Breaking the silence : toward a theory of women's doctoral persistence




Kerlin, Roberta-Anne

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In recent years educational researchers have expressed a growing concern about both increased rates of attrition from doctoral programs and the increased time required to compete the doctorate. Many researchers have estimated that upwards of 50% of doctoral students withdraw from their programs prior to completion of degree requirements. Although women’s rates of enrollment have grown significantly over the past decade there is also much evidence to show that women withdraw from doctoral programs of study at higher rates than men. Given these trends there is good reason to examine more closely, factors that influence women’s doctoral degree progress. This study provides an in-depth qualitative examination of the challenges women encounter in pursuing the Ph.D., and the meanings they attribute to their experiences, with the purpose of identifying critical factors that influence women’s doctoral persistence. The study breaks new methodological ground by demonstrating how the Internet, often thought to be a cold and impersonal medium, can be used to conduct in-depth personal interviews that are rich in meaning despite separation of interviewer and interviewees in both place and time. Utilizing grounded theory methodology for analyzing the data, five women Ph.D. candidates and two recent Ph.D. recipients were interviewed over the course of one year (1995). A critical feminist perspective provides the theoretical framework for understanding the women’s learning experiences within the contexts of their institutional and departmental milieux. Findings relating to women’s doctoral persistence emerge through an analysis of electronic mail transcripts and face-to-face interviews. Central to the findings is the illumination of a complex interaction of personal, social and institutional factors that both enhance and detract from women’s doctoral persistence. Eleven elements of a theory of women’s doctoral persistence are put forward. The benefits and limitations of using electronic networks to conduct qualitative inquiry are examined.



Women, Doctor of philosopy degree