A fresh view on graduate students who leave
Barbara Lovitts dislikes the term "dropout," especially when describing someone withdrawing from a PhD program. Instead, she prefers "departer" or "non-completer." Departer suggests a positive move "as in departing on a trip or new beginnings," and non-completer is a neutral term, the obverse of "completer." These are distinctions she is well qualified to offer.
In Leaving the Ivory Tower, author Dr. Lovitts brings to her research a combination of expertise, experience and insight. She holds a doctorate in sociology and, among other roles, has been program director at the National Science Foundation, a program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a senior research analyst at the American Institutes for Research. More significantly, she works from a truly unusual perspective: she was awarded a doctorate after withdrawing twice from embittering encounters with graduate study.
"I knew that my experience was not unique," she writes, "yet we [non-completers] were isolated from one another." Then, as now, "there were no support groups, no networks" for non-completers. "We were outcasts."
What might have been an individual academic disaster spurred Dr. Lovitts towards a scholarly accomplishment in trying to come to terms with the reasons people don't complete their doctoral studies. For almost five decades "the overall rate of doctoral student attrition in the United States has consistently been estimated to be around 50 percent," she writes. Why, then, has the academic community neglected a phenomenon so relevant to intellectual development? Because it would take a non-completer to address the problem of attrition "from the perspective of the student who leaves."
And thus Leaving the Ivory Tower was conceived out of bleakness in 1985, appearing 16 years later adorned with academic bells and whistles. Dr. Lovitts spent years devising techniques and approaching universities, ultimately locating one rural and one urban campus agreeing to participate. She used questionnaires, personal interviews and campus visits and involved administrators, faculty and doctoral students - both those who completed their studies and those who didn't. Neither the institutions nor the people are identified (their pseudonyms whimsically selected from Gone With the Wind). The study consolidates its findings within a structure that includes a survey of the pertinent literature, a convincing treatment of applicable statistics and a rigorous application of current methodologies.
Many of the findings debunk the most pernicious faculty myth about non-completers: that they are losers. Far from being losers, those departing from PhD study are the intellectual equals of those who finish. At the outset all are on similar footing, with no significant difference in the undergraduate records of those who succeed and those who withdraw. Dr. Lovitts found that "academic failure is not a tenable explanation for the magnitude of attrition." Even among those who finish, uncertainty is widespread: 42 percent of completers said they "had seriously considered leaving."
Moreover, Dr. Lovitts found that "post-attrition educational achievements contradict widely held views that non-completers are not as capable and not as dedicated." The basic cause of attrition, Dr. Lovitts contends, is inherent in the structure and process of graduate education.
Other findings drive this conclusion home. Although many administrators and faculty say that "student dispositions and behaviors" are responsible for failure, the same administrators and faculty take partial credit for students' success. Hence, she writes, they commit "the fundamental attribution error" of blaming students for their own attrition while exonerating themselves "of any role they or the structure of graduate education may play." And even when some faculty do acknowledge an institutional role, they blame insufficient funding rather than themselves for difficulties. "Money simply is not the primary factor influencing attrition," says Dr. Lovitts. The primary factor is "what transpires after the student enrolls in graduate school."
What, then, should the universities do? Dr. Lovitts proposes radical changes in attitudes. First, universities should recognize that "what is meant by quality is neither standardized nor conveyed to graduate students in a coherent or objective manner." Second, they should acknowledge that one factor is how well students are socialized academically, since "attrition appears to be a function of the department's social organization." And third, universities should focus on the suitability of faculty to meet their responsibilities, because "affiliation with the proper adviser can often spell the difference between completion and non-completion."
In Canada, too, PhD completion and attrition rates are a topic of renewed concern. Graduate studies deans and faculty advisers would do well to read this well-researched book.
Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study by Barbara E. Lovitts, published by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2001, 307 pages, $48.95 Cdn, paper.
Wilf Cude is the author of The Ph.D. Trap and The Ph.D. Trap Revisited.