bachelorette

Low PhD Completion Rate Worry Anyone?

Recommended Posts

I have been aiming to apply for a PhD program for a few years now and am sending off quite a few applications for Fall 2017. Only now have I come across the dismal PhD completion stats nationwide, hovering around 55-56%.

Has this worried anyone else? Has anyone dropped out of a PhD program that could comment? Are the programs just that difficult and taxing? I understand some of these numbers will be due to not qualifying, possibly funding, etc, but with barely half completing, it would be hard to say that that's not at least a little worrisome.

Any comments?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't think the rates are nearly as high in linguistics. This is something that you should figure out specifically for the programs that you're applying to. At least for the programs I have any knowledge of, the vast majority fund all their PhD students for the duration of the program, and people who drop out do so for reasons of incompatibility. Some might be asked to leave, some just decide it's not for them, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. If you decide something isn't for you or you are told by your supervisors that you aren't doing work that would allow you to find employment, there is no reason to stay an extra few years and complete the degree, you're better off finding something else to do. These situations aren't many, though they exist, but it's not close to half the students anywhere I have know of, and again, I don't know that it's necessarily all bad. A much more pressing question is: at the schools you are considering, are people graduating at a decent rate and are they finding jobs? and while they are at the program, are they happy? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

This is a national statistic that lumps a lot of fields together into one number and also a lot of different types of schools together. When all this information is lumped together, it's hard to really know whether this is a "good" number or not.

I don't know what the "ideal" PhD completion rate should be. Certainly not 100%: I know many people who decide partway through grad school that they don't want to go on this path so having a 100% completion rate means that everyone finishes the degree even though a big chunk of those people won't have a use for it. And of course, 0% is not good either. 

I also think there is a lot of variance on the "tier" of the school. At least in my field, top tier schools have very high completion rates, something like 80%-90%. I think this means that most students feel that they will get good value out of their degree and opt to finish it. I think the lower tier schools have lower completion rates because if someone decided that this field isn't for them, they may not see the value in their degree outside of their field. Also, dropouts might include people who start in a PhD program at a lower tier school and then enroll in a new program at a higher tier school.

Finally, it's also important to consider why people don't complete. Some of the 10%-20% in my top tier school leave because they get a good job offer or they start their own business (because they invented something). It would be useful to know the percentage of students that don't complete because they were forced out of the program. However, many departments can hide this number because usually they won't count someone who chose not to retake the quals exam as being "forced out" (instead counting it as "voluntary" departure) even though a student could be pressured to not retake or made to feel that they have no hope in a retake. Instead of the overall national average, I would focus on the specific outcomes of students in your prospective program (and maybe even focus on students with similar career goals as yourself, if you can find them).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

I don't think the rates are nearly as high in linguistics. This is something that you should figure out specifically for the programs that you're applying to. At least for the programs I have any knowledge of, the vast majority fund all their PhD students for the duration of the program, and people who drop out do so for reasons of incompatibility. Some might be asked to leave, some just decide it's not for them, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. If you decide something isn't for you or you are told by your supervisors that you aren't doing work that would allow you to find employment, there is no reason to stay an extra few years and complete the degree, you're better off finding something else to do. These situations aren't many, though they exist, but it's not close to half the students anywhere I have know of, and again, I don't know that it's necessarily all bad. A much more pressing question is: at the schools you are considering, are people graduating at a decent rate and are they finding jobs? and while they are at the program, are they happy? 

Totally understandable, and I certainly agree. I should say though, that not many programs have this information readily available, although Yale does, and their 55% completion rate was sobering. When I saw that, I did research to find the national average was about 56%, so Yale was below that! Individual programs probably say a lot though, as you suggested.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
16 hours ago, TakeruK said:

This is a national statistic that lumps a lot of fields together into one number and also a lot of different types of schools together. When all this information is lumped together, it's hard to really know whether this is a "good" number or not.

I don't know what the "ideal" PhD completion rate should be. Certainly not 100%: I know many people who decide partway through grad school that they don't want to go on this path so having a 100% completion rate means that everyone finishes the degree even though a big chunk of those people won't have a use for it. And of course, 0% is not good either. 

