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PhD Students: Persistence or Peril?

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

This project sought to understand how psychological hardiness is related to graduate students’ ability to perform, with a focus on group differences. The sample participants for this project were PhD students at UCI solicited through electronic communication by the Graduate Student division to participate in an online survey as well as an interview. The survey data collected consisted of questions that captured stress and strain levels, demographic variables such as age, first generation college student status, and race/ethnicity, as well as questions regarding social support, coping mechanisms, well-being, advisor and department support as well as future funding-anxiety. The model was then tested to conclude if 1. Hardiness moderates the strain derived from stress that affects performance outcomes for students. The findings for the full model tested supported the overall measures for a strong hardiness framework, such that social supports, engaged and distracted coping mechanisms, and well-being are all highly statistically related to hardiness. Furthermore, as theorized, stress is highly predictive of strain. However, the hypothesis that hardiness serves as a buffer of strain on performance for PhD students, was not supported. Rather, grittiness was found to positively predict performance for students in the later stages of their academic career. Parent educational attainment also positively predicted performance for this group of students. In interviews, student mothers used identifiable language to illuminate how the three C’s of hardiness are incorporated into their daily lives. Also, age had a non-linear effect on performance for students such that the predicted age at which students peak in their performance level is 33, and tend to decrease in their performance every year thereafter. Results also indicated that there is an interaction effect for men with children as they get older such that while younger men with children appear to have higher levels of performance, it drops over time, and conversely, younger men without children, while starting at a lower level, steadily increase their level of performance through adulthood, and eventually surpass their counterparts at around age 37. Further work to parse out differences among subgroups of PhD students to determine appropriate supports is recommended.

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