Reducing Attrition in STEM Doctoral Education: A Longitudinal Investigation using Momentary Assessment and Social Psychological Intervention

Project: Research project

Project Details


The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that will generate foundational knowledge in the field. This study will examine whether stress from psychological threat helps explain why nearly half of doctoral students overall and even higher rates of women and underrepresented minority students leave graduate school before attaining their terminal STEM degrees. The proposed research will be guided by the self-affirmation theory in determining whether social psychological interventions can be effective strategies for improving retention in doctoral education by helping students alter their appraisal of environmental threats. Since few, if any, studies have longitudinally and rigorously explored factors that negatively impact trajectories of doctoral students and how psychological interventions can alter these trajectories, this research will be an important initial step in that direction. To that end, this study will advance knowledge in the field about ways to increase overall participation in STEM areas at the doctoral level while at the same time help to diversify the future STEM professional workforce.

This research will take on the form of a longitudinal randomized controlled trial conducted among two cohorts of incoming STEM doctoral students at three major research institutions. First-year graduate students will be randomly assigned to a control condition or to either a standard or contingent affirmation intervention. The standard affirmation involves an empirically-validated writing exercise that has participants reflect on their important values. The newly-developed contingent affirmation has participants explicitly link their values to their long-term educational goals. A smartphone application will be used to provide periodic booster interventions and collect ongoing ecological momentary assessment data on students' lived experiences. This method will provide needed psychological and behavioral data to chronicle long-term indicators of stress that may contribute to student attrition from STEM doctoral programs. Results will provide a window into the psychological and performance trajectories of STEM graduate students and the factors that predict attrition and retention, including the effectiveness of affirmation interventions in this population. Results will also help advance theory related to social identity, motivation, and goal pursuit in STEM education and will further expand and extend affirmation theory, by providing needed longitudinal information on the mechanisms underlying affirmation interventions. Testing the effectiveness of tailored smartphone delivery of booster interventions expands affirmation theory in particular and the delivery of mobile psychological interventions generally.

Effective start/end date5/15/174/30/23


  • National Science Foundation: $2,406,476.00


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