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PhD completion: an evidence-based guide for students, supervisors and universities

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Many students enrol in a Master or PhD postgraduate research degree, but few complete them. From 2010-2016, 437,030 domestic and international students enrolled in postgraduate research programs in Australian public universities. Only 65,101 completed within the same six year period.

This discrepancy does not necessarily mean postgraduate research students “failed” their degree. Common reasons not completing a degree include changes of career goals, work-family conflicts, poor health or financial strain. Alternatively, some students remain enrolled in their degree for long periods without making significant progress.

Even so, the discrepancy is large enough for universities to be concerned. Nobody wants a student to suffer through years of hard work and frustration without achieving their goal.

Research has identified several factors that make students more likely to persist with their degrees. These factors are related to the students themselves, their supervisor, and the university environment.

Psychological studies of postgraduate students find the more successful ones tend to perceive themselves as competent and be intrinsically motivated. These are students who enjoy their topic area, perceive their postgraduate studies as a valuable learning experience, and who strongly identify with being a career researcher. Students who are motivated by external factors (such as pursuing a prestigious academic role) are more likely to say they want to quit.

Scholarship holders are more likely to complete their degrees. This is likely because they are academically stronger than non-scholarship holders and are less vulnerable to financial strain. Students can........

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