Doctoral Students Experiences Expectations of Doctoral Studies

Although doctoral programs and doctoral recipients implicitly value research, there is little systematic investigation on the effects of the doctoral process on those who participate. To address this issue, in part, this study focused on one specific aspect: the expectations of doctoral students. The objective of the research was to obtain the participants' perspectives on their experiences as these connected with their expectations. University Bulletins give little or no explanation of what enrollment in a doctoral program entails.

I sought assistance in understanding a process which has been seemingly "cloaked in darkness and secrecy." By studying and reflecting on the expectations of doctoral students, we can, as professionals, ascertain the match between our students' expectations and the activities we require in the process of completing a doctoral program. Participants in the study were either currently enrolled or previously enrolled in doctoral programs across the USA, leading to either EdD or PhD degrees.

Theoretical Perspective

Several perspectives informed this study. One issue was the large number of students who "drop out" of doctoral programs (Lovitts, 1996). Although numbers are difficult to obtain, with clear differences across universities and programs within each university, the generally agreed number is 50 per cent. At universities where doctoral students are funded for their programs, enrolled as full-time, residential students, the graduation rate is significantly higher than at universities where students' personal savings are the basis for their tuition, and where students frequently enroll as part-time, commuter students. Bowen and Rudenstine's (1992) study, In Pursuit of the PhD, documents that:

The percentage of students [in Arts and Sciences programs in selected American universities] who never earn PhDs, in spite of having achieved ABD status, has risen in both larger and smaller programs. ...The direction of change is unmistakable, and the absolute numbers are high enough to be grounds for serious concern.

(Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992, p. 253)

A related issue is whether the number of students who do not complete their programs is higher for female participants than for their male counterparts. This issue is a potential concern since we know that doctoral students in education programs are more likely to be female. Holland and Eisenhart (1990), for example, provide important perspectives on the social pressures facing women's academic achievements which may affect their commitment to complete an academic program. While Holland and Eisenhart were studying undergraduate women, the issues are similar, and perhaps even more intense for women pursuing advanced degrees.

Faculty in academic institutions need to know the participants' perspectives of what is expected and experienced in the process of acquiring the doctoral degree. Ted Sizer (1997), a leader in education reform, recently commented on the frequency with which doctoral students wisely drop out of doctoral programs. He believes this is due to the realization that the program routinely requires a "retrogressive model of inquiry" which is so alien to the students' inductive and interactive methods of inquiry that they find no value in going through the process. Clearly he has offered us a challenge that we dismiss at our peril. Lovitts (1996) and Vartuli (1982) documented the disjuncture many participants find between academic programs and their real-world experiences and needs.

In addition to addressing concerns within the academy, there has been a call from the public at large to study the PhD process, as evidenced by a recent article in The New York Times Magazine (Menand, 1996). There is clearly a concern for the autonomy of doctoral programs which show no evidence of accountability to the profession or the students who enroll. The purpose of this study is to provide some baseline data to understand the expectations of students who enroll in doctoral programs.

Modes of Inquiry

Open-ended questionnaires were mailed to graduates of doctoral programs, requesting their typewritten, anonymous responses as well as their distribution of the questionnaire to others holding the doctoral degree, those pursuing the doctoral degree, and known ABDs. Included with the instructions for responding to this questionnaire was an invitation to participate in informal roundtable discussions or conversations. In addition, faculty members at a wide array of institutions distributed questionnaires in their doctoral courses and to colleagues, enlarging the data pool.

The researcher received written responses to the open-ended questionnaires and responses of individuals interested in participating in the roundtable discussions. Three small roundtable discussions, each of approximately three hours' duration, and ten one-hour interviews provided additional data for this inquiry.

The data include written responses to the open-ended questionnaire and transcribed tapes from the roundtable discussions and interviews. In all, close to 200 individuals responded to the open-ended written questionnaires, and fifteen people participated in the informal three-hour roundtable discussions and the ten one-hour interviews. While responses were received from across the nation, the researcher acknowledges that the volunteers who took the time to respond to the questionnaire or participate in the discussions may not have been representative of the total pool of doctoral participants. But the number of individuals who made the time to respond to these issues does suggest a need to consider their responses carefully. This is particularly true since there were so many common threads among the responses of people who attended different doctoral programs.


