Issues in Graduate Education
Retention of Doctoral Students
James Palmitessa, December 2007
In a recent study of graduate education and graduate programs in history in the United States, the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education concluded that "retention and attrition are extremely important issues for students and for the institution," but "found surprisingly little departmental concern about attrition."1 At Western Michigan University (WMU), while master's degrees have been awarded since 1958, the PhD program was first established in 1992. In the first decade of the doctoral program, attracting good students to the program was more of a concern than attrition or retention. However, beginning five years ago, under my immediate predecessor Judith Stone, we began to devote more attention to the length of time toward degree and attrition, and developed a number of measures aimed at helping students progress through their programs smoothly and in a timely fashion. We hope that this approach will increase the retention rate.
First, we admit applicants only when, in addition to other factors, a faculty member agrees to serve as a supervising professor. That sets us apart from some other institutions in our region that admit large numbers of students, but weed some out in the first year. Having a student matched at the time of admission with a faculty member in the student's field of specialization addresses one reason mentioned by students for drifting or leaving a program: not having someone to work with. Moreover, having a faculty member commit to a particular student establishes a foundation for a good mentoring relationship, which is essential for the student's success.
Another way we seek to help students move smoothly through their programs is by enforcing a requirement of the Graduate College that all graduate students submit a "Graduate Student Permanent Program" form before completing 18 hours of course work. The name of the form is a misnomer since it is actually a working program of study onto which students enter the courses they have taken, those they expect to take, names of committee members, and so on. By the time the students are expected to complete the form (usually in their fourth semester), many will have fulfilled a number of requirements, but have not yet made any firm decisions about their exam and thesis committees. Together with the supervising professor, exam and thesis committees play an important role in the student's program. Having to submit the form reminds students of the need to finish requirements and form the exam committees. For a number of years students filled out the form only when they applied for final graduation audit and it was then that the Graduate College or the history department verified that this form had actually been submitted. A few years ago we began sending general announcements to students during the annual review to complete the form (discussed later in this essay) . Last year, students who had not submitted the form were notified individually that they needed to do so. Anecdotal evidence supports the notion that enforcing the submission of the form before 18 hours has helped students move forward when they otherwise might have drifted and later dropped out.
A major focus of our retention efforts has been the "Annual Review of Graduate Student Progress." The review begins with the submission of a "Graduate Activities Report" (GAR) to the director of graduate studies, which continuing students are required to submit by October 15, and first-year students by January 15 (a copy of the GAR can be seen online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0712/0712gra3.cfm). The GAR is based on the "Professional Activities Report" that faculty members are contractually required to submit each year. It includes all relevant activities undertaken in the previous calendar year and tracks progress in the course of study outlined in the Graduate Student Permanent Program. After completing the form the student is asked to submit a copy to his or her supervising professor, who writes evaluative comments on a cover sheet; and then meet with the supervising professor to discuss the evaluation and the student's progress. Both student and supervising professor then sign the form before it is submitted to the director of graduate studies. Two members of the Graduate Studies Committee subsequently review the progress of each student, examining the GAR, the student's transcript, and teaching or teaching assistant evaluations, noting their comments on a special form (a template of the form can be seen online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0712/0712gra4.pdf). The Graduate Studies Committee then meets to discuss special and problem cases and to decide on a composite rating for each student of "Making Adequate Progress" or "Not Making Adequate Progress." The decision is communicated to the student through a letter from the director of graduate studies that is copied to the supervising professor and the department chair, and is also placed in the student's file.
The annual review provides an opportunity for students to reflect and receive feedback on their progress and allows supervising professors, the director of graduate studies, and the Graduate Studies Committee to better monitor students' progress through their programs and to identify problems early on. In practice, it demands the time, attention, and commitment by all parties to be effective. Because a deadline is involved, some students simply submit the forms to their supervising professors, who then provide comments, and sign and submit the form to the director of graduate studies without meeting with the students. And in a few cases, supervising professors have completed and submitted the forms for their students. Those cases are unfortunate since we envisioned yearly meetings between supervising professors and students to discuss student progress as an important part of the process. Also, during most years, the letters to the students have been form letters in which the student's individual rating was inserted. This past year, students received individualized letters that pointed out specific missing requirements. In four cases, the review was tied directly to decisions about continuation of funding for the first time (the student was informed to take a long-overdue comprehensive exam or lose funding for the current year). In three of the four cases, the intervention had a direct positive result and the student fulfilled the requirement. Although it would be difficult to prove in other cases, my sense is that the annual review has aided the timely completion of degrees and strengthened retention.
Another measure we have introduced to increase the retention rate was to raise the funding for new and continuing doctoral students from three to four years, which is awarded on the condition that students continue to make satisfactory progress in their program as determined by the annual review. Four years of funding is more in line with other institutions and more realistic, given that we require doctoral students to teach as instructors of record after their first semester or first year. Doctoral students have been teaching as instructors of record at WMU since the PhD program was first established, but the practice is not fully supported by all faculty members, as some believe it takes too much time away from studies and should wait at least until the ABD stage. Many doctoral students, on the other hand, report that the opportunity to teach was the feature that attracted them to our program and believe that it will assist them in securing a position upon graduation.
For the past two years we have required students to publicly present their doctoral dissertation prospectus (and we require the same for the master's thesis prospectus). This presentation is approximately 15 minutes in length and followed by questions from dissertation committee members, other faculty members, and graduate students. The prospectus is submitted in advance to the student's dissertation committee, who, at the conclusion of the presentation, may request modifications to the prospectus. The public presentation provides an opportunity for the student to meet in person with his or her entire dissertation committee and facilitates communication among members of the dissertation committee, which is to the student's benefit. The public presentation of the dissertation prospectus gives the student a tangible feeling that an important hurdle has been reached, which is a good morale booster for the next stage of the dissertation process, and shows other students at an earlier stage of their studies that real progress is attainable.
There are other strategies that can be implemented beyond the department at the institutional level to aid retention. The WMU Graduate Studies Council Committee for Recruitment and Retention, which was chaired by my colleague Marion Gray, chair of the WMU history department, recommends centralizing the administration of graduate student services, eliminating graduate-student fees, offering campus services at reduced rates to nonfunded and part-time students, adequately staffing offices that deal with graduate student issues, and publicizing and encouraging utilization of a leave of absence policy.
It is well known that the ABD period is a time when many students drop out of programs. However, the pre-comprehensive examination stage of doctoral education has its own set of problems arising from the challenge of simultaneously having to make up for missing foreign language proficiencies, take classes, form exam committees, prepare for exams, develop a dissertation prospectus, and apply for grants and fellowships. It is easy to get off track and drift. The measures described above are intended to help students stay on track, get them over the hurdles, and make the ride as smooth, timely, and enjoyable as possible. In the years ahead we hope to be able to assess and evaluate the success of these measures.
—James Palmitessa is an associate professor and a former director of graduate studies in the Department of History at Western Michigan University.
1. Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, Colin Palmer, and the Committee on Graduate Education of the American Historical Association, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 95.