Pure Pedantry

PhD Complete Rates

Inside Higher Ed describes a study of complete rates for PhD students broken down by race/ethnicity, gender, whether the student is international or domestic, and by discipline. Here is the key chart:

Cumulative Completion Rates for Students Starting Ph.D. Programs, 1992-3 Through 1994-5

Group

By Year 5  

By Year 6  

By Year 7  

By Year 8  

By Year 9  

By Year 10  

Gender

           

–Male

24%

39%

48%

53%

57%

58%

–Female

16%

30%

41%

47%

52%

55%

Race/Ethnicity

           

–African American  

16%

25%

34%

40%

44%

47%

–Asian American

15%

30%

39%

46%

49%

50%

–Latino

13%

24%

33%

43%

48%

51%

–White

18%

33%

43%

49%

53%

55%

–Other

12%

27%

35%

44%

46%

49%

International

33%

49%

59%

64%

66%

67%


The article goes on a lot to look at reasons for the gaps in completion between men and women and between different ethnic groups. Interestingly, international students are more likely to finish than domestic students; the authors attribute this to external deadlines imposed by visa limits. While gaps between ethnic groups and men and women exist, they vary by discipline. For example, 60% of white students finish engineering PhDs while only 47% of African Americans finish, but the two groups are at parity at 60% in finishing life sciences PhD. 65% of men vs. 56% of women finish engineering PhDs, but the effect reverses with 57% of women and 53% of men finishing social sciences PhDs.

All told I have three comments about this data:

1) This data is from the mid-90s, so things may have changed since then.

2) The disparities in completion are way too small to explain the disparities in the proportion of minority and female professors. It must be something else.

3) As opposed to completion gaps, I am much more concerned with the fact that about a third of students are not finishing their PhDs. Why is that? It may be that students are being lured into doing a PhD before they fully understand what they are getting into. It may be that some programs take more students than they can afford to pay for and have to weed some out. It may be that students have personal issues that take them away from their programs.

The director of the study, Robert Sowell, has some suggestions to address this failure to complete including more information going in, dissertation support, and family leave. I totally agree, but I would also say that if I were a graduate school director I would be very curious to find out why students at my school fail to finish. Do some schools have exit interviews? I imagine it would be hard to keep track of students who fail to finish the program, but it would be good to ask them.

Hat-tip: Kate

Comments

  1. #1 Becca
    September 10, 2008

    Darn. I wish they had gender + field.
    The info on the gender gap in life sciences is interesting. I wonder if we had equal numbers of both genders entering the programs (which I think is now the case).

    I also wish somebody would actually study “number of times one’s thesis advisor/lab/committee members/thesis topic” changes vs. gender and ethnicity. At my university, it seems like a lot of students get kicked out of labs. It also seems like a lot of those students are female and non-white. That can’t be good for time-efficient completion.

  2. #2 MikeB
    September 10, 2008

    It might not just be gender and race, but how the two factors (plus field) feed into economics. I just managed to finish mine within four years (although perhaps I would have been a little quicker if ‘Doom’ hadn’t been available!), but after my funding finished in the 3rd year (which is standard in the UK), I had to go out and get a job, while continuing to write up.

    Its hard having to come back in the evening and then basically ignore your partner for the night while you try to finish yet another chapter. Its also very difficult financially, since the job your doing will often be temporary and low paid.
    If you have a teaching job, it might be that your workload is simply too high to allow you to complete in reasonable time. There are also lots of other reasons why the PhD can ‘wait another day’, and if you have difficulty in getting a particular job, have work, financial or family pressures, they are perfectly understandable.

    On the other hand, at least two students I knew lasted about a year before they realised that they really had no interest in what they were doing, and should never have started. Perhaps uni’s should be a bit more upfront with the downsides to doing a PhD as well as the good stuff – its not for everyone, and its not always a benefit

  3. #3 Chris
    September 10, 2008

    I’d like to know how many students that don’t finish do walk away with terminal masters degrees. Those cases can be seen as less of a ‘failure’ than those who simply waste a few years in grad school.

  4. #4 Uncle Al
    September 11, 2008

    4 years undergrad, $40K in the red.
    6 years PhD, breakeven.
    10 years @ $45K/annum holding a STOP sign at a construction site, $450K in the black. A Post Office worker would clear about $600K and be unfirable.

    When will the PhD’s cumulative earnings and benefits eclipse those of the blue collar folk? Overall, never. Perhaps education begins right there.

  5. #5 steppen wolf
    September 11, 2008

    I think Uncle Al nailed it.

    Scientists are supposed to have “passion”. All good with that. But how come that this passion has to be enough to compensate the huge opportunity cost involved with obtaining a PhD in the life sciences?

    Passion cannot ethically justify the fact that a postdoc gets paid $40,000 in New York, and cannot really afford to have a family unless the partner manages to find a job. I am sure plenty of stockbrokers are passionate about their job too.

    Students need to be given real figures, about the real world.

  6. #6 ABD
    September 12, 2008

    The simple fact is that most students are capable of completing the PhD, but, are not allowed to by the faculty. I am a typical example. Good grades, did all the coursework, passed PhD qualifier, somebody didn’t like me (unjustly), not allowed to do dissertation. This is actually very typical of the “union rules.” In “Physics Today” it was frankly discussed that “we need to keep up salaries by limiting numbers of PhDs.”

  7. #7 Guest, but Grad Student
    September 12, 2008

    Regarding the 30% “unfinished” rate – looking at it more generally, is this really that significant? Think of a PhD as the equivalent of top-tier “advanced training” for any other career – law enforcement, culinary arts, professional athlete, what have you. I would suspect that it’s not uncommon in just about every career that, in trying to climb the proverbial ladder, a significant number of people who try just don’t have what it takes.

  8. #8 Dr Vector
    September 12, 2008

    I am much more concerned with the fact that about a third of students are not finishing their PhDs. Why is that?

    This doesn’t explain all of it, and may not even explain very much, but in my experience people with Master’s degrees have an easier time with their PhDs, finish sooner, and are more likely to finish (this is all anecdotal, so don’t ask about my numbers). But at least in the life sciences a lot of top places don’t even offer Master’s degrees anymore. It’s just assumed–by students and increasingly by graduate admissions–that a PhD is the natural next step after a BS. I think doing an MS is hugely useful, not only for the inherent value of the experience and the work done, but also to help people figure out if their area of study is really something they want to commit _years_ to, and as a trial run for the PhD research and writing.

    I also wonder how many people are leaving PhD programs to take jobs in industry, which often pay more out of the gate than the academic jobs available to PhDs. Those who don’t finish aren’t necessarily failing–they may be succeeding laterally.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    September 12, 2008

    My university only had MS program in biology. We kept pretty good track of our students. Almost all of our noncompleters had found jobs where they felt they did not need to complete. I wonder how much of this goes on at the pre PhD level.