The Role of the Department and Discipline in Doctoral Student Attrition: Lessons from Four Departments

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At least 40% of the students who begin a doctoral program fail to complete it. This remarkable fact is one of the hidden flaws of a system usually touted as the crown jewel of the American higher education system. American graduate education is generally re-garded as the best in the world, and yet, at the turn of the century, many researchers, administrators, government agencies, foundations, profes-sional associations, and other interested parties are casting critical eyes on graduate education in an effort to understand the ways in which the inherited system does and does not continue to function effectively (e.g., Association of American Universities, 1998; Committee on Science En-gineering and Public Policy, 1995, 1996; Golde & Dore, 2001; Modern Language Association, 1998; National Institute for Science Education, 1998; National Science Board [NSB], 1997). This paper explores the role of the department and discipline in doctoral student attrition. Understanding doctoral attrition is important for three reasons. First, attrition at the doctoral level is poorly understood. Even the rates are dif-ficult to ascertain (Baird, 1993; Rapoport, 1998), although average levels of doctoral attrition are consistently estimated to be 40-50% (e.g., Berel-son, 1960; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Lovitts, 2001). These rates far Thanks to Lisa Wolf-Wendel, and the anonymous reviewers for can-did and substantive feedback, support and encouragement over too many years. Chris M. Golde is Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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  • Chris M. Golde

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