The Value of Ph.D. Programs. Students entering Ph.D. programs are generally undertaking fascinating and important work. Ph.D. programs, students, and graduates are the engines that drive research, while research drives economic, business, policy, and other success. A Ph.D. degree can certainly help the graduate gain a great job and career, whether in teaching, research, or another field. As the pinnacle of the educational system, a Ph.D. degree can also be worthwhile in itself, proving the graduate's commitment to personal growth and excellence. Your enrollment in your Ph.D. program reflected a worthwhile ambition to hold the most prestigious and valuable of all degrees.
The Challenge of Ph.D. Programs. Yet, Ph.D. programs don't make things easy. Students in Ph.D. programs often report that while they expected challenges, they had little idea of how fast those challenges come and how hard they could be. Indeed, Ph.D. program attrition rates are some of the highest in all of higher education. One recent study puts Ph.D. attrition as high as forty to fifty percent, meaning that about one out of every two Ph.D. candidates fails to graduate. The same study indicated some surprising indicators for Ph.D. attrition. How you feel about yourself and your Ph.D. program evidently has a lot to do with whether you will graduate with a Ph.D. degree. Ph.D. students apparently fail to graduate in large part not just for financial, health, or other personal or social reasons, but because of:
- their own perceived competence, meaning how they felt they were doing in their Ph.D. program
- the quality of the relationship between the Ph.D. student and faculty Ph.D. advisor
- the quantity and quality of interactions the Ph.D. student has with other faculty members outside of the Ph.D. advisor
The Academic Progress Challenge. Ph.D. programs may seem eternal, especially to the candidate making a fourth or fifth edit of a Ph.D. thesis. But Ph.D. schools place time limits on how long candidates can take to earn their Ph.D. degree. They also may have credit load and minimum grade point standards that Ph.D. students must meet along the way. When a Ph.D. student fails to graduate, the technical reason that the school will have for that failure is typically that the student has not made satisfactory academic progress (SAP). Satisfactory academic progress policies determine the boundaries or outer limits of a Ph.D. program, both quantitatively as to how much academic work a student does within a certain time and qualitatively as to the competence or level of that work. If you are a Ph.D. student facing an SAP issue, that issue likely has to do with one or the other, or both: too little work too slowly, too low in quality. For example, the University of Minnesota maintains this SAP policy for Ph.D. students:
- your cumulative grade point average must be at least a 3.00 (higher in some colleges) for your entire enrollment
- you must complete your Ph.D. within eight years of admission to your doctoral program
- you must earn at least 67% of the credits you attempt as of the end of each term
The Relationship of SAP Issues to Misconduct Charges. SAP issues generally have nothing directly to do with student misconduct, especially in the case of mature Ph.D. students. Anything affecting studies can cause SAP issues, including matters in which the Ph.D. student is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Good, well-behaving Ph.D. students can face SAP issues not of their own making. Yet, on the other hand, student misconduct allegations and charges can cause SAP problems. Student misconduct proceedings can certainly distract and disrupt an accused Ph.D. student's education. The school may summarily suspend the Ph.D. student over safety issues, preventing the student from completing required coursework and requiring withdrawal from courses. Or the proceedings may so burden the student that the student must withdraw from courses, take a term off, or reduce a course load. Any of those actions may create SAP issues, especially if the Ph.D. student's academic pace and work had already placed the student at SAP risk. Misconduct is one thing, while SAP issues are another thing. But misconduct can create SAP issues.
School-Created SAP Problems. Sometimes, the school itself is to blame for a Ph.D. student's SAP issues. Professors, administrators, and staff members make mistakes, even those in doctoral programs. SAP policies are complex enough that many schools, such as Texas A&M University, offer students an online SAP calculator. When professors, administrators, or staff members make mistakes in calculating the satisfactory academic progress of hundreds or even thousands of students each term, they may catch and correct those mistakes. Yet sometimes, administrators insist that their calculations are correct when they are not correct. Or the SAP policy may itself have more than one reasonable interpretation on which the Ph.D. student relied for a good reason. Here are common and uncommon examples of mistakes that your Ph.D. program could make in applying its SAP policy:
- awarding a lower-than-earned grade
- miscalculating a grade point average
- misapplying a matriculation date in place of the real date
- ignoring earned grades and credits in the calculation
- prematurely barring enrollment, causing progress delay
- canceling or failing to offer courses required for adequate progress
- unfairly or arbitrarily refusing transfer credits
- failing to follow the school's own standards
- refusing to consider compelling student circumstances
Correcting Doctoral Program Errors. Sometimes, it takes more than the affected Ph.D. student's complaint to get a college or university professor, administrator, or staff member to correct the institution's own mistake. If you face an unwarranted SAP warning, probation, or dismissal because of your school's mistake, and your Ph.D. program has failed or refused to correct the mistake, then get expert help. Retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento of the Lento Law Firm to review your satisfactory academic progress and to communicate with the school. A skilled and experienced academic attorney has a way of getting the attention of school officials. You may also learn that you have other avenues for SAP relief, such as an SAP appeal due to exigent circumstances.
