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    Chapter 5: Attracting the Right Students
    Chapter 5: Attracting the Right Students

    The second of the Four Conditions, admitting the right doctoral students, can have a major impact on degree completion. Past efforts in reducing doctoral attrition focused on changes in student selection (Lovitts, 2001). Given that, in certain research studies, no significant differences in standardized test scores and grades between non-completers and completers exist, selecting students based purely on such criteria is of limited utility (Smallwood, 2004). Instead of choosing the brightest students, Lovitts suggests selecting students with the best "fit" to a program. Lovitts (2001) found it essential for departments to require prospective students to tailor their applications in order to ensure a better fit. For instance, the authors suggested that personal statements address parallels between faculty research interests and the applicant’s ambitions. Once applicants are selected based on best "fit," Lovitts (2001) found that new student orientations offer a well-structured cognitive map by providing an outline of the graduate school environment. A good "fit" based on common research goals facilitates future relationships that are essential to graduate students’ successes.


    Based on findings from the literature, our study sought to more fully understand how institutions and programs can select the right students. First, we examine what characteristics would define the right doctoral student. Second, we studied who currently makes admissions decisions, and the criteria utilized to make that decision. Third, we looked at whether or not faculty and current doctoral students believed their current admissions process is effective. Finally, we examined whether or not the student’s cognitive map regarding the institution and doctoral program were subsequently further developed through orientations and with initial advisement.


    Faculty and doctoral students classified the right student as having: a) a good "fit" with the research of their advisor and program atmosphere; b) clear expectations regarding the demands of doctoral study; c) financial resources to last throughout doctoral studies; d) abilities to perform independent research; and e) motivation, commitment and other personal attributes. Additionally, the doctoral students who participated also thought the right students are able to adjust to doctoral study, are valued within the program, have positive relationships with their dissertation committee, are able to deal with the pressures of graduate school, and are goal-oriented. Furthermore, faculty believed that the right students have excitement for their research, are able to put forth the effort necessary for doctoral study, and have the ability to complete qualifying examinations as well as their dissertation efficiently.


    On the other hand, students and faculty believed students who did not complete their doctorate also possessed defining characteristics. First, these students were more likely to accept full-time employment during their doctoral study. Additionally, students who did not have social support were more likely to depart before completing their degree. Lastly, students who had difficulty balancing the pressures of a family and doctoral study were believed to have trouble completing a degree.


    With regard to the decision-makers for admissions at the three participating institutions, the majority of our programs (73%) admit doctoral students via an admissions committee. The committees consist of faculty members, graduate coordinators, and the director of graduate admissions. However, we noted a wide variance in terms of committee makeup and who the ultimate decision-maker was. The admissions committee includes the graduate coordinator and faculty members for 73% of the programs. The director of graduate programs makes the final decision for 11% of the programs after the prospective student is recommended by an admissions committee. Only 5% of the programs include a current graduate student on the admissions committee.


    Regarding information collected about the students by the doctoral programs, more of a consensus exists than on any other doctoral education issue we examined. Every program considers undergraduate grade point average, GRE scores, letters of reference, and a personal statement from prospective students when making admissions decisions. Additionally, while some programs utilize each of these materials in a systematic manner when making admissions decisions, other programs allow individual faculty members to unilaterally accept students into the program based on research interests. This is consistent with the literature, which suggests that most universities still base their admissions decisions on scores that may have little impact on degree completion (i.e., GRE scores and GPA). However, many of the programs in our sample do select students based on "fit," which was recommended in the literature (Lovitts, 2001). In addition to GPA, standardized test scores, letters of reference, and personal statements, research experience and "fit" with faculty and program research are also considered by our doctoral program when making admissions decisions. Other characteristics taken into account are the quality of a prospective student’s writing samples, the degree of difficulty in undergraduate course selection, work experience, phone and personal interviews, the reputation of the undergraduate institution, and diversity.


    It is also important to note that faculty opinion varies in the degree to which they think the admissions process should be changed. For instance, several of the participating programs systematically reviewed their admissions process with the goal of more accurately selecting the best candidates for a doctoral program. However, other faculty members believed their program’s admissions methods are "as good as it gets," and the process is "something of an art as much as it is a science."

    Once it was determined which admissions methods are currently being utilized in the participating doctoral programs, we examined whether or not they are perceived as effective by faculty and doctoral students. Overall, faculty and students agree on the importance of collecting standard information (i.e., grades, GRE scores, etc.) in order to ensure prospective students meet minimum requirements. However, both faculty and students concur that the information currently obtained from prospective students is academically-based and bureaucratic information. Most students (N=28, 79%) believe this information does not help assess their readiness for a doctoral program. Additionally, some faculty acknowledge they currently do not know how to predict doctoral completion during the admissions process. As one faculty member stated, "if you go through the process of admitting people for several years and then watch how they perform when they get here, the level of predictability is very low."


    Rather than relying solely on academic-based information, most of the participants (80% of students, 82% of faculty) believed intangible characteristics, such as motivation, commitment, and fortitude are what distinguishes those who completed their doctorates. More specifically, students and faculty differentiate those who completed a doctorate and those who did not by an attitude of perseverance. In addition to an applicant's personal attributes, job and research experience appear to be most helpful from the faculty perspective. Moreover the faculty and students sampled believe those who complete a degree possessed an independent aptitude for research and were realistic about their readiness for the doctoral program. Additionally, students believed those who completed their degree had the unique characteristic of resiliency during the initial phase of study, during which some adjustment is necessary.


    Orientations are one method for facilitating realistic expectations of doctoral study, as they offer the first glance into the doctoral education environment (Golde, 1996; Tinto, 1993). Although all programs sampled offer new student orientation, the actual orientations varied widely. Most of the programs (64%) acclimate students through a university-wide orientation and a departmental orientation. The majority of departmental orientation sessions varied in length from two hours to an entire semester. Topics covered during orientation include: advising and course selection; university policies; campus policies; research ethics; academic integrity; safety; library resources; teaching effectiveness; learning styles; choosing an advisor; and professional socialization. A few programs assign a student mentor to each new student, distribute detailed program handbooks, or offer comprehensive orientation courses.


    We also discovered variety in program policies for advising new students regarding course selection. Graduate program directors, graduate coordinators, and faculty committees act as the initial advisor for 41%, 29%, and 9% of the programs, respectively. For the remaining programs, the student selects courses according to suggestions from advisors which are generally based on the student's academic and research interests. Advisors are generally assigned and/or selected due to mutual interests.


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