I also think there is a lot of variance on the "tier" of the school. At least in my field, top tier schools have very high completion rates, something like 80%-90%. I think this means that most students feel that they will get good value out of their degree and opt to finish it. I think the lower tier schools have lower completion rates because if someone decided that this field isn't for them, they may not see the value in their degree outside of their field. Also, dropouts might include people who start in a PhD program at a lower tier school and then enroll in a new program at a higher tier school.

Finally, it's also important to consider why people don't complete. Some of the 10%-20% in my top tier school leave because they get a good job offer or they start their own business (because they invented something). It would be useful to know the percentage of students that don't complete because they were forced out of the program. However, many departments can hide this number because usually they won't count someone who chose not to retake the quals exam as being "forced out" (instead counting it as "voluntary" departure) even though a student could be pressured to not retake or made to feel that they have no hope in a retake. Instead of the overall national average, I would focus on the specific outcomes of students in your prospective program (and maybe even focus on students with similar career goals as yourself, if you can find them).

As I told fuzzylogician, Tnot many programs have this information readily available, although Yale does, and their 55% completion rate was sobering, especially as it was a top tier school! When I saw that, I did research to find the national average was about 56%, so Yale was below that! Naturally there are a variable of reasons, but I was curious to investigate and/or hear any firsthand accounts.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
16 minutes ago, bachelorette said:

As I told fuzzylogician, Tnot many programs have this information readily available, although Yale does, and their 55% completion rate was sobering, especially as it was a top tier school! When I saw that, I did research to find the national average was about 56%, so Yale was below that! Naturally there are a variable of reasons, but I was curious to investigate and/or hear any firsthand accounts.

Oh I see. I would say that 55% and 56% is the same thing.

Although I don't know what an ideal rate is, I personally think that having a completion rate around 50%-60% is closer to ideal than 80%+. From my own experience, I think there is a good chunk of people that enter PhD programs that really should not have started one. I know about 20 students that did not complete their PhD (in Canada, we first do a Masters and then a PhD, so I'm counting the people that don't choose to continue on a PhD as "not complete"). For almost all of these students, the student was much happier outside of the graduate program (most of them choose to leave but a few only made this choice after not passing some milestone). Out of the students that left, I only know of one student that is currently in another PhD program (suggesting perhaps that this person didn't want to leave this career path). 

That is, what I'm trying to say is that I wouldn't think a rate where half of the students don't get their PhDs is necessarily a bad mark against the school/program. I think not completing the PhD is a normal part of the graduate school process. If you are still interested in Yale, I would recommend discussing this with the program when you are visiting or if you have skype/email chats after you are accepted. It would be helpful to learn how and why people aren't completing their PhDs.

The reason I am pushing back against feeling like 55% completion rate is a "bad" thing is because I think students already have too much pressure from universities and other academics to complete PhDs and stay in academia. For some people, this is actually not the best path for them. It is far better for a student to realise that a PhD is not what they want after 2 years than to stay the 6-7 years to complete it. There's so much stigma towards being labelled as a "failure" for not finishing a PhD even though there isn't always a good reason to finish! 

What would be a problem though, is that there's something systematic about Yale that fails 45% of its PhD students. Procedures or milestones designed to "weed out" students are bad! I would still apply to programs that interest me but I would talk to current students about completion rates etc. before making any decisions on where to go.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 11/18/2016 at 1:49 PM, bachelorette said:

Totally understandable, and I certainly agree. I should say though, that not many programs have this information readily available, although Yale does, and their 55% completion rate was sobering. When I saw that, I did research to find the national average was about 56%, so Yale was below that! Individual programs probably say a lot though, as you suggested.

Yeah, it's unfortunate that more programs don't post these stats, but the stats alone aren't going to be enough, even if they were posted. You'd want to know why people left -- were they struggling financially? did they discover that they hate teaching and don't enjoy research enough? were they not doing good work and asked to leave? did they get another job? did their interests change and therefore they decided to reapply to another school that is a better fit? Some of those replies would be a lot more worrisome than others. Also, again, it's very important to know if the people who are there are happy and whether they are successful once they graduate, whatever that means for them (job in academia, job in industry, lateral move to administration, think tank, non-profit, etc.). These are all things that it'd be difficult for you to learn about as an applicant, unfortunately. Speaking for myself, I would not be nearly as forthcoming with a random student who hasn't even applied yet than with one of the small number of admitted applicants who could very well become a student at my institution next year. More generally, you just wouldn't know who to ask, at this point. 

