Top 10 Factors Influencing Doctorate Completion

There has been quite a huge turnout of doctorate graduates in recent times and this can be said to be a welcome development. There are many factors influencing doctorate completion that can be either positive or negative depending on the candidate in question and how he/she copes with these factors.

When compared with the number of enrollments, you will discover that there is a steady decline in the completion rate. As many candidates are starting a doctorate program, the number who complete the program is less than 50% of those who started the program.

This is to say, in every 100 candidates that started a PhD program, less than 50 go on to complete it. Why? This is the particular question we intend to answer with this post, “Factors Influencing Postgraduate Completion” with particular attention to PhD. Stay tuned as we discuss some of the challenges faced by doctoral students that cause many of them to either back out of the program or push harder to finish it.

See Also: Top 10 Common Questions in PhD Interviews

Many researchers have sought to gain a better understanding of why students drop out of doctoral study by interviewing or observing students who have withdrawn, to identify problem areas and possible remedies for each individual. While such research is useful, it may not provide an adequate understanding of the complex and multifaceted set of causal factors involved in non-completion.

What is the Rate of PhD Completion?

The completion of Postgraduate studies is defined by the attainment of the degree, including the submission of a thesis. The highest percentage of PhD candidates who drop out do so within the first two years. The completion rate is widely variable, with the average rate of completion across all subjects in American higher education being 50%.

Students’ intentions to complete the degree are influenced by their commitment to the university and the degree goal, their intention to withdraw is influenced by efficacy in completing the goal and satisfaction at the current standing. High education research has demonstrated that students drop out of their doctoral degree due to many factors. These factors that contribute to the noncompletion of doctoral studies are what we intend to discuss in this post. Stay tuned!

10 Factors Influencing Doctorate Completion
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10 Factors Influencing Doctorate Completion

Why is it Important to Complete a PhD Study?

Quality research is essential in creating new knowledge and benefiting the local and global community. Doing the PhD is a journey, and there are many things to be learned and experienced along the way. In addition to the knowledge and personal satisfaction, a person who completes a PhD is automatically more qualified (on paper at least) for a variety of career opportunities, and they are also likely to have a higher income than those who do not possess a doctorate.

Check Out: How to Survive as a PhD Student in USA

Factors Influencing Doctorate Completion

Many reasons why people complete or don’t complete doctorates have been identified by a variety of different sources. Some of the initial reasons are more related to the individual themselves. These are factors such as their age, gender, culture and ethnicity and their previous educational experiences. Apart from these, there are other factors influencing PhD completion and they are as follows:

  1. Student Motivation and Commitment

Student motivation and commitment are important factors related to the initiation, continuation, and achievement of all types of educational programs. In the case of the doctorate, both have been consistently cited as reasons for non-completion. They may encompass a variety of attitudes and behaviors which influence progression through a research degree.

Motivation and commitment are closely linked to the decision-making process and the intention to complete a doctorate. To complete a doctorate, many demands will have to be met in terms of time and effort on the part of the student. While completing the doctorate may obviously be an end in itself for some candidates, for others it is seen primarily as a step forward to achieve a specific career goal. If such students begin to doubt the value of the doctorate in furthering their career, it may lead to non-completion.

  1. Financial Support

Apart from the first factor above, financial support is the most important factor influencing Postgraduate  completion. Doctoral students rely on a variety of resources to fund their graduate education. The resources available to them are influenced by personal and situational factors. The most commonly used sources of financial support reported in the CGS study were salaries, fellowships, assistantships and tuition waivers, and loans.

Related: Types of PhD Funding: Scholarships, Fellowships, Assistantships & Grants

Notably, the amount and types of doctorate funding students have at their disposal can alter the rate at which they complete their degrees. It is beyond the question of whether or not financial support affects degree completion, as the overwhelming evidence suggests that adequate funding is necessary for timely and quality PhD degree completion.

  1. Advisor Relationship

The advisor relationship is one of the most important factors affecting doctoral study completion. This is especially critical in the initial stages and throughout the process of writing the dissertation. Proper mentoring is crucial to completing the doctorate degree. Students who do not receive proper mentoring are more likely to drop out before the completion of the degree whereas, students with good relationships with their advisors have greater degree completion rates.

Students who dropped out often reported that they were unclear of the expectations, lacked feedback on their work, and that their advisors seemed disinterested or unavailable (Gardner, 2008). Data shows that students whose advisor has published recently have higher completion rates, as do students who work with more experienced faculty.

  1. Work-Life Balance

This is another serious factor influencing PhD completion. Since doctoral candidates are usually at a major crossroads in their lives, finding the time to complete a doctorate can be quite tough. Family and work commitments are often cited as interfering with doctorate completion. This leads to increased stress due to the lack of progress and increases the probability of leaving the doctorate program.

