Graduate Students

Help to the Finish Line: Ways to Reduce the Number of Ph.D. Dropouts

March 31, 2010

Doctoral students in the United States are finishing their degrees faster than at any point since at least 1983. But that's not actually saying much. Their average time-to-degree is still a formidable 7.7 years—and that, of course, is for the students who manage to finish at all. By some estimates, more than 30 percent of the students who enter American doctoral programs walk away empty-handed.

A report that will be released Wednesday by the Council of Graduate Schools highlights some of what the council calls "promising practices" that might reduce attrition rates and average time-to-degree. The report draws on data from more than 20 universities that have taken part in the council's Ph.D. Completion Project, a seven-year study of doctoral-program attrition—especially the attrition of women and underrepresented minorities.

The new document is the fourth in a series of reports about the completion project. While the previous entries focused on quantitative analyses, the latest report is devoted to anecdotal accounts of the steps that the participating universities have taken to help their students get through the labyrinth.

The practices described in the report include:

  • Improving advising and mentorship. Ohio State University's doctoral program in history has given its faculty members detailed instructions about how to keep an eye on their advisees. Each year, the advisers are required to hold specific "landmark conferences" with every student. The University of Missouri at Columbia, meanwhile, has created "colleague circles," in which each new doctoral student receives guidance from a group of more-advanced students.
  • Increasing financial support. The report cites Brown University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, among other institutions, as having created effective fellowship models that relieve some students' burdens of money and time. The recipients of Michigan's Rackham Engineering Awards, which are intended primarily to serve members of underrepresented minorities, have remained in graduate school at higher rates than the general graduate-student population, according to the report.
  • Improving students' early research experiences. Pennsylvania State University at University Park and the University of Cincinnati have reworked their science programs so that doctoral students get into laboratories faster. Michigan State University's plant-biology department is studying whether students seem to do better when they work in a single lab, or when they sample a variety of lab experiences early in their graduate-school careers.
  • Improving support and supervision during the dissertation phase. The report praises a "dissertation boot camp" at Marquette University and a similar effort at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

The council's Ph.D. Completion Project is just one of several recent national studies of the health of doctoral education. Other recent entries in this genre include reports supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The three reports emphasize different points, but all agree that universities are missing opportunities to lower their attrition rates.

But the most-awaited report on American graduate education, the National Research Council's analyses and assessments of doctoral programs, remains in a holding pattern. The research council has not made any public statements since last summer about when that report might be released.

The Council of Graduate Schools' new report, "Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success," is available for purchase through the council's Web site.