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Graduates in cap and gown

What does it take to get through a doctoral program? According to a recent monograph from the Council of Graduate Schools' PhD Completion Project, the three biggest factors are financial support, quality of mentoring and family support.

Researchers at the Washington, D.C.-based CGS surveyed 1,400 recent PhD recipients on what they thought affected their successful navigation through the program and the amount of time it took. The most common answer was financial support, with 80 percent of respondents naming it as a factor that either stalled or sped up their progress. However, the type of financial support matters: 80 percent of students with teaching assistantships felt that being a TA kept them in their program longer than they would have been otherwise, while 56 percent of students with research assistantships reported that being an RA decreased their time in the program.

"Often that research assistantship allows students to work on research that they eventually use, in part, for their dissertations," says Robert Sowell, project director for the PhD Completion Project, "whereas teaching undergraduates is more about doing a service for the university."

That RA finding doesn't apply equally across all fields, though. Most students in math and physical sciences (70 percent) said being an RA helped them graduate quicker, but only 44 percent of students in social sciences—which include psychology—said the same.

Mentoring and family support also help students get to graduation. Overall, graduates were pleased with advisers, but more than a third said they wished they could have spent more time with them. If students get discouraged, family members can provide the moral support and encouragement they need to get back on track, Sowell said.

The findings reinforce the crucial role that mentoring and support, both financial and non-financial, play in doctoral students' successfully navigating through their programs, says CGS President Debra W. Stewart, PhD.

—M. Price