• August 29, 2015

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

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.


1. tskochanski - March 31, 2010 at 05:51 am

Glad to hear someone considers this an issue. Nothing is more disappointing than seeing an institution shoot itself in the foot when it comes to producing graduates. While working on my masters degree I observed the PhD students and it seemed more likely that only 3 in 10 students would continue beyond the first year or so. I am currently at an institution where I suspect the graduation rate in my program and many others (no switching from Ph.D. to masters) is quite high. I am scheduled to retake my comprehensive exams this Spring. The instructors for 7 of my 16 courses are no longer at the university so they won't be able to participate in the process. I hope my committee can get me through. Fingers are crossed.

2. tridaddy - March 31, 2010 at 09:02 am

I'm all for helping graduate students complete their degrees; however, as a dean of a graduate school I believe we need to be more cautious when admitting applicants to PhD programs. As the gatekeepers, we have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure as best we can that our graduates can be gainfully employed in an appropriate environment. The catch 22 is that oversight boards dictate the number of graduates needed each year for a program to remain viable and in some cases that number may be out of sync with the number of graduates actually "needed".

3. procrustes - March 31, 2010 at 09:37 am

What a surprise: being more selective and providing better advising and funding improves graduation rates and time-to-degree. Do you know that there is gambling at Rick's?

A major problem in this area, which the CGS is very unlikely to address, is the proliferation of marginal graduate programs that require bodies to justify their existence. I agree with Tridaddy (#3), and add that some of those programs need to close (oversight boards aren't always wrong).

4. abichel - March 31, 2010 at 10:44 am

The combination of a strong personal drive, an active chair and an involved committee is essential in my opinion. No one can make you write a dissertation, so if you don't make it happen it doesn't get done. Your committee is there to inspire you, your chair to urge you on towards completion and to help deal with any nonsense along the way. If all parties do their jobs well the whole experience can be very rewarding indeed. I had a tremendous committee and chair, and as a result my defense was a cakewalk. I know many others who were not so lucky.

5. johntoradze - March 31, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Quite so Abichel, quite so. (#5)

This article proposes the usual rubbish that does next to nothing really. It presumes that graduate schools are composed of professors who actually care, chairs who are honest, deans who lift a finger and chancellors who are fair. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. I will illustrate from the experience of two students. Both of these occurred in large, world-ranked research universities.

Student A - 3.6 GPA, worked for 4 years on a project in lab #1 for Professor #1. Was fired by thesis adviser (professor #1) for no reason determinable by anyone except perhaps that the student had a relationship for a while with another professor (prof X) (unrelated to lab #1) and that professor X did not want to see student A in the hallways anymore. Thesis adviser barred student from using any data from lab #1. Nobody lifted a finger - not the dean, not an adviser, nobody. Professor X and Professor #1 collaborated to try to keep student A from finding any other place on campus. Professor #2 took in student A and set up another project. Student A, after witnessing professor #2 approve papers based on manufactured data did finally finish a thesis a total of 10 years later.

Student B GPA 3.7 - Did research in lab #3 that professor #3 turned out not to like. The work was good, but the results interfered with professor #3's move toward human trials. Student published papers from it with support from academic senate. Professor #3 then went on the warpath and got the chair of the group to pursue the student, repeating lies to any professor the student approached or worked with that the student was a thief, a liar, and mentally unbalanced. Student filed complaints about this and none of them were acted on. All parties were cleared without investigation. When questioned, the investigators claimed that to interview anyone except the professors who were engaging in the blackball campaign would be prejudicial against the professors. The chancellor and the dean backed them up. The dean did nothing, and attempted to get the student to run out the clock on filing complaints by tricks.

Clearly, a university that was functioning would have taken up for student A proactively when student A was terminated from lab #1. Such a university would have required professor #1 to allow the data to be used - all of which had been created by student A. Furthermore, such a university would have come down hard on professor X, even if professor X did pull in $1 million a year in grant money.

Similarly, a university staffed by administrators worthy of respect would have conducted investigations that were not whitewashes, helped the student, and come down hard on the cabal of professors pursuing a student for the huge crime of doing superior work.

The rather grim reality of graduate school today is that graduate students are indoctrinated in the last medieval apprenticeship system left. The overriding message of that system is this:

Nobody cares what happens to you. You, your ethics, and your mind have no value. Anything that any professor decides to do to you will be ignored, regardless of how vile or unethical it is.

