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The First Year of Graduate Study: Documenting Challenges and Informing Ways to Reduce Attrition GRE

Schramm-Possinger, Megan; Powers, Donald E.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Memorandum
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Doctoral Degrees, Graduation Rates, Student Attrition, Graduate Record Examination (GRE)


Although rates differ across disciplines, between genders, and among students from various racial and ethnic groups, nearly half of all doctoral students fail to complete their programs of study within 10 years of their first matriculation. This state of affairs is highly problematic for universities, which waste finite resources training students who do not graduate, and for students, who dedicate their time and money to goals that remain unrealized. A number of contextual and intrapersonal factors have been associated with graduate student attrition: financial strains, a lack of social support, and feelings of inadequacy, to name a few. The aim of the study reported here is to document some of the major challenges that graduate students currently encounter when they first undertake graduate study. To address this interest, we asked a diverse sample of first-year graduate students to self-report their greatest challenges in the first year of graduate school. Analyses of responses indicated that time management was a significant challenge for many, as was learning to cope with reading and comprehending voluminous quantities of academic text. Struggles with other needed skills such as writing, oral discourse, and statistics were cited as well. We suggest that the results of small individual efforts like the one described here are a start toward developing interventions to address the challenges encountered by beginning graduate students. These interventions in turn may constitute a crucial facet of broader plans to reduce attrition.

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