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Money and Mentoring Help Grad Students Complete Their Ph.D.s

The Council of Graduate Schools released a report this week of a survey on factors that help graduate students stay the course and get their Ph.D. degrees. Financial help and mentoring were cited as two the key reasons, particularly for science and engineering students.  The report is part of the organization’s Ph.D. Completion Project, a 7-year undertaking to better understand the reasons for Ph.D. completion and attrition.

More respondents cited financial support as a key success factor than any other reason. Eight in 10 (80%) pointed to financial factors, including at least that number of mathematics, physical science, life science, engineering, and social science participants. Those in humanities programs were somewhat less likely to mention money as a key reason for completion.

Mentoring or advising emerged as the factor mentioned second most often by respondents — about two-thirds overall (65%) and somewhat more (67-70%) of engineering, social science, mathematics, and physical science graduates. Somewhat fewer life science graduates (61%) identified mentoring or advising as a key factor in completing their programs.

A third key element in completing a Ph.D., according to respondents, is non-financial support from families. More than half (57%) identified this factor, particularly social science graduates (61%). Majorities (53-57%) of life science, engineering, and physical science/mathematics respondents also cited this reason as important to their doctoral success.

Other key factors, shared by 3-to-4 in 10 science and engineering respondents, include the social environment or peer group support, the quality of their doctoral programs, and professional or career guidance (apart from academic mentoring or advising).

The survey explored the extent of financial support promised students at the outset of their programs, and science students in general received more of these guarantees. Nearly all (94%) of all respondents received some financial support, and 7 in 10 received guarantees of assistance for more than 1 year. Science students were more likely than those in other fields  to receive multi-year guarantees.  Three in four life science students (77%) were offered assistance for more than 1 year, as were almost as many (72-73%) in mathematics, physical sciences, and social sciences. Engineering students were, as a group, less fortunate; about 6 in 10 (63%) received multi-year financial guarantees.

The study team surveyed 1856 respondents enrolled in doctoral programs, at 18 participating universities, from May 2006 through August 2008. Of that number, 1406 had completed programs.