What started out as a seemingly simple question has become increasingly complex. There seem to be two major reasons people enter into a doctoral program: intrinsic reward and extrinsic reward. Those who are seeking some intrinsic reward are enrolling for their own, personal fulfillment and enrichment. Those who are seeking an extrinsic reward, are fulfilling an externally imposed requirement, often from professional institutions. Using these two categories, we can create three different groups of students. These three groups are represented in Figure A. 1.

One group (Group A) identified exclusively intrinsic, personal reasons for pursuing the degree:

• I wanted to do something for myself.

Figure A. 1 Student expectations on entering doctoral programs

Figure A. 1 Student expectations on entering doctoral programs


Group A=those seeking personal enrichment, those with intrinsic motivation Group B=those with both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (personal enrichment and external pressures)

Group C=those with extrinsic motivation, responding to external pressures


Group A=those seeking personal enrichment, those with intrinsic motivation Group B=those with both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (personal enrichment and external pressures)

Group C=those with extrinsic motivation, responding to external pressures

A second group (Group B) identified a combination of intrinsic (personal reasons) and extrinsic (external mandates) rewards:

• I wanted to get a PhD; I wanted to teach at a college.

• I wanted to change my career. I wanted to see if I could get a PhD; I wanted to learn more. My husband encouraged me to go.

A third group (Group C) identified exclusively fulfilling an extrinsic reward, accommodating others' requirements:

• I needed the doctorate to keep my job which I really liked at X University.

• I realized that people with the degree were listened to; those without it were not.

Same Phenomenon—Different Perspectives

Many of the participants viewed experiences as obstacles; others perceived these same experiences as a way to grow in different ways: for example, to become more independent, more knowledgeable, more confident. Different motivations may have influenced their views of their experiences.

Some participants provided striking metaphors for the process: Many referred to the process as one of "going through hoops." One participant presented this quite forcefully:

I think what you learn about jumping through hoops to finish is probably, in the long run, more valuable than the academic lessons that you learn as you went through the process. „.I think the hoop piece stays with you more. It's a better reason to hire someone with a doctorate than what they know.

One thought of the process as "going up a huge mountain," while another connected it to a "coming of age experience." In a recent article by Fahrenthold (1997), in the Harvard Crimson, Steven Ozment, a professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard was quoted as saying, "I worked day and night on that dissertation. It was the most horrible experience I think I've ever had" (p. 3).

The perceptions were all personal, focusing on a few significant themes. The positive experiences included the following:

Feeling creative, smart, and self-confident

• exhilaration while gathering data and analyzing it;

• pride at recognizing writing and other proficiencies ("I have good organization and integration skills");

• pride from presenting at conferences and publishing in professional journals ("I can do anything!"; "I figured it was all right for me to speak up and say what I wanted to say");

• confidence that they were respected as more knowledgeable in their professional posts as evidenced by appointments to tenure track university-based faculty lines and/or school district administrator responsibilities.

Expanding group of friends

• support groups reduced the alienation and isolation which surfaced at specific, crucial stages in the process;

• enjoyment of having a group of friends whom they saw at professional conferences.

Understanding one's learning process, including persevering despite adversity

• pleasure at identifying and achieving a goal—an intellectual goal and pursuit;

• a desire to continue learning—even enrolling in additional graduate programs;

• "it was a wonderful intellectual journey.. .very intellectually challenging;"

• "I figured out that all this has to do with people and how people get along —and how you need to deal with people to make this thing go along—and how you can derail yourself from succeeding for reasons that have zero to do with the academic piece. I had a career in politics afterwards";

• being resolute in completing the challenge of getting the degree, "I've come this far, I'm not leaving empty-handed."

The negative experiences included:

Feeling resentment and fear

• "I didn't expect it to take up my life the way it did!"; "I can only give up this amount of time and spend it on myself and my dissertation and whatever, because I have this family that needs me";

• "I never needed anyone's help to do something like this before. I kind of resent that";

• dissertation seminar was a frequent setting for feeling resentment. Common comments were: "It was the worst!" "We needed to support each other—or else there was nothing." "It was a waste of time!" "I

feared going there each week—but feared more what would happen if I didn't go!"

