“Should I stay or should I go” – reasons for persistence and attrition in doctoral studies

“Should I stay or should I go” – reasons for persistence and attrition in doctoral studies

This is a Research Highlight, where I present published research on doctoral student wellbeing.


To complete one’s doctoral studies is not an easy task. The road to defending your thesis is long and winding and sometimes there are obstacles that just make it impossible to go on. This might lead you to think “Is it worth it?”. I’ve written about my own experience earlier in the blog.

Thoughts about quitting one’s doctoral studies are often laden with anxiety and shame. It’s not an easy decision to make and causes a lot of worry about alternative careers and about self-worth.

The environment and culture has an important role to play in supporting a doctoral student in this decision. Often the thought of quitting causes anxiety because the signal from the environment is that quitting is something inherently bad. But sometimes quitting is the only option and not a sign of weakness or ‘giving up’ but, rather, a sign of knowing when to say enough is enough and putting one’s own wellbeing first.

A study by Devos, Boudrenghien,Van der Linden, Azzi, Frenay, Galand & Klein (2017) examined which aspects of the doctoral students’ experience best differentiate completers from non-completers by interviewing former doctoral students from Belgium.

The literature on what influences the decision of staying or leaving a doctoral programme shows that the supervisor and the academic community have a large role in these decisions. Supervision style as well as social integration with peers and the scholarly community are crucial for both the wellbeing of the doctoral student and for persistence in doctoral studies. In one study, researchers attributed poor or inappropriate socialization as the basis of the decision to depart the graduate program.

Again, the theme of socialization and belongingness rises up as an important factor in the doctoral experience. (See my other blog posts about the topic here and here)

The results from Devos et al’s study partially supported previous literature. They showed that the supervisor plays a central role in the doctoral experience and progress. They identified three types of supervisor styles:

“In the first case, the supervisor offers behaviours which are considered to be positive, constructive and supportive. In the second case, the supervisors offer very little or no help because, for example, they have very little time to offer the students or little knowledge of their work. In the third situation, the participants perceive their supervisors as obstacles, blocking the progress of their dissertation. This was the case, for example, in the situations where the supervisor requires them to work in a direction or in a way that they find irrelevant (and/or prevents them going in a direction that they consider promising).”

Devos, Boudrenghien,Van der Linden, Azzi, Frenay, Galand & Klein, 2017, page 67.

However, these behaviours were not the drivers of the decision to quit in their study. They concluded that completing one’s doctoral work despite having bad supervision might be connected to how doctoral students are able to deal with these situations and push through. This doesn’t eliminate the need for good supervision, it just shows that the association is more complex than previously thought.

So, what are the differences between completers and non-completers in their study? They found that most important for completing one’s doctoral studies is feeling that you are making progress, on a research project that make sense to you, without experiencing too much distress.

They explain it like this:

“For example, PhD students who are working on a research project that makes sense for them will be happy to discuss it with other researchers, which will lead them to socialise with the community’s norms and values. In turn, this increased socialisation will motivate them and give them ideas on how to continue their progress on their own doctoral work. In turn, progressing with their work will lead them to publish articles, which will lead them to be asked to review other researchers’ papers, which will increase their socialisation, develop their skills and, in turn, their progress with their own research.”

Devos, Boudrenghien,Van der Linden, Azzi, Frenay, Galand & Klein, 2017, page 74-75.

In practice, this means that supervision and socialization in doctoral studies are as important as having a research project that gives meaning and having a sense of progress.

Providing doctoral students with opportunities to socialize, build networks, develop their own ideas, decide on their research topics, and removing unnecessary obstacles from their way could determine whether they stay or go.

The reference to the full article is below.

Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N. et al. Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: a matter of sense, progress and distress. Eur J Psychol Educ 32, 61–77 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-016-0290-0

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