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Avoiding delays

Foster collegiality with peers, perhaps by going to a conference.

As a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, you can meet with people at a similar stage of their education and careers to foster collegiality and a sense of being in a cohort. Consider going to academic conferences together, because the deadlines and support are motivating. Your relationship with your supervisor can also be encouraging, or a different researcher can become a mentor and help in this way.

Many factors involved in delays and attrition are beyond the control of students and supervisors, but Boyle and Boice (1998) cited three factors that enhance graduate student enculturation and affect graduate student attrition rates:

  1. Collegiality among students
  2. Student-faculty mentoring relationships
  3. Program structure

1. Collegiality among students

Academic and social integration are two critical aspects of the graduate experience. A lack of collegiality, particularly among their peers, can affect the length of time needed for graduate students to complete their degrees. Reading or journalling clubs, peer-review writers groups, and interdisciplinary societies (e.g., the Post-Graduate Students' Society) can foster collegiality. Going to conferences together can help, too, by prompting graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to meet manageable deadlines related to their research plans, while widenening their professional networks.

2. Student-faculty mentoring relationships

One of the two top reasons for attrition cited by graduate students who do not complete their degrees is unsatisfactory working relationships with faculty (Boyle & Boice, 1998). Consistent, open communication with graduate students, specifically between them and their supervisors, is key to their success. At McGill, the recent surveys on graduate supervision show that 72% of graduate students who contact their supervisors feel they can do so with ease and 71% feel their supervisors respond to communications in a timely manner. Should graduate students need to change their supervisory arrangement, they should do so in an organized, timely fashion and thereby minimize delays. For more on changing supervisors, see the Questions and answers page.

3. Program structure

Graduate students with program support, including “short-term goals, structured assignments, and timely feedback,” completed their degrees more quickly than those without these resources (Boyle & Boice, 1998). Although students cannot determine their own programs (except in the sense of researching programs and applying to the universities that have programs they like), they can work with supervisors and Graduate Program Directors to customize the program as much as possible to their needs, e.g., through course selection, choice of supervisory committee members, and goal-setting in the context of progress tracking.

How common are unavoidable delays compared to avoidable delays?

Most of the typical reasons for delay that are reported at McGill are avoidable, such as failure to apply for graduation, lack of communication with supervisor and faculty, and unsatisfactory academic standing. This helps to remind students that much of the responsibility for avoiding delays is their own. In some cases, however, the supervisor causes delays, whether through benign neglect or other means.

McGill strives to have a high caliber of students with high rates of graduation and timely degree completion. The University has services to support graduate students who face unavoidable delays (whether medical, personal, or familial), but many delays can be avoided.

Avoidable reasons for delay

McGill graduate students are encouraged to work towards their degrees with progress and prevention in mind. Here is a list of common delays that can be prevented, beginning with those that definitely involve the supervisor (the others being potentially related to the supervisor in some cases):

Involving the supervisor

  • Difficulty setting up meetings with supervisor: If your supervisor is routinely unavailable to meet with you to discuss your research, you should write to the supervisor and set a reasonable deadline for a response and for a subsequent meeting. If you do not meet within a reasonable time, write to the Chair of your department and, if that fails, the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) of your faculty.
  • Lack of guidance from supervisor: If your supervisor does not give you sufficient feedback on your research and work, you should ask for specific improvements to the feedback. If your request is not heeded, consider talking with the Chair of your department and, if that fails, the Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) of your faculty.
  • Lack of communication with supervisor and faculty: Graduate students who do not communicate with their supervisors are prone to delays in completing their degrees. Supervisors and supervisees are advised to consult documents such as this website’s Clarifying expectations. Student-supervisor relationships. and Questions and answers pages.