This may mean that your best bet at the moment is simply to apply to programs based on fit, location, funding, and whatever other important considerations you have, and then you'll have to ask these extra questions once you have your decisions back. At that point, students and faculty will reach out to you to recruit you, and you may have a chance to visit the school in person. It's more obvious to know how you'd ask about completion rates and placement; for happiness, you might ask (faculty and students!) if students seem to work in their offices or in common spaces, or if they tend to work from home or the library; if students show up for talks and reading groups on a regular basis; if things tend to be organized by students or faculty (active student participation and involvement = they care more, which would generally be a positive); if there are any regular social events that students and/or faculty participate in; if students tend to be roommates with each others; and if they collaborate with each other and with faculty. Students tend to be very forthcoming, especially if you ask the right questions.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've been back in academia now for about 2 years. "Lots" of people do not complete their PhD, at my school almost always for "personal reasons". I'm at a tier-1 research public school and the way grad students and TAs are treated in not always optimal, a lot depends on your specific circumstances, who is your boss this year, etc. I was admitted into a cohort of 9 students two years ago. Now we are 7, right on track for that 55% completion rate.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

"Personal reasons" is often window dressing.

From what I have observed people usually leave for four reasons:

1) They didn't really know what they were getting themselves into. They had a distorted vision of what obtaining a Ph.D. really was. They didn't realize how much of a grind it was. They didn't know the field as well as they thought before enrolling. They didn't really have much research experience and didn't get really what it was. Eventually they lost interest or weren't willing to put the work in.

2) They aren't that great of students. They didn't do well in their classes. Professors didn't have a very high opinion of them and they couldn't form a committee for their dissertation. They struggled in methods or quantitative skills. Couldn't pass their comps. Couldn't publish anything. One can 'power through' and still get through it; but they might not have the support of the faculty and might not have very good academic job prospects and decide to not finish.

3) Mentally unfit. They were just not mentally strong enough to endure the grind. Too soft skinned, too mentally weak, couldn't take criticism, or something more serious that prevented them from being a good student.

4) They left the program for a job that paid much more than their stipend. Some people probably enter doctoral programs in too much of a 'cost-benefit' manner and when they realize that they have to lower their standard of living and/or won't make great money even if they get their TT job they choose to pursue something more lucrative. 

These are not mutually exclusive. Actually often, number 3 compounds other issues (or any other combinations of the above). 

If that statistic worries you, you have to look at deeper why it is worrying you. There is high failure rates for the vast majority of vocational or life goals that people have. If something like 50% of doctoral students are not finishing and that worries you, you have to ask yourself; could I be part of the 50% and for what reasons? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would say there's at least one more reason:

5) The department environment was not a good fit for the student. The faculty did not provide proper support for that student and failed to properly train that student. Basically, this is similar to #2 and #3, however, in this reason, the fault is with the department, not the student. Sometimes departments aren't able to meet the needs of their students. No department can always be everything for every student, but ideally, the admissions process should select the students they can support and if not, it is detected early on. Realistically, sometimes things go unnoticed and slips through the cracks, so the system fails and the student ends up leaving in their 3rd year or later.

I bring up this point because I feel like #3 in the list above can be interpreted as "if you were not able to complete your PhD, then it was your fault that you weren't strong enough". I don't think being thick-skinned or having to "endure" anything should be part of the PhD process. Academia shouldn't have a "hazing" ritual and grad school definitely should not be such. Yes, it's definitely important for an academic to be able to receive constructive criticism and act on it, and yes, there will be parts of the "grind" that will suck more than others so it's important for the student to have some support system that will get them through these tough times. But this is true for almost everything in life, and I do think that the school has the responsibility to ensure they are providing criticism/feedback in a way that isn't hazing and also to provide support systems for their students.

So, my opinion is that #3 above is written as if this was entirely the student's fault. In reality, I believe the department is partly or sometimes mostly at fault as well.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now