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Report 2012: 1 R

The reasons why doctoral students leave programmes without graduating

– a follow-up of new entrants to third-cycle programmes in the academic years 1999/2000 and 2000/01

This is a summary in English. The report is available only in Swedish.

Why do doctoral students leave their programmes of study before they have been awarded any kind of qualification? To answer this question the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education and the Delegation for Gender Equality in Higher Education circulated a questionnaire to all the doctoral students in Sweden (International doctoral students were not included) who had begun their programmes in the academic years of 1999/2000 and 2000/01 but had not yet been awarded a third-cycle qualification (either a licentiate degree or a PhD) by the end of 2009. (In this report we have followed up 331of these students: the ones who both responded to the questionnaire and stated that they had quit their third-cycle programmes. Some of the doctoral students who received the questionnaire were still pursuing their third-cycle studies and these have not been surveyed in this report.)

The  questionnaire was divided into two main sections. In one the questions dealt with the most important reason for leaving the programme. Only one of five broad alternatives could be selected: labour-market factors, third-cycle studies, departmental duties, financial factors or social or other factors.

The second section dealt with which factors had contributed more specifically to the abandonment of third-cycle study without graduating. Here the students could select several alternatives and were not asked to rank them in order of importance.

The most important reason for leaving – selection between five broad alternatives


When the doctoral students were asked to indicate which reason for quitting their studies was most important – where they had a choice of five broad, or broadly defined, reasons – their responses were as follows:
  • Two-thirds of the total responded that they had quit their studies either for social reasons (35 per cent of respondents) or because of the third-cycle studies themselves (31 per cent).
  • Among the other reasons, 17 per cent of the students said that they had abandoned their studies because of labour-market factors, 12 per cent had quit on the grounds of financial factors, and the least frequent reason for leaving programmes was because of factors linked to departmental duties (5 per cent).
  • Considerably more women than men stated that they had quit for social reasons; 43 per cent of the women compared to 28 per cent of the men.
  • There are certain variations in the responses from doctoral students in different subject areas. For instance social factors were the main reasons for students in the humanities and medicine to quit their studies before graduating. In technology and the natural sciences the most important reason was instead the third-cycle studies themselves. In the social sciences social factors and factors linked to the study programme were equally frequent reasons for quitting.
  • Among the doctoral students who began their studies within the age ranges 30–39 or 40 and above, social factors are the most frequent reasons given for not completing third-cycle studies: 39 per cent in the former group and 44 per cent in the latter. Of the students beginning their programmes before the age of 30, 28 per cent terminated their studies for social reasons and among this age group the primary reasons for quitting comprise factors that can be linked to the third-cycle studies themselves (39 per cent).
  • Women abandoned their third-cycle programmes for social reasons more often than men in all the three age groups analysed – i.e. those under 30, 30–39 and those aged 40 or more.
  • There is also a clear gender difference where financial factors lie behind unfinished programmes: 6 per cent of the women and 17 per cent of the men have stated that financial factors were most important when they decided not to continue their third-cycle studies.
  • Men state that financial reasons caused them to leave their third-cycle programmes more often than women in all of the age groups and subject areas.

Specific factors that have contributed to leaving


The questionnaire listed 34 specific factors that could have contributed to the decision by doctoral students to quit their studies before graduating, and several could be selected. The specified alternatives were arranged under five different headings that matched the broad alternative reasons for quitting listed above: i.e. social factors, financial factors, etc..

All of the specific factors but one (military service) were selected by at least some doctoral students. There is, in other words, a major variation in the reasons why students quit their third-cycle studies. The students’ responses can be summarised as follows:

  • The specific factors that have contributed to the decision to quit depend above all on some aspect of the third-cycle programmes themselves, the three most frequent reasons being inadequate support from supervisors (40 per cent of the students selected this), loss of motivation (27 per cent) and shortcomings in the psycho-social environment (25 per cent).
  • It is only in fourth place that a reason for quitting of a social nature can be found, this was did not enjoy doctoral studies (25 per cent).
  • It was not unusual for family reasons to be cited as a contributing cause for leaving: 16 per cent have selected difficulties in combining doctoral studies with family situation and 5 per cent referred to parental leave.
  • Discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity etc. and sexual harassment are serious offences. In this light, therefore, it is positive that only a few individuals quit their third-cycle studies for these reasons. (With reference to other surveys it should be noted here that a larger proportion of doctoral students have been subject to events of this kind (see for instance the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education Report A Mirror for Doctoral Students, National Agency report series 2008:23 R) than those who have quit because of them, which is the subject of this study.)
  • Women and men have to some extent cited different reasons for quitting third-cycle studies. Women have stated more often than men that they did so because of shortcomings in the psycho-social work environment, shortcomings in the physical work environment, illness or because they did not enjoy third-cycle studies.
  • Several reasons for quitting were cited to an equal extent by women and men: these include inadequate supervision, loss of motivation, the programme was too difficult, the offer of work outside higher education, termination of their doctoral studentships which meant that the possibility of supporting themselves had ended, difficulties in combining third-cycle study with their family situation and difficulties in combining third-cycle study with their jobs.
  • Sometimes there are differences in the reasons given for quitting between doctoral students who began their studies at different ages. The youngest students, who began before the age of 30, have more often than the others stated that they quit because the programme had the wrong focus or was too difficult, or alternatively they were offered a job outside higher education. Among the students who began between the ages of 30 and 39, a comparatively large proportion have given parental leave as the reason for leaving. In both the group of students who were over 40 when they began and those who began between 30 and 39 the proportion of those who found it difficult to combine third-cycle studies with their jobs is larger than for the students who began before they were 30. In addition a comparatively large proportion of the students who had reached the age of 40 before beginning their doctoral studies quit because of ill health.
  • There are also certain differences in the responses from doctoral students in the different subjects on why they have quit third-cycle studies, but on the whole the differences between subjects are not as large as between age-groups, for instance. One difference is, however, that students in the humanities, social sciences and medicine leave more often because of illness than students in the natural sciences and technology. This may be linked to the fact that the doctoral students in the first three subject areas are on average older than those in the other two.
  • Another difference where subject areas are concerned is that doctoral students in medicine have quit because of the difficulty of combining study with their jobs to a greater extent than in other disciplines. One possible explanation is that these students are often funded through a position (not a doctoral studentship), usually as a doctor.

When do doctoral students quit their programmes?


One question in the questionnaire dealt with how much of their doctoral programmes students had completed before quitting. The alternatives were; less than 25 per cent of the programme, 25–49 per cent of the programme, 50–79 per cent of the programme, 80 per cent or more of the programme, or that the thesis had been completed but that credits were lacking for course work. (In several places the responses to the two latter alternatives have been combined in the presentation of the findings).
  • The majority of the doctoral students had abandoned their studies before they had completed 50 per cent of the programme (this applied to almost 72 per cent of the respondents). But one student out of ten had completed 80 per cent or more of the programme before quitting. It is probable, however, that the proportion who quit late in their programmes has been underestimated as those who take licentiate degrees and then quit at a later stage (i.e. before the award of a PhD) were not included in the population and therefore did not receive the questionnaire.
  • About the same proportion of men and women quit third-cycle studies late, in other words when they have completed 80 per cent or more of the programmes. On the other hand, among the students who quit late, those who began their studies above the age of 40 are overrepresented as are students in the humanities and the natural sciences.
  • The reasons why doctoral students quit third-cycle programmes as they are approaching graduation include for instance, illness, difficulties in combining study with their family situation, parental leave, inadequate supervision, shortcomings in the psycho-social environment, loss of motivation and the termination of a fixed-term doctoral studentship in their departments.
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