Tending not to be the responsibility of the supervisor

  • Failure to apply for graduation: Non-thesis graduate students must apply to graduate on Minerva. Deadlines are available on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS) website. GPS applies for graduation on behalf of thesis students when they initially submit their theses. Should graduate students miss the deadlines, they must contact their faculty’s Student Affairs Office immediately to discuss their options. Graduation Term Change Request forms are required for students in select faculties who have missed graduation application deadlines.
  • Unsatisfactory academic standing: Repeated unexcused absences, missed exams without supporting documentation and/or incomplete (K) marks will affect graduate students’ academic standing. Graduation may be delayed until these issues are resolved.
  • Insufficient documentation: Students’ status may be affected if they lack up-to-date, government-issued documentation.
  • Nontransferable university credits: If graduate students have completed graduate level credits at a different institution and would like McGill to honor these credits, students must speak with their faculty to see if credits can be transferred.   
  • Failure to follow research policies and protocol: Graduate students must adhere to the university’s Research policy and guidelines, including obtaining approval from the relevant Research Ethics Board (REB) prior to beginning research. Please note: the REB submission process can be lengthy.
  • Inadequate university funding: The amount of funding allotted to graduate students affects program completion and may inadvertently cause a delay in graduation. Graduate students are encouraged to speak with their faculties and supervisors about possible sources of funding, including graduate assistantships (i.e. teaching assistantships and research assistantships), stipends, fellowships and awards, etc.
  • Failure to complete degree: Graduate students who do not complete their degrees within the allotted time frame will be denied graduation, but they may be eligible to apply for reinstatement or readmission. McGill’s Time limitation policy and Thesis guidelines outline the university’s expectations.
  • Poor intellectual climate: Graduate students who report program dissatisfaction and feelings of isolation are at greater risk of attrition (Boyle & Boice, 1998). McGill offers a variety of resources, including SKILLSETS, the Counselling Service, and the Post Graduate Students’ Society, to help foster academic, professional, and social success.

Unavoidable reasons for delay

While graduate students should strive for timely degree completion, McGill understands that extenuating circumstances requiring a Leave of absence do arise. Typically, leaves of absence are requested in light of the following reasons:

  • Parental or familial reasons: Students requesting leaves of absence who cite parental or familial reasons (i.e. maternity/paternity leave, illness of close family member, etc.) may access university academic and health resources during their leave. See the Health and parental/familial leave of absence policy for details.
  • Health: Students requesting leaves of absence who cite health reasons may not access most university academic and health resources during their leave. See the Health and parental/familial leave of absence policy for details.

To minimize delays in graduation, additional information regarding graduation procedures can be found on the Graduation page of the University Regulations and Resources website and on the Graduation and Convocation website.

Correlations of delays with race, sex, age, familial status, and disability

Although most students overcome barriers during their degrees, some barriers prove insurmountable or cause problematic delays, especially for students who are in visible minorities, who have families to care for, or who have one or more disabilities. A student's intention, persistence, pragmatism, supervisory relationship(s), and social and collegial networks can help to reduce delays and attrition.

Theoretical models and conceptual frameworks

Why do graduate students delay graduation? What influences graduate students’ time to degree? What factors influence graduate student retention and attrition? The following theoretical models and conceptual frameworks attempt to examine these questions:

Psychological models

Katz (1976) focused on graduate students’ academic and personal growth. He proposed several stages of graduate student development:

  1. Challenge: Students wrestle with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy upon entry.
  2. Management: Students learn to cope with these feelings, developing confidence and gaining perspective along the way.
  3. Reconciliation of tensions: Students work to find a middle ground between reality and idealism, academic discipline and creativity, etc. (Baird, 1993).

Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) stressed the importance of graduate students’ intentions, a product of behavior, attitudes, and norms (Andres & Carpenter, 1997). Cooke, Sims, and Peyrefitte (1995) echoed Fishbein and Ajzen (1975), citing “intent to remain” as a predictor of graduate student attrition.

Sociological models

Golde (1998) emphasized graduate students’ socialization processes. He proposed a series of transitions:

  1. Intellectual mastery
  2. Learning about the realities of life as a graduate student
  3. Learning about the profession for which one is preparing
  4. Integrating oneself into the department

Tinto (1991) identified persistence as a predictor in graduate students’ success. He believed that graduate students’ desire to obtain a degree impacted their grades, which, in turn, influenced their “academic integration into the university” (Girves & Wemmerus, 1988; Baird, 1993).

Ecological model

Benjamin (1994) highlighted graduate students’ relationships and surroundings. He contended that factors within the university sphere (e.g., students’ supervisory relationships, the structure of the graduate program, financial support) and outside the university sphere (e.g., students’ family responsibilities, careers, health) affected the quality of student life (MacFadgen, 2008).

