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Reviewed by:
  • Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D.
  • Kelly Ward and Susan K. Gardner
Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. by Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

In the spring of 1995, Catherine Millett, a doctoral student at the time, approached faculty member Michael Nettles and asked: "How do doctoral students find the financial resources to support their academic interests and see themselves through the timely completion of their PhD degrees?" So began the exchange that spawned the collaboration that led to one of the most comprehensive and ambitious projects on doctoral education in the United States, Three Magic Letters: Getting to the Ph.D. This informative, comprehensive, and enjoyable book goes far beyond the initial question about funding to examine essentially all aspects of the doctoral experience. Nettles and Millett have collected, compiled, analyzed, and interpreted an impressive array of data to shed light on the complexity of the doctoral experience.

A long-awaited release, Three Magic Letters offers readers an abundance of information regarding determinants of progress to the PhD, as their work reflects the findings of the largest survey of doctoral students yet completed. A total of 9,036 doctoral students in 11 fields of study across 21 universities were surveyed regarding their educational experience and progress to the degree. The study is broad and comprehensive, making it an invaluable resource for researchers, policy makers, faculty members, and doctoral students themselves. Nettles and Millet's work represents the burgeoning emphasis of studying doctoral education from the disciplinary perspective, as has been suggested by experts such as Golde and Dore (2004). This approach broadens our understanding of the contexts and cultures that influence the doctoral experience.

The book begins with a refresher on the history of the doctoral degree as well as an overview of existing research on the PhD experience, especially in terms of time to degree, attrition, and completion, and it continues with a synopsis of the research design and sample. Subsequent chapters focus on findings related to particular aspects of the doctoral experience and their influence upon degree [End Page 240] completion. Topics covered include admissions and screening, funding, socialization, research productivity, satisfaction, time to degree, performance, field differences, and group differences. The book is an unprecedented integration of topics that have previously been examined but never in a way that acknowledges disciplinary perspectives and demographic variables as Nettles and Millett do. The study findings are presented in way that is accessible and interesting.

The conceptual analytical framework that guides Nettles and Millett in their research and writing builds upon the framework originally developed by Berelson (1960), in his seminal study on doctoral education in the United States, as well as upon the work by Bowen and Rudenstine (1992), among others. This framework is based upon the five experiences on which Nettles and Millett focused in their study, including type of funding, socialization, research productivity, satisfaction and stopping out of a doctoral program, and doctoral degree completion. Each of the five areas of analysis is made up of specific variables that contribute to a better understanding of the doctoral student experience. The framework suggests that "personal and academic backgrounds, along with other acquired benefits, contribute to the quality of students' experiences and outcomes" (p. 27). The book does a great job of providing detail about the variables, conceptual analytical framework, data analysis, and study findings in ways that are informative and thorough yet never dry.

Given the expansiveness of the project, it is not feasible in a book review to provide a detailed account of the findings. The book generates many "new answers and new questions" about doctoral education that merit ongoing consideration. For example, the findings make clear that the purpose of the degree is considerably different for students today than it was for students 60 years ago— "a fact that may be reshaping the degree itself" (p. 223). Historically, the doctoral degree prepared students for research and academic careers, making it easier for faculty to shape students to fit a particular mold, a mold created in the likeness of faculty. Such an assumption is no longer viable. With only a little over...


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