Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education

First Advisor

Dr. Charles Henderson

Second Advisor

Dr. Megan Kowalske

Third Advisor

Dr. Alice Olmstead

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Ben Van Dusen


Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduate programs experience consistently high attrition rates. Moreover, persistent disparities exist in racial and gender representation. Women and People of Color are significantly underrepresented and have higher attrition rates than men and white and Asian American students. To date, little work is done to understand graduate student attrition or persistence. There is also a lack of information regarding the causes of demographic disparities in attrition. Most past studies in this context have focused on students' attributes, undergraduate preparation, and mentoring relationships. Moreover, student self-efficacy is a contributing factor for undergraduate student retention. Yet, there is currently minimal research on the role of self-efficacy in STEM graduate student retention. Emerging results from the implementation of the American Physical Society Bridge Program provide support to the idea that departmental factors are significantly correlated to increased retention. However, there are no validated instruments to measure students' experience of the departmental support structures. This study uses a sociological approach under the notion that the surrounding environment influences student experiences and behavior. We use a social cognitive theory to develop and test a model of graduate student retention. In particular, this study aims to: 1. develop and validate an instrument to measure graduate students' experiences of departmental support structures; 2. explore demographic differences in students' self-efficacy beliefs; 3. test a model of physics graduate retention using student and department leadership data. We used a mixed-methods explanatory sequential design approach, gathering 397 student quantitative responses, 20 student follow-up semi-structured interviews, and 9 department leadership semi-structured interviews. This broad study resulted in developing the Aspect of Student Experience Scale (ASES), which exhibited substantial internal consistency and acceptable discriminant and convergent validity. Moreover, this study uncovered patterns of structural inequities reflected in the consistently lower self-efficacy for women than men. These patterns are further exacerbated for women with additional minoritized identities (sexuality, first-generation college status). Finally, this study presents a retention model for graduate education that shows the critical role of student socioacademic integration and self-efficacy on intention persistence. Students' in-depth interview data corroborate this finding suggesting that a supportive social and academic environment (e.g., working with peers on course-work, socializing, communication with faculty members and mentors) increases students' self-efficacy and supports them in completing the program degree. However, we found that departments' leadership are unaware of the struggles students experience due to the departmental environment (lack of socioacademic integration, discrimination, increased workload) and attribute students' decisions to leave the program to external program reasons. The results of this study urge for cultural change towards supporting student learning and growth, improving work-life balance, and developing and maintaining healthier relationships with faculty members. This study offers a comprehensive view of graduate students' experiences in their programs. It provides targeted recommendations for policymakers and researchers on practices that could improve students' experiences and increase retention.


Fifth Advisor: Jayson Nissen

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access