• some commented on how their mentor "protected" them—helping them to avoid attending dissertation seminar;

Feeling totally isolated and unprepared for writing the dissertation

• feeling dependent at a time when independence was assumed—remarking particularly at having so little information about what to expect in the process, how to conduct the research, and how to write it up—how to get it all together;

• unprepared for the need to obtain permission and approval for activities in the dissertation, one student remarked, "I thought it was my project;"

• not realizing how much input and collaboration was required with the faculty committee. In desperation, asking, "What do you [my major professor] want me to do?";

• "I had a very romantic idea—I thought I'd be flying to England and going into a library with dark panelling—and I thought I'd be discovering some brand new thing about language and thinking. „.It's the incremental steps that I was not prepared for when I was imagining what the dissertation process would be like. I saw it in a gestalt—kind of a whole—an enlightenment, and I didn't realize the intricate, detailed work that has to go into it— the revision and rethinking in my case";

• having conflicting feelings "being told that you are becoming the expert in a field—and not feeling comfortable with that—and yet they [your committee] still challenges you even though you are supposed to be the new authority";

• "needing to rely on others—yet not having comfortable access to this community";

• "anyone who has not gone through this process could not possibly understand what we're going through—no one in my family could believe what I'm doing!";

• distress at recognizing the need for external pressure to keep working;

• dismay at negative responses to drafts of the dissertation proposal;

• "I was always told what to do—you were always out to please Prof. X."

Feeling shell-shocked when done

• experiencing so many extreme emotions in very brief timespans;

• needing time to put everything into perspective;

• not being ready to talk about it;

• trying to figure out what really happened.


When there are conflicts between the expectations and the experiences of the participants, there is a need both to acknowledge and remedy the situation. The one constant theme, whether perceived as a positive or negative experience, was the lack of knowledge. Some saw this lack of knowledge as an asset, suggesting that if they had known what was involved in the process, they would probably never have started. But they quickly added that they believed they would have regretted that. There was a clear desire to know as much as possible about the process so that they could predict what was going to happen, allocate time and money wisely, and understand their roles in that process. One individual noted that the lack of any information about the length of time the program would take and when to expect to be done became unsettling for her/him, fearful that "the money would run out before finally completing the dissertation." Explicit information, respondents believed, would make it easier to manage their responsibilities within and beyond their doctoral program, as well as enabling them to feel more knowledgeable about their progress. Without this information, they felt very vulnerable, as they were totally dependent on others, particularly their committee.

Many students believe the dissertation is an extended examination in which they must independently display their acquired knowledge. When they encounter a dissertation director who expects them to consider the dissertation as a transformative learning experience, with an apprenticeship of sorts, they are astounded—unprepared for such an experience.

Many of the individuals compare their experiences to others'. Most believe "I didn't have as many upsets as I've heard other people have." Many can relate at least one "horror story," which at the time they were involved in the process was perceived as traumatic. These events ranged from the death of a mentor to the disappearance of the only copy of a chapter. For some this was the reason for dropping out, but most who had experienced such an event had completed the process and saw the "upset" as a challenge to surmount.

Emergent Hypotheses

Several hypotheses are displayed in Table A.1. There were three different motivations which brought people to doctoral programs. I have classified these as: extrinsic (professional requirement), intrinsic (personal enrichment), or a combination of professional extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. Typically, those who were accommodating professional requirements (the extrinsic reward group) held a view that the process of completing a dissertation involved a considerable amount of hazing, jumping through hoops, and documenting their current knowledge. In contrast, those who were pursuing a doctoral degree for intrinsic purposes expected to have a transformative experience, to learn and grow personally in the process. The third group believed that there would be both elements in the process (some hoop jumping, along with a personal transformation).

Table A.1 Doctoral students' experiences: expectations and realizations


Initial expectations

Ultimate experiences











Hoops & enrich



Hoops & enrich

Extrinsic Group 1 Group 2 Group 3

✓ ✓ ✓

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