Late Completers : How and Why Non-Traditional Graduate Students Who Exceed Program Timelines of 10 Years Ultimately Complete the Doctoral Process
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Shirley A. Freed
James R. Jeffery
Problem. Doctoral completion rates within the U.S. have historically been shown to be within the 50-60% range; in 2008, the completion rate was 56%. Although most who complete their doctorates do so within 10 years or less, there is a small percentage of students who continue their studies beyond the 10-year mark and ultimately graduate. As more non-traditional students enter the PhD pursuit, particularly older students with full-time jobs, family, and other commitments and who enroll in non-traditional programs, it is important to understand what enables some to continue beyond the 10-year mark and still graduate, what influences the elongation of their journey, and to explore potential ways to decrease their timelines to completion.
Method. This qualitative case study discusses the experiences of non-traditional students within a non-traditional leadership program who completed their PhDs after the 10-years. The sample was comprised of 12 graduates interviewed about their journeys and perceptions throughout their years of doctoral study. These interviews focused on progressions, reasons for delay, and how they ultimately were able to complete their doctorates. Combined with personal university records and publically accessible university documents, the information was analyzed and combined into themes used to formulate the discussions and conclusions of the study.
Results. The journeys and experiences of the students were varied within the program, their personal lives and their jobs, but revealed seven themes which were common among their elongated progressions to completion. The theme of ‘personal intentions’ revealed that unlike many doctoral students who have external motivations for entering programs, such as career opportunities and economic gains, these graduates had no external reason to pursue the PhD. Instead, they did it for personal growth, using their training to improve their performance on the job or for personal validation at work. ‘Flexibility and structure’ was a theme that resonated for these non-traditional students. Being fully employed with many other responsibilities, the flexibility of a non-traditional program appealed to them. However, at times, flexibility became ambiguity, which caused difficulties and delays. The blend of structure and flexibility was identified as a need for better progression through the doctoral journey. The theme of ‘doctorate, job, and life’ showed that for these graduates, unlike many students, the doctorate was not the primary focus for them. Many went into the program knowing the PhD would be secondary to their families, churches, and jobs. The themes of ‘right advice’, ‘right experience’ and ‘right time’ indicated that, for each graduate, there was a moment when someone or something provided some ‘words of wisdom’ that enabled them to move forward during a difficult phase. Most experienced an event that prompted them to decide it was truly time to complete. The right time was forged through the combination of advice and experiences that enabled them to shift their mind-set from ‘being in a PhD program’ to one of ‘finishing a PhD program’. Most set an artificial deadline in order to finish their doctoral journey. Lastly, the theme of ‘conviction’ stood out for these graduates. These were individuals who were highly successful in terms of education, job, and in their lives. Based upon their own personal self-efficacy, previous academic and professional successes, and for some a belief that God would also see them through to completion, no one thought that they couldn’t complete the PhD. Despite the elongated time to completion they would not fail.
Conclusions. Four conclusions emerged as part of the analysis of the study, providing insight into the experiences of these late completers. The ‘non-traditional paradox’ is an issue for these completers. The people who require a non-traditional program in order to participate in the PhD process can also be the people who are most in need of direction, oversight, and help. Successful people with fully integrated lives who do not ‘need’ the doctorate can easily spend significant amounts of time not working on their doctorate. Their part-time and non-residency statuses, seeking support from peers who have similar time constraints and external commitments, and limited contact with faculty can make it easier for these students to ‘fall off the grid’, particularly as their time in the program elongates. Faculty proactively reaching out to these students during periods of non-contact may assist in faster progression. Having a completion mind-set is vital in the overall completion of the PhD. Once the students changed their focus they maintained the motivation and work effort to complete the PhD. Finding triggers and structure for the individual to move to a completion mind-set more quickly assists in faster progression. The student’s conviction, be it through belief in God’s will or personal self-efficacy, was a key component of completion. When needed, they sought support, leaned on the past successes, or mimicked the path of other completers in order to buoy their beliefs in success. Failure was not an option. Although there were academic issues and external experiences encountered by the students which led to delays, they did not experience barriers the way barriers are largely depicted within the literature. As the PhD was not the primary focus of the students but part of their overall lives, the students chose to focus on the more-important facets of their lives in certain times, whether it was the PhD or other events. Although they experienced long periods of inactivity within the program, none were disenfranchised from the program. When it was the right time to make the PhD the focal point of their lives, they got it done. Finding ways to mitigate the academic issues encountered as well as maintaining touchpoints with the students during those times when the student is ‘off-grid’ may help with progression and overall completion.
Doctor of philosophy degree, Doctoral students.
Margerum, Lisa Ann, "Late Completers : How and Why Non-Traditional Graduate Students Who Exceed Program Timelines of 10 Years Ultimately Complete the Doctoral Process" (2014). Dissertations. 557.
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