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Decoding Doctoral Student Departure: A Mixed-Methods Study of Faculty Perceptions and Student Realities in Computing

  • Author(s): George, Kari L
  • Advisor(s): Sax, Linda J
  • et al.

Efforts to address the faculty shortage in computing disciplines and to diversify the technology workforce are hindered by high rates of doctoral student attrition. Yet, little is known about students’ consideration of departure – an important psychological precursor to their decision to stay or leave. This purpose of this study was to investigate explanations for student’s consideration of departure from both graduate student and faculty perspectives. I also examined how computing faculty conceptualize their role in shaping the doctoral student experience and outcomes.

Drawing from conceptual models of doctoral student degree progress and frameworks of institutional logics, this study used a sequential mixed-methods design to understand the individual and organizational factors that contribute to computing doctoral students’ persistence and to their consideration of departure. The quantitative inquiry used survey data collected from students in 2018 to examine student explanations for why they considered leaving their program and what helped them to continue, as well as factors that predicted students’ consideration of departure. The qualitative inquiry relied upon in-depth interviews with 10 computer science faculty members recruited from institutions represented in the quantitative sample to examine faculty perceptions of students’ consideration of departure and their role in student experiences and outcomes.

Quantitative results revealed that students primarily consider departure due to a lack of support and inclusion in the department; specifically, they reported feeling isolated and unsupported by faculty. Alternatively, faculty members primarily attributed consideration of departure to students’ changing career interests and the intellectual and psychosocial struggles students often experience in the doctoral program. Evidence from both students and faculty suggests that the departmental environment and relationships with others (e.g., faculty and peers) have a strong influence on doctoral students’ persistence, particularly in shaping students’ beliefs about themselves and their abilities.

Despite acknowledging the rising pressures and challenges of pursing a PhD, faculty often held deficit perspectives and emphasized their role in bolstering students’ ability to cope with the challenges, instead of addressing broader systemic issues in computing graduate environments. Accordingly, this study illuminates opportunities for interpersonal and organizational change that may bolster the computing pipeline and broaden participation in computing.

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