Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Attrition and Completion in Doctoral Education: A Wicked Problem?

Nigel Palmer  will speak on "Attrition and Completion in Doctoral Education: A Wicked Problem?" at the Australian National University in Canberra, 5:00 PM 5 November 2014:
"Is doctoral attrition a wicked problem? This seminar examines time to completion and completion rates for international and domestic doctoral candidates by gender, and explores opportunities for developing better strategies for engaging and supporting candidates through to the successful completion of their degree. 
Better information on degree completions for doctoral candidates is essential if strategies for addressing student attrition are to be effective. This seminar reports findings from a scoping study supported by the Gender Institute and The Research Training unit at The Australian National University aimed at informing future research and engagement on patterns of participation and completion in doctoral degrees at the ANU, and in the Australian higher education sector more broadly. ..."
But in my view, doctoral completion rates only appear a wicked problem, if you take students ill suited to undertaking a thesis, for whom a thesis is not vocationally relevant and then have untrained supervisors attempt to supervise them.

There are well researched and proven techniques to improve doctoral completion rates. These involve having supervisors who have a formal qualifications in teaching and with training in how to supervise. The students, including research students, undertake a carefully designed program of coursework which emphasizes teamwork.

It needs to be recognized that only a small proportion of doctorates should be what the Australian Quality Framework calls "Doctoral Degree (Research)". Most doctorates should be Doctoral Degree (Professional), producing original research, but relevant to a job and with more coursework. Of the small number of research doctorates, almost all should be by "publication". The thesis should be reserved for the tiny fraction of the population who are capable of undertaking this most difficult form of education. I suggest less than 1% of directorates should be by thesis.

If doctoral degrees have well structured education programs, designed by a qualified educator and if the student has a supervisor formally trained and credentialed in how to supervise, problems are manageable.

Australia produces about 7,000 PHDs a year. Assuming 4,000 of these PHDs remain in Australia, that is about ten times the number the nation needs for research positions. 90% of the graduates will be in vocational positions and so need a professional doctorate. So a reasonable division for domestic students would be 10% Doctoral Degree Research (400 students) and 90% Doctoral Degree Professional. Of the Doctoral Degree Research students, I suggest 10% would be by a thesis (1% of the total doctoral degrees, or just 40 students).

This problem can be made even simpler by not artificially dividing students into different categories before the commence their studies. Instead of having to pick those students most suited to research in advance of seeing them do anything, the should enroll in a general postgraduate program and then discover which way their talents and interests are. In this way the less than 1% of doctoral students destined for a thesis could be identified. More importantly, the 99% of students not destined for a thesis need not feel they are failures.