Psychology: Doctoral Students' Attrition


The broad topic area for this study is doctoral students’ attrition. This topic addresses the termination of doctoral students from their degree programs and the way it impacts universities and the students themselves.

Literature Review

The following review of literature will encompass past research on doctoral students’ attrition in an attempt to highlight the problem in more depth. The literature used in this review is acquired from the recent past spanning back to up to five years.

The process of earning a doctorate in the field of counselor education is not an easy one. Findings by Burkholder (2012) reveal that close to 40-60 percent doctoral students fail to complete their degrees. This is reiterated by Jairam and Kahl (2012) who assert that not every student who enrolls in a doctorate  degree will graduate. The reasons behind this trend can best be understood by first being knowledgable on attrition. According to both Leech (2012) and Neale-McFall (2015), attrition is the internal change that takes place among students reducing the significance of the doctorate degree and thus resulting in them pursuing different professional endevours. There is a momentuos gap with regard to facts related to attrition as affimed by  Wao and Onwuegbuzie (2011). Spaulding  and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2012) and Neale- McFall (2015) express their concern with regard to this by postulating that the root of the invisibility that exists with respect to the extent of attrition among doctoral students lies in the fact that most of the doctoral students that withdraw from their programs are tacit. Vekkaila, Pyhältö, and Lonka (2013) support this notion by asserting that most members of faculty have no knowledge of the extent of attrition affecting doctoral students due to the fact that these students tend to depart rather quietly, without being given any form of exit interview or follow.

Various studies over time have explored attrition from a theoretical perspective, which is a fact that has enabled this problem to be taken more seriously in the academic world. For instance, Turner and McAlpine (2011) in their research advance various traditional models of attrition building on the work of Tinto who is considered  to be one of the greatest scholars in matters related to attrition. Traditional models that explain attrition in students stem from the school of psychology whereby at the time, were used to assess students’ aptitude and personal characteristics and how these were linked to degree completion. These models concluded that students dropped out because they possesed deficient and flawed personalities, which prevented them from adjusting to the demanding academic life (Turner & McAlpine, 2011). The interactionist model discussed by and Van De Schoot, Yerkes, Mouw, and Sonneveld (2013) and Neale-McFall (2015) also provides a theoretical explanation to attrition. This model is essential in explaining the various reasons why students drop out of their degree programs. The interactionist model opines attrition through its assertion stating that it is a result of a complex interaction of personalities, intarations, integration, goals, academics, faculty and other students (Van de Schoot, Yerkes, Mouw, & Sonneveld, 2013). Therefore, attrition is problematic to all involved due to the negative impact it has on the parties.

Problem Statement

Doctoral student attrition is a problem that is faced by universities in all departments including counselor education, and its harmful impact is widespread affecting both the universities and students. Some of the negative impacts and thus problems that arise from doctoral attrition in counselor education include elimination of the program due to the limited enrollment; economic downturn for universities as they are forced to use resources to pursue new students; students are more likely to incur significant debt without the tradeoff of a lucrative career, and difficulties in sustaining the field of counseling.

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Sample and Location

This study will apply criterion based sampling to recruit participants. In particular, the sample will encompass six total participants. Out of this six, four of the participants will be female while the remaining two will be male. All the participants will be Caucasian. The age range of the participants will be from as young as 27 years to 71 years. Among these participants, three took their doctoral studies in the 1970s, two of the participants studied in the 1980s while the remaining participant did theirs in the 1990s. With regard to location, five of the participants came from southeastern states in the US while the remaining participant came from a southwestern state of the country. All the six participants stated that they withdrew from their doctoral programs during the late stage of the study, which is a stage that is identified by Adams-Budde, Howard, Jolliff, and Myers (2014).

Research Questions

Constructing well-crafted research questions is critical in obtaining the specifics of a problem. According to Verdinelli and Scagnoli (2013), it is essential for the research questions to allow for optimum examination of a problem from all possible angles so as to enable a passionate analysis of the problem. The research questions for the current study are:

  • What experiences did the participants gain that led to the withdrawing from their counselor education doctoral program?
  • What emotions did the participants had as they withdrew from the programs?
  • At what point did they start experiencing thoughts related to not completing their programs?
  • What obstacles do they feel contributed the most to their decision to withdraw from the programs?


Phenomena is a critical aspect towards understanding the experiences, and for the current study, its application will be useful in pursue of the problem under study. The review of literature conducted in the current study has been significant in making it easy to understand the phenomena under study, which is the attrition, and its impact on doctoral students pursuing counselor educational doctoral studies. An understanding of these phenomena will entail proper selection of the design that will be used to address the problem statement, effective instruments for data collection as well as effectively define the population and sample that will be used for the study. It is also essential to take note of the fact that understanding these phenomena will also entail describing various key topics related to the topic identified for the study.  

Methodology and Design

This study makes use of a qualitative research design. In particular, the grounded theory approach to qualitative research will be used to realize the goals of this study. According to Ramalho, Adams, Huggard, and Hoare (2015), the grounded theory approach to qualitative research refers to an inductively advanced theoretical framework developed from a body of data.

It will be useful in comprehensively exploring the experiences of the study participants in pursue of their doctoral studies in counselor education and the subsequent attrition that takes place. In particular, this will be essential in determining what the participants experienced and how they experienced it. This will correspond synonymously to the research questions presented for this study.

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Purpose Statement

The purpose of the current study is to explore the challenge of doctoral students’ attrition through use of the grounded theory approach to qualitative research that will feature a total of six participants consisting of four females and two male Caucasians who pursued doctoral studies in counselor education and withdrew from southeastern and southwestern states in the US.

Data Collection

Data collection for this study will be conducted using the interview method. In particular, interviews will be held among the participants and be recorded to be transcribed later into text. It is expected that each participant will be interviewed for a total of 40 to 90 minutes. Thus, the main data collection instrument for the study is individualized semi-structured interviews. According to Robinson (2014) and Medjedović (2011), the use of semi-structured interviews is effective because this format tends to provide the needed structure that pertains to the format of the interview protocol and further ensure thatthere is efficient flexibility for the interviewer to ask follow up questions. According to Creswel and Plano (2011), it is essential to take note of the fact that since this is a qualitative research design, data collection will be concluded only when saturation will be reached. For this study, saturation was reached at a total of six participants.

Data Analysis

Following the data collection process, data analysis will be the next step as it will provide a way of making sense of the data. For this study, data will be analyzed using a number of steps. The first will be line by line analysis of the interview transcripts. The second step in data analysis will entail carrying out a systematic reorganization of the collected data, which will be accomplished through the coding process. This will result in data being grouped into related codes, which will either be axial or intersecting. The third step of data analysis will involve the codes being developed into distinct themes. The final step in data analysis will encompass the data being verified with the help of two external reviewers. This will be essential in assessing the credibility of the data collected, which will prove its usefulness to the research.

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