By David Griffin
A constant output of postgraduate students is relied upon to generate new knowledge and expertise through research. Despite this need, however, some academic fields have shortages of doctoral students. This can cause a cyclical problem; without sufficient numbers of postgraduates completing their studies, particular fields will lack the numbers of new teachers and lecturers required to train the next generation. This leads to potential students being turned away from the very positions we depend upon, and eventually, a lack of adequately qualified experts.
The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has particularly highlighted this concern in healthcare. In response to this concern in nursing, researchers from the Calvin University Department of Nursing, Michigan, recently published a paper in the Journal of Professional Nursing (Ayoola et al., 2021). This is intended to address declining student graduation and retention rates for nursing PhD programs in the US. While the paper was written specifically with the field of nursing in mind, the information provided is applicable to any academic area.
There are a multitude of reasons why students fail to pursue or complete postgraduate study. Many are unaware it is a viable option; some feel they have insufficient time and energy to pursue it or are unable to commit to further study upon graduation; others have misconceptions about life as a researcher or are without access to relatable role-models further along the research path. To tackle these potential barriers, the authors of this paper, several of whom completed undergraduate study at Calvin University prior to pursuing PhDs, outline five strategies.
In 2002, the university established a community-based curriculum. It was intended to provide students with meaningful learning experiences in serving the community, while providing them with a research opportunity during their undergraduate degree. In collaboration with members of the public, students periodically engage in assessing the needs of underserved communities. By enabling the students to work with residents, they are encouraged to develop compassion for their community, while developing creative solutions to its unique health concerns.
Students engage in both quantitative and qualitative research. They are exposed to a range of different public health practices, such as focus groups and surveys and learn the necessary analytic skills to appropriately gather and assess the data. They are also involved in disseminating findings back to the community.
This strategy, according to the authors, exposes students to clinical questions and thus develops their clinical inquiry skills. It has been demonstrated that student enthusiasm in research can be increased when it is promoted through advocacy (Benner et al, 2010) and the authors attest to this.
The department encourages students to become involved in research through the design of nursing interventions involving all students within the department. These projects predominantly focus on health matters like reproductive and mental health support. These faculty-led intradepartmental research programs provide students with paid research assistant roles. Students are involved in all aspects of the research, from the program’s initial conception, through study design, collection and analysis of data and dissemination of findings.
This inclusive involvement, the authors argue, provides students with a real understanding of what research work entails. It also provides them with an early career opportunity to be involved in the publication of research, experience in networking and a chance to develop critical thinking and organization skills. This in turn can help prospective postgraduate students to feel qualified to undertake doctoral research study.
The success of this strategy is evident, with 50% of students over a six-year period going on to pursue further studies.
The department offers a specific course for students to help them in their pursuit of post graduate studies, helping them prepare applications and proposals. For some students this is the first time they will be introduced to the option of further study and so, providing them with support and assistance is crucial.
In parallel with this, the department encourages students to complete their own research project for additional credits. The authors suggest this provides students with further experience of what a career in research might entail.
Maintaining interest in further study can be a challenge, particularly for students who have doubts about the decision. Interest can be maintained, according to the authors, by providing specific courses (as outlined under the previous strategy), and through supplementary seminars and lectures on the topic. This form of support from the institution can help arrest student anxieties and fears, as well as any feelings of imposter syndrome.
Providing both potential and current postgraduate students with access to passionate mentors is key. Mentors can provide information and guidance about postgraduate studies and careers in research. They provide further opportunity to allay students’ misconceptions and fears and can supply mentees with early career opportunities for networking.
Diversity in mentors is critical. It can help introduce students from different backgrounds to the idea of postgraduate study by providing them with a relatable role model.
Since many undergraduate students do not have their postgraduate positions secured by graduation, providing access to mentorship beyond this point is also important. This can allow recent graduates to reconsider their career path and potentially re-enter education as postgraduate students.
There are numerous reasons why students fail to pursue or complete postgraduate degrees. However, its hoped that the approaches outlined by Ayoola et al. (2021) may provide helpful strategies to readers, equipping them with additional tools to encourage and develop the researchers and leaders of tomorrow.
Ayoola, A., Kamp, K., Adams, Y.J., Granner, J.R., DeGroot, L., Lee, H., Zandee, G., Doornos, M.M. (2021). Strategies to promote and sustain baccalaureate students' interest in pursuing a PhD degree in nursing. Journal of Professional Nursing, 37 (2021) 935-941
Benner, P., Stutphen, M., Leonard, V., Day, L. (2010). Educating nurses: A call for radical transformation. Jossey-Bass/Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.