Integrated model

Baird (1993) stated that both faculty and peers influence the graduate experience. If students perceive a poor quality of graduate student life, it may foster feelings of discontent and inadequacy in their relationships with faculty and/or peers.

Who faces delays?

Underrepresented student populations, particularly minority groups within the graduate community, are susceptible to delays in graduation and attrition. Across all disciplines, graduate students who identify as women, part-time, disabled, and/or older, in addition to those who identify as students of color and/or students with families, report “disparate [graduate] experiences” (Gardner, 2008; Olkin, 2002). Such a disparate experience can manifest in feelings of alienation and isolation; university administrators cited loneliness and lack of support among the greatest obstacles in maintaining a diverse student population (Quarterman, 2008). Gardner (2008) states:

For underrepresented students the experience of graduate education and its normative socialization patterns may not fit their lifestyle and the diversity of their backgrounds, making them feel they do not "fit the mold." In this investigation, these differences played out in terms of gender, race, age, enrollment, and familial status; and the students’ awareness of the differences resulted in what was often less than satisfactory experiences.

A variety of studies reinforce Gardner’s findings, particularly those linking graduate student attrition and gender. Nerad and Miller’s (1996) research revealed that more men receive a doctoral degree than women. Likewise, although a majority of 2010 Canadian graduate students were female (56%), women dropped out of graduate school at a higher rate than men (Association of Universities and Colleges (AUCC), 2011). Interestingly, while men and women have similar attrition patterns in the humanities, 7% more women than men drop out of graduate programs in the sciences (biological, physical, and social) and engineering within their first three years of their degree (Nerad & Miller, 1996).

Female doctoral candidates appear to be at greater risk of attrition than female master’s students. Diederich Ott, Markewich, and Ochsner’s (1984) study concluded that master’s student retention rates were independent of gender, while PhD student retention rates were not. This same study reported inverse findings when race was isolated as a variable: master’s student retention rates were found to be partly a function of race, while PhD student retention rates were not (Diederich Ott, Markewich, & Ochsner, 1984).

Possible predictors of delayed graduation

In Golde’s (2005) research, six incompatibilities emerged as possible explanations for doctoral students’ delayed graduation and ultimate attrition:

  1. Research practices and students’ strengths,
  2. Departmental expectations and students’ expectations, 
  3. Advisors and students,
  4. University faculty life and students’ career goals,
  5. Job market and students’ degrees, and
  6. Students and graduate community socialization.

A study by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS, 2003) and Archambault et al. (2006) both identify most of these related predictors:

  • Insufficient funding
  • Lack of supervision
  • Poor program design
  • Poor quality of life (noted by Archambault et al. but not CAGS)
  • Academic culture (noted by CAGS but not Archambault et al.)
  • Flawed thesis
  • Lack of academic preparation

Interestingly, Pyke and Sheridan’s (1993) research on 477 master’s students and 124 doctoral students indicated that graduate for master’s students was contingent on their GPAs, funding, registration status, and time spent in their graduate program, while program completion for doctoral students largely depended on their funding and time spent in their graduate program.

One recurrent predictor of delayed graduation and attrition for graduate students was a poor intellectual, social, and/or ethical climate. Girves and Wemmerus (1988) cited alienation as a direct contributor to delays in graduate students’ progress, whereas Schulte (2002, 2003) found that graduate students and faculty alike viewed ethical climate as a significant factor in student retention. Similarly, Nerad and Miller (1996) classified former PhD candidates who did not complete their degrees into several categories, one of which was “those who were discouraged by a chilly departmental climate.” Sigafus (1998) concludes: “In all cases [of doctoral students who dropped-out of their programs] there was a point in the students' lives where their narrative shifted away from expressions of satisfaction with school to dissatisfaction with the doctoral experience.”

The text of this page was based on:

Efficiency-related help from the University

Students are encouraged to use campus resources, such as SKILLSETS and the Post Graduate Students’ Society, to get involved in and to connect with the graduate community. McGill also provides a variety of program support resources to its graduate students. For example, IT Services offer a variety of initiatives, including myCourses, uPrint and workshops on Minerva. Likewise, the McGill Library provides a series of modules through myResearch, which assist graduate students in navigating online databases and using citation software.

Acknowledgements: Original content prepared by Lynn McAlpine (2012) from Oxford University. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Katlyn Martin and Joel Deshaye, May 2013.