Doctoral students’ ability to balance work and life is an important factor in the completion of the degree. The complex nature of doctoral programs often blurs the lines between work and life. During coursework and the examination period, work responsibilities are likely to conflict with students’ learning. Students who are able to get time off from work, fund their research extensively, and/or secure a grant or teaching position which reduces their workload at the university, find it much easier to complete the doctorate in a timely fashion.

  1. Marital Status

It is assumed that marriage increases academic productivity in science because of the support it offers to the scientist. A scientist’s partner may help him/her solve research problems or provide emotional support during trying times. Furthermore, scientists who marry are generally more likely to share their achievements with their partners than their unmarried counterparts.

Nettles and Millet, in a study on the academic achievement of women graduate students, found that married women with young children took significantly longer to complete a doctorate than both men and women without children. Married women with young children had a 52% probability of completing a doctorate within 10 years, compared with 72% for men and women without children and 56% for women with children.

This data suggests that one of the ways to increase completion rates in graduate programs is to make them less sensitive to time away from study and more flexible in terms of both family obligations and the realities of work as a student.

  1. AgeAge as a Factor Influencing Doctorate Completion

Generally, it has been proven over time in many scientific reports that age is among the major factors influencing PhD completion rate and has consistently had detrimental effects on time-to-degree. The completion of a PhD can be greatly influenced by age, since older candidates may encounter distinct problems and obligations in comparison to the younger candidates.

These older candidates may possess well-established professional paths, familial responsibilities, or other obligations that need their time and focus, hence posing a greater difficulty in completely dedicating themselves to PhD study. Younger students may have fewer personal obligations, allowing them to allocate a greater amount of time towards research and coursework.

Nevertheless, older students frequently possess significant professional expertise and a more distinct sense of purpose when pursuing their doctoral studies, so potentially enhancing their likelihood of successful completion.

  1. Discipline/ Field of Study

It is of note that different fields of study are not treated equally. Generally speaking, students in the social sciences and humanities take longer to complete their degrees than those in the natural or physical sciences. The data from the University of Chicago provided to the National Research Council (NRC) in 2005 for an evaluation of PhD programs indicate that the median time-to-degree for full-time students who received a degree between 2003 and 2006 ranged from 5.5 years in the Physical Sciences Division to 8.3 years in the Humanities Division.

The median time-to-degree in the Biological Sciences Division is recorded as 5.6 years, and it is 7.2 years in the Social Sciences Division. This report also has a great breakdown of how the time to completion of doctoral studies varies for specific subfields within disciplines.

  1. Institutional Resources and Support

Institutional resources and support are key factors in the successful and timely completion of the doctorate. They have a crucial role in mitigating or intensifying the effects of stresses and support on students, hence considerably influencing PhD degree completion. This influence is particularly evident in the areas of financial resources, teaching opportunities, and the nature of advisor support.

Institutions that provide strong support and abundant resources are significantly more likely to exhibit higher completion rates, as stable sources of income and ample opportunities for career progression can greatly influence students’ perseverance and dedication towards their studies. Without the assurance of adequate funding, doctoral students may be compelled to seek full-time employment, thereby diverting their attention and compromising the quality of their academic pursuits.

Doctoral candidates who forge robust social and academic connections with their respective universities are more likely to successfully complete their degrees. Consequently, it becomes evident that well-structured programs, fostering close interactions between faculty members and peers, play a pivotal role in cultivating these essential relationships.

  1. Academic Environment

The educational environment has a substantial influence on the rates at which PhDs are completed, molding the experiences and paths of those pursuing doctorate degrees. Academic communities that are collaborative and supportive provide a feeling of belonging and offer essential resources, which in turn enhance student motivation and perseverance, ultimately leading to a considerable increase in PhD completion rates.

A department characterized by faculty members who actively participate and provide guidance and mentorship cultivates a communal atmosphere and promotes intellectual engagement. Furthermore, the provision of well-equipped laboratories, research tools, and collaboration opportunities enables students to effectively carry out their research endeavors and have a sense of support throughout their doctoral studies.

On the other hand, PhD students may experience obstacles and higher dropout rates in contexts marked by isolation, competitiveness, or insufficient support networks.

  1. Research Topic and Alignment

If a given research topic is important to an individual, personal motivation is initially evidenced as the precursor to researching this topic. To align with the completion of a doctorate, a topic being researched must be important not only to the researcher but also to others in the field.

When a student’s chosen topic aligns with their existing knowledge and sparks genuine curiosity, they’re more likely to stay motivated throughout the program’s demanding workload. This alignment fosters a sense of direction and purpose, making the challenges of research feel less like hurdles and more like exciting steps on a path to which they are sincerely committed.


The process of attaining a doctoral degree is intricate and diverse, impacted by a multitude of elements that contribute to the individual experience of each candidate. By acknowledging and comprehending the factors influencing PhD completion, prospective doctoral candidates can more effectively overcome the challenges they may face throughout their journey. In the end, by demonstrating persistence, adaptability, and a deliberate strategy for dealing with these elements, individuals can enhance their chances of successfully finishing their PhD and commencing rewarding careers in their preferred areas of expertise.


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