More School-Created SAP Problems. Mistaken application of clear, sound, and fair SAP policies is not the only school-created SAP problem. Ph.D. students can also face SAP issues because the Ph.D. program poorly articulates its SAP policy and related academic standards. Measurable outcomes are a big deal in higher education. You should know what your professors expect from you and how you can demonstrate it, to meet the learning goal. The Department of Education promotes career-readiness standards in higher education, helping Ph.D. students, doctoral programs, and graduate schools to more clearly define what the student should be able to do after instruction. Yet, schools can have significant problems establishing and disclosing their academic standards. Hard-working, diligent, and smart Ph.D. students can have problems discerning their school's academic standards, including that the school:
- does not fully and accurately disclose its academic standards
- poorly defines only subjective standards difficult to discern
- defines an unduly complex standard confusing advisors and students
- offers internally contradictory standards
- offers unclear standards with multiple reasonable interpretations
- apply reasonable standards arbitrarily or inconsistently
- applies standards capriciously toward unfair ends
Satisfactory Academic Progress Policies. Your Ph.D. program's SAP policy is more than your school simply arbitrarily picking minimum standards. Federal regulations at 34 CFR §668.34 require that your school maintain an SAP policy if you and your fellow Ph.D. students are to have access to federal loans and aid. Federal funding is the lifeblood of higher education, including Ph.D. programs. Your school must have a sound SAP policy and must pay close attention to its implementation and enforcement if you and your school's other students are to qualify for federal loans and aid. Your school must also document its implementation and enforcement of that SAP policy to the satisfaction of federal auditors and accrediting agencies. If you face an SAP issue in your Ph.D. program, then don't fight the SAP policy. Doing so is a losing battle. Instead, fight the SAP policy's application to your individual circumstances with the help of national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm.
Relief from SAP Minimum Standards. The same federal regulation 34 CFR §668.34 that requires your Ph.D. program to have a satisfactory academic progress policy authorizes your school to grant relief from that policy. You must, however, show special circumstances for relief. The regulation itself recognizes your illness or injury, or the death of a close relative, as examples of special circumstances. But your school's SAP officials may recognize any other special circumstance justifying SAP relief. You must, though, take prompt action. Your school's SAP policy will permit either your SAP appeal or request for reinstatement. You will need to complete your school's SAP form while providing all required documentation. If you receive an SAP warning, probation, or dismissal notice from your Ph.D. program, then you need to take immediate action. For example, Northwestern University's Graduate School permits Ph.D. students to petition for SAP probation and maintains this SAP appeal policy for dismissed Ph.D. students.
Expert Help with SAP Issues. One of the first steps, not a last resort, that you should take is to get expert academic administrative attorney assistance with your SAP issue. Taking an SAP appeal or making a request for reinstatement requires more than simply signing the school's form. You will also need to articulate your compelling grounds for relief and document those grounds. Documentation often includes physician statements or other medical opinions and records. Documentation may also include death certificates, counselor letters, and witness statements. Academic administrative attorneys know how to identify and advocate compelling grounds for relief and, just as significantly, to document those grounds with credible evidence. Get an expert academic administrative attorney's help early with your SAP issue.
Your Recovery Plan. Just as important as documenting the compelling grounds for relief is showing a sound plan for regaining satisfactory academic progress. Your Ph.D. program will require that you show your change in circumstance, meaning your recovery from the condition, event, or circumstance that delayed or disrupted your Ph.D. program work. You will also need an academic plan, including things like new resources, conferences, counselors, advisors, and strategies. Forming those academic plans isn't easy. Forming a winning plan, one that your Ph.D. program accepts, takes the insight of an experienced academic administrative attorney who knows the customs, conventions, and expectations of SAP officials.
SAP Appeal Procedures. The federal regulation requiring SAP policies and the specific policies that schools having Ph.D. programs adopt under that regulation also provide for appeal procedures. Procedures are important. They tell how to obtain the relief one deserves and seeks. Under 34 CFR §668.34, the Ph.D. student's SAP appeal must not only explain the reason for unsatisfactory progress but also show a change and plan for getting back on track with satisfactory progress.
An Example Appeal Procedure. Florida International University's SAP appeal procedure provides an example that builds on these required procedures. Florida International requires that the student's appeal must use the school's Satisfactory Academic Progress Appeal Form. The appeal must also include a signed statement explaining why the student failed to maintain satisfactory academic progress, including the circumstances that have since changed and what steps the student will take to improve progress. The appeal must also include documentation proving what the appeal explains. The appeal form alone is not enough. Florida International rejects incomplete appeals. Documentation typically includes physician statements on letterhead, death certificates, police reports, and signed witness statements.
Getting Qualified Attorney Assistance. Drafting an SAP appeal requires commitment, skill, and experience. Most Ph.D. students, indeed most attorneys, do not have the academic administrative knowledge and experience to know what makes a good appeal, especially the planning aspect. If you have suffered an unfair SAP warning, probation, or dismissal, then retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to review and pursue your appeal. Don't risk your future. Retain the best available academic attorney representation.
If your Ph.D. program has given you notice of SAP warning, probation, or dismissal, then get the expert help of national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento. Let the expert team at the Lento Law Firm help you evaluate and pursue your SAP appeal or request for reinstatement. Attorney Lento has represented hundreds of Ph.D., graduate, professional, and undergraduate students nationwide in SAP and other disputes with their college or university. Call the Lento Law Firm now at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Lento or use Firm's the online service.