Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version


Document Type



Published in The Nebraska Educator 3 (2016). doi:10.13014/K2JW8BSG


Copyright © 2016 The University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


Doctoral student attrition is a troubling and costly phenomenon. Alarmingly, 40-60% of doctoral students will not complete their Ph.D. Several explanations for this high and persistent attrition rate have been discussed in the extant literature, including questioning the quality, mental health, and motivation of doctoral students. However, stricter admission standards and empirical evidence provide little support that any one of these current explanations is adequate on its own. Empirical clues suggest that Self-Determination Theory may be useful in trying to understand the doctoral attrition phenomenon. Self- Determination Theory is presented and used as a framework to identify potential causes and barriers in the doctoral student experience that may lead to drop out. These issues are discussed and preliminary suggestions for potential strategies to rectify these issues are given.