Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Louann Bierlein Palmer, Ed.D.

Second Advisor

Jessaca Spybrook, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Sharon Field, Ed.D.


Academic writing, confidence in program completion, graduate students, hierarchical linear modeling, self-determination as writers, sense of belonging


This study explored graduate student self-determination as a writer, need for cognition, and sense of belonging as predictors of their confidence today in their program completion. The data set consisted of 2,390 graduate students at universities across the United States. The data analysis was conducted using hierarchical linear modeling (HLM), with students nested in programs, nested in universities.

The analysis found that both self-determination as a writer and sense of belonging contributed to student confidence in program completion. Need for cognition did not. Seven statistically significant student-level demographic and program-related variables remained in the final model, including: PhD student, returning to higher education after five years for reasons other than employment, having a disability that impacts the ability to read and write, whether they were enrolled in a program discipline that was more theoretical vs. applied or both, whether they were struggling as writers in graduate school, whether they were currently writing their major final paper, and their confidence at the start of their program that they would complete their degree. Gender, age, SES background, returning to higher education after five years as a working professional, minority student, international student, and English learner were not statistically significant. While student-level variables in the final two-level model explained most of the between-university variance, there are additional student-level attributes that could help explain the remaining within-university variance.

These findings have important implications for graduate program leaders—from deans, to department chairs, to instructors, to graduate student organization leaders—who want to reduce graduate student attrition. The insight that graduate students’ sense of belonging was the strongest predictor of confidence in their program completion suggests a viable strategy for increasing graduate student retention. Likewise, given the finding that struggling writers have decreased confidence in degree completion, and those writing the final paper for their program have increased confidence, providing graduate writing workshops, courses, tools, and other supports have potential to make a dent in the decades-long 40-60% graduate school attrition rate.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access