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Michigan Doctoral Experience Study (MDES)

Michigan Doctoral Experience Study logo

Rackham is implementing the Michigan Doctoral Experience Study (MDES) to examine the doctoral student experience over the entire trajectory of graduate study and into early career development. The study will inform Rackham programming and policies to better meet student needs, inform program review, and contribute to the scholarship on doctoral student success.

We will survey the incoming doctoral cohort to learn about their transition into doctoral study. We are interested in the criteria students use to select doctoral programs, what motivates students to pursue doctoral study, as well as their expectations, career goals, and early experiences in their doctoral program. The study is expected to be longitudinal, surveying students each fall, and expanding to include a new entering cohort each year.

Information for Participants

When is the survey period?

The 2018 survey period will open on September 17 and close on October 5.

Who is invited to participate in the survey?

All students who have begun a Rackham Ph.D. program in either the Spring/Summer or Fall 2017 terms or the Spring/Summer or Fall 2018 terms will receive an invitation to participate.

Will I receive an incentive for participating?

Only those invited respondents who complete the survey will receive a MasterCard gift card. The gift card will be sent within 10 to 15 business days of completing the survey

Are answers to the survey confidential?

Yes, all survey data will be held confidential by the staff in the Rackham Graduate School Institutional Research Office. Only the research team will be able to access any identifying information. Individual student data will not be accessed or shared with graduate departments/programs, or Deans at Rackham. When data are analyzed and reported, survey responses will be aggregated across respondents.

Who should I contact with questions about the MDES?

Please contact John Gonzalez, Director of the Rackham Institutional Research Office, at 734.764.4400 or

Study Results

The Michigan Doctoral Experience Study (MDES) is a longitudinal study of Ph.D. students that began in September 2017. The purpose of the study is to advance understanding of the doctoral student experience at U-M over the entire trajectory of graduate study and into early career development. New students from all academic disciplines completed the 2017 survey over a period of two weeks, resulting in an overall response rate of 77%. This report provides a summary of insights gained from the first year of the survey.

A comprehensive view of the data is available in the 2017 Michigan Doctoral Experience Study Results Dashboard.

View the 2017 MDES Results Dashboard

Findings Summary

Demographics and Financial Background

U-M doctoral students hail from diverse backgrounds. Forty-four percent of new Ph.D. students identify as White, 32% as Asian, 7% as multi-racial/ethnic (The dashboard provides disaggregated data for the multi-racial / multi-ethnic identity, for example, Black and White, Native American and Hispanx.), 7% as Hispanx/Latinx/Chicanx, 5% as Black, and 3% as Middle Eastern. Eleven percent identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community and 1% specifically identify as genderqueer or gender non-binary. Regarding their financial circumstances while growing up, 5% of students identify as having been ‘poor’ (low-income) and 34% identify as having had ‘enough to get by’ (lower-middle income).

Family Responsibilities

Overall, 30% of new Ph.D. students have a spouse or partner, and among these students, living apart from their spouse/partner is common. Only a small percentage of students have children (4%).

Prior Academic Experiences

The vast majority of new Ph.D. students have engaged in prior experiences that prepare students well for doctoral study: 86% have assisted a professor with research and 47% percent have participated in a formal undergraduate research program.

Academic Efficacy

New Ph.D. students report high levels of confidence in their ability to engage in academic skills that are necessary for success in doctoral study. Most students rated themselves ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ confident in their ability to conduct independent research, understand research methods, and communicate their research effectively.


Most students do not feel unduly burdened by health problems and stress at the beginning of their studies. On average, incoming students rate their mental and physical health as ‘good’ and report that they ‘sometimes’ experience intense stress.


The results from the first year of the Michigan Doctoral Experience Study indicate that Rackham students generally begin doctoral study well prepared and confident about their abilities. As more data are collected in future years, Rackham will be able to examine how students’ experiences during doctoral training affect their confidence, motivation, sense of well-being, and overall likelihood of degree completion.