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Home » Discover Rackham » Survey Sheds Light on Doctoral Student Experience

Rackham Graduate School is pleased to share results from the first year of the Michigan Doctoral Experience Study (MDES), 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. The study will inform Rackham programming and policies to better meet student needs, inform program review, and drive research on all aspects of doctoral student success.

New students from all academic disciplines completed the 2017 survey over a period of two weeks, resulting in an overall response rate of 77 percent. A summary of insights gained from the first year of the survey include the following:

  • Demographics and Financial Background: U-M doctoral students hail from diverse backgrounds. Of this class, 44% identify as white; 32% as Asian; 7% as multi-racial/ethnic; 7% as Hispanx/Latinx/Chicanx; 5% as black; and 3% as Middle Eastern, Arab, or Arab American. 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 surveyed have a spouse or partner, and among these students, living apart from their spouse or partner is common. 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: Surveyed students report high levels of confidence in their proficiency 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.
  • Well-being: Most students surveyed 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 of this survey play an important part in Rackham’s ongoing efforts to sustain and advance the quality of graduate education, and to improve the educational experience for all graduate students,” says Rackham Dean Mike Solomon. “Furthermore, we hope that this survey can catalyze interest among researchers in designing studies that can improve understanding of different models and modes of graduate education.”

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.

“We are grateful to all the students who participated in the first year of this important project,” says Rackham Institutional Research Director John Gonzalez. “These data will give us a better idea of the graduate-school experience, both the challenges that students face and the supports they need on their educational journey.”

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