In 1983 Penelope Jacks and her colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology published a ''narrative portrait" of 25 individuals who had completed all doctoral degree requirements except the dissertation ("all but dissertation" or ABD). Most had attended graduate school in the late 1960s, and most of those interviewed were men. Interviews were conducted by telephone with questions focused on three major issues:

  • reasons for leaving the doctoral program
  • possible impacts on life and career of being "ABD"
  • perceived value of the Ph.D.

The project was conducted in conjunction with a larger survey of Ph.D.s in six-fields (psychology, sociology, zoology, electrical engineering, and biochemistry) that focused on the graduate school experiences and career outcomes of scientists who actually completed their doctoral degrees around 1970 (see Porter et al. 1981).

After "financial difficulties," the most frequently cited reason for leaving doctoral programs revolved around problems with advisors or doctoral committees. Some respondents reported that advisors were inaccessible owing to research work and/or travel schedules, or that dissertation committees lacked interest in a student's project. In other words, there was no one there "to encourage and give good ideas" to the students. The authors also reported that no one gave only one reason for not completing the dissertation:

Often people began the interview by giving a single 'stock' explanation, but as the interview progressed several issues emerged, and the first one mentioned was not necessarily the most significant. A few respondents admitted that they had never before given a great deal of thought to the experience as a whole.

The authors concluded that formal doctoral preparation may be only as effective as "the informal support system that faculty and peers provide, and in some programs, for some people, such support is never provided."

Issues in Measurement

The work by Jacks and her colleagues is by no means a rigorous statistical account of attrition from doctoral programs. As the authors suggest, the study may best be considered "a collective biography of would-be scientists who consented to reflect in 1980 on their experiences in graduate school."

As a measurement tool, prosopography (development of the collective biography) offers the potential for augmenting statistical profiles of patterns of attrition by revealing the factors which lay behind the observed behavior.

Educational Testing Service

A study of Ph.D. degree completion involving the linking of data sets was conducted by Rebecca Zwick at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 1991 (see Text Box 7). Zwick investigated the graduate careers of nearly 5,000 Ph.D.-seeking students from 11 departments in each of three major research universities. She initially invited 20 universities to determine "whether they maintained data bases that would lend themselves to the planned analyses and whether they would be willing to participate in the study." The key requirement was that information was needed at the

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