education researcher Susan Gardner, the attrition picture is particularly harrowing when taking into account that 34 percent of doctoral candidates nationwide in 2008 were first-generation doctoral students, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.

“There’s an assumption that once first-generation students graduate with their undergraduate degrees, they’ve figured out how higher education works,” says Gardner, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maine. “But these students still struggle as much or more in graduate school. They have no cognitive map. From popular culture they have a general idea how college works, but not how to be socialized to graduate school.”

First-generation doctoral students are often women and students of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of their lack of what Gardner describes as economic, social and cultural capital, they have difficulty negotiating the graduate school environment and navigating the challenges, and are particularly at risk.

These first-generation students tend to have what Gardner calls “accumulated disadvantage” — lower degree aspirations; greater odds of dropping out or, if they graduate, taking longer to do it; less engagement with faculty and peers; and the need to work full time while in school to meet financial need.

Basically, they are less equipped than their peers with college-educated parents to navigate higher education. To know the ropes. To speak the language. To successfully meet the often unspoken expectations of graduate programs.

“What’s glaring for me is these students have particular areas of need that are not being met,” says Gardner, who has written and co-edited two books on doctoral student socialization and development in the past year. “Students talk of isolation and the idea of having a foot in two worlds. They are loyal to their families, but their families don’t understand what they’re doing. Academia doesn’t understand where they come from. They feel alone and anguished about what they’re experiencing, not knowing the right questions to ask.”

The demographics have far-reaching implications for institutions that have high percentages of first-generation doctoral students. The University of Maine is one of them.

Nearly 48 percent of UMaine’s doctoral graduates are first generation — the second-highest population in the nation behind Wayne State University. Others in the top 10 are West Virginia and Temple universities; the universities of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky; Iowa State and Oklahoma State; and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“There’s an implied understanding that in the last 50 years, we’ve worked toward opening doors for women and people of color in higher education,” Gardner says. “It’s taken for granted at the undergraduate level, but there’s benign neglect at the graduate level.”

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