This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Barriers, Motivators, and Perceived Abilities Related to Completion of the Doctoral Degree




Lovelace, Jennifer

Type of Degree



Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology


Student retention has been a well-researched topic in higher education for decades (Austin, Cameron, Glass, Kosko, Marsh, Abdelmagid, & Burge, 2009; Ericson & Gardner, 1992; Lau, 2002; Pang, 2009; Thompson, 2007; Wetzel, O’Toole, & Peterson, 1999). Many universities receive funding based on the number of students enrolled each term so keeping students enrolled is not only in the best interest of the institution financially but also in the best interest of overall student success (Titus, 2004). Maintaining high rankings is also vital since retention and graduation rates are widely published and many students base their choice of higher education on these rankings (Hossler, 2006). The study of the relationship between perceived barriers and doctoral student completion rates could possibly lead to policy creation aimed at increasing student retention at the doctoral level. Since most of the retention theory and policy creation is directed toward undergraduate students, results of this study could yield implications for doctoral support programs. Research estimated that 40-60% of doctoral students do not persist to finishing their degree (Austin, et al., 2009; Bowen & Rudenstein, 1992; Cassuto, 2013; Di Pierro, 2012; Frischer & Larsson, 2000; Galima, 2013; Green, 2005; Golde, 2005; Holley & Caldwell, 2011; Ivankova & Stick, 2007; Katz, 1997; Kiley & Millins, 2005; Lahenius & Martinsuo, 2011; Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012; Stallone, 2004; West, Golkap, Vallejo, Fischer, & Gupton, 2011) and that 20% of those that advance to candidacy do not finish the dissertation phase (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Frischer & Larsson, 2000; Green 2005; Katz, 1997: Kiley & Millins, 2005). Studying the motivating factors of students who have returned to finish their doctoral programs can seek to provide this motivation before student departure occurs. The literature review related key departmental differences that lead to a culture within academic departments in doctoral study (Hawlery, 2003). Student socialization happens primarily at the department level (Gardner, 2007; Golde, 1998). The educational silos created in doctoral programs, leads to a sense of a community or culture of graduate study that varies per department (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). Because of the community type environment created by these educational silos, the research approach used in this study was ethnography. The defining characteristics of ethnography generally include developing a complex description of the culture of a group, identifying patterns of group activities, starting with a theory and drawing from cognitive science to understand ideas and belief, and extensive fieldwork (Creswell, 2013). The overall analysis results in an understanding of how the culture group works, how it functions, and the general way of life of the group (Creswell, 2013). I conducted this study within the College of Education at a public land-grant institution in the southeastern region of the United States. The College of Education at this institution is comprised of three departments and one school. I recruited participants from these four disciplines because they were nearing the end of their doctoral studies or had recently graduated with their PhD. Participants were doctoral students over the age of 19 who were currently enrolled or had just completed a doctoral program within the College of Education. I made special effort to target individuals approaching the end of their doctoral studies or new graduates. My goal was to understand the barriers and motivators that graduate students experience on the way to completing their degree. Students closer to the end of their degree and recent graduates are more likely to have experienced both. For this research study, analysis will begin the moment data collection begins. Analysis involved a constant jumping back and forth between emic and etic perspectives. Interpretation of data begins to happen as the interviewer and the interviewee converse. Even the method in which I transcribed the interview was a form of analysis. The findings of this study were instrumental in understanding the cultures of the College of Education disciplines at one land-grant University in the southeastern United States. Understanding the culture within a department can aid in the development of best practices models for graduate student attrition. An important next step would be to conduct similar studies with current students focusing on the major themes identified here and work to develop a best practices model for doctoral students in different culture (departmental) groups.