Fear of Success: A Biopsychosocial Investigation into the Nature, Causes and Phenomenology of Doctoral Attrition
Tomer Anbar, Ph.D., CGP, CTC Principal Researcher
Up to 50 percent of doctoral candidates in U.S. universities are unable to complete their last requirement for graduation -- the dissertation, and never receive their degree. For selected fields in the sciences and humanities, the number is over 65 percent.
The following summarizes a comprehensive investigation into the phenomenon, which resulted in the development and application of a biopsychosocial model for systematically reversing doctoral attrition, in the form of dissertation completion workshops conducted in clinical settings and at universities.
An epidemiological and psychophysiological study of at-risk/high-risk and successful degree candidates, the phenomenon of postgraduate attrition was traced to its psychogenic origins of preconceptive ambivalence, an inhibition of aggression, oedipal fears, familial rivalries and issues of separation-individuation. Additionally, the significance of intrapsychic conflict, interpsychic relations, and the developmental history of the candidate and his/her habitual modes of coping were examined.
The research further analyzed these issues as they manifest in healthcare, education, religion, philosophy, literature, sports, and the “psyche” of a culture as a whole, serving to further reinforce the same phenomenon perpetuated and repeated by the candidates’ parents, departmental faculty and academic environment, society, and ultimately closing the cycle and ending with the creative paralysis of the candidate, which he/she in turn perpetuates and repeats.
On an individual basis, the study highlighted some of the vicissitudes and manifestations of these phenomena in unconscious aggressive and reparative fantasies, phobias and rationalizations as to why the paralyzed candidate is unable to complete his/her last requirement for their doctorate – the dissertation, and the significance of some of the candidates psychosomatic illnesses.
The study traced epidemiologically the psychosomatic expressions of conflicts generally endemic to this process, determining the prevalence and incidence of among other psychophysiological reactions, psychogenic hypoglycemia and its defensive, inhibitory function as postulated in the study, as well as irritable bowel syndrome and its relationship to preconceptive ambivalence.
In the final analysis, the results of the research proved extraordinarily congruent with the complete biopsychosocial context of the project. Ultimately, these investigations demonstrated that completion of a dissertation and graduation, and the subsequent bestowing of the doctoral degree (e.g. success), is not the innocuous academic requirement it is generally believed to be. In those candidates who have been struggling unsuccessfully over the years to complete the dissertation and graduate, it was demonstrated that the more efficiently they work, and the more capable they are of progressing towards completion of their degree, the more consistently they respond with increased anxiety, and the accompanying sequelae of psychogenic hypoglycemia, reactive fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and ultimately with the terminal block or paralysis.