Council of Graduate Schools - Ph.D. Completion Project  
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Although different institutions, graduate programs, and empirical studies measure attrition in different ways, most graduate deans recognize the value of common measurement methods and definitions. Shared methodologies and definitions would better facilitate comparisons between programs (in the same discipline), as well as between different departments and fields (e.g. anthropology vs. sociology).

Consistency across programs within an institution is essential for ensuring that decision-makers are able to make responsible decisions about funding and resource allocation. Below are some working definition, with links to more detailed discussions about terminology and methodology.

  • Attrition:
    Attrition measures “that proportion of the entering cohort into a doctoral degree program that does not complete the gradate program undertaken” [NSF Graduate Attrition Workshop 1997].

  • Cohort:
    A cohort may be identified (a) in the first post baccalaureate year; (b) when officially admitted to candidacy, or (c) upon completion of a required master’s degree [NRC 1996].

  • Completion, Persistence, and Retention:
    studies measure only final outcomes; persistence studies track students through the various stages at which attrition may occur; retention studies track continued registration in the original doctoral program of choice [NSF 1998].

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