(No I will watch the predictable "Oh, not at MY school." river of denial.)

6. bigtwin - March 31, 2010 at 01:56 pm

Reduce the number of dropouts? Why don't universities work to reduce the number of students admitted to programs? The problem is not that students dont have enough supports to finish - it's that job situation is so bleak only the most determined people would bother completing. Why would a university encourage people to do 8 year degrees with no chance of finding a job? It's irresponsible and only exacerbating the bleak job market.

7. novain - March 31, 2010 at 03:31 pm

I agree with #6 johntoradze's post. A number of students' careers and life are spoilt by maverick advisors. This is a sad situation and graduate students are not mature enough to realize unfair treatment until too late.

8. cbres - March 31, 2010 at 04:38 pm

I am glad to see Brown mentioned as an institution that has created support aimed at getting students through. That was not the case at Brown when I was a PhD student there. The fellowships and TAships available in the social sciences/humanities ended in May and began again in Sept. I remember my (otherwise excellent) adviser saying to me one May, 'Well, it's great that it's now summer and you can write for three solid months.' I looked at him in dismay, because what May meant for me was having no way to pay my rent for three months. I spent well over 40 hrs/week working for pay to make ends meet; writing was squeezed into any leftover time. Nor did Brown offer money for time abroad (if needed); I was on my own to find outside fellowships for that purpose. I defended my thesis, got a job, and moved on (to tenure, etc.), but it was not easy. Any system that does not recognize grad students' needs in summer is bound to see drop-outs for all the wrong reasons.

9. zefelius - April 01, 2010 at 04:29 am

Johntoradze writes:

"Nobody cares what happens to you. You, your ethics, and your mind have no value. Anything that any professor decides to do to you will be ignored, regardless of how vile or unethical it is.

(No I will watch the predictable "Oh, not at MY school." river of denial.)"

While I can't verify the generalized claim, which isn't likely true, I will agree it happens far more often than we like to admit. My girlfriend, who is currently pursuing her doctorate, can attest to that. In her department at a "world-class" university, one of her professors has control over several TA's each year and exploits that control and power to an extreme degree. This professor tolerates no dissent, no divergent opinion, and micromanages every aspect of their teaching to an intolerable degree. She has been known to yell at those TAs, and manipulate them psychologically via gossip and suchlike (telling one TA she is the least prepared and organized of all of them, while saying the exact same thing to another). She throws temper tantrums over small things which she herself does all the time (e.g., she is continually late to the 3 hour meetings she holds every week with her TAs, and yet has been outraged on the occasion or two when she arrives on time and others hadn't shown up yet). In a similar vein, she informs them that her time is valuable and that these 3 hour meetings are mandatory, but then wastes their time during the meetings sharing personal, ego-obsessed stories. To maintain her power, she tries to turn her TAs against one another.

These are just a few small items for which I can't here provide all the details, but when you add them up they don't make for a very productive environment for graduate students.

Yet when one of my girlfriend's fellow students said she would like to file a formal complaint, other professors said it would only hurt her own prospects to do so. So she and the other students have remained silent. Amazing that such smart, "open-minded" professors can turn a deaf ear to problems within their own departments!

10. honore - April 01, 2010 at 09:22 am

@6 (Johntoradze), While there are those who would/have attack(ed) and criticize(d) your acerbic observation, from my vantage post, you have been too kind. While a graduate student at one particular Ivy in NY, I was a member of a graduate student organization that met on a bi-weekly basis more or less to vent the frustration that many of us encountered in our departments. The stories were always the same, while the characters and scenarios changed with kaleidoscope spontaneity....(continued)

11. honore - April 01, 2010 at 09:22 am

1. graduate student in MFA/PhD program sought help from campus "ombudsperson" (paid of course by the school) who dismissed her claim when she reported being physically and sexually harassed by her Viagra-addicted chair. Her area of expertise was the representation of social/cultural mores throughout primitive cultures in miniature iconic media...jewelry, drawings, paintings, carvings... On the verge of nervous collapse, the graduate student (non-English speaking and the recipient of international awards for her work), withdrew, lost all funding, faced disgrace in her home country and had to start all over again at another Ivy. Today she exhibits her work throughout the planet and when asked about her graduate experience, always recounts her horrendous experience in American H/E. and names names and strongly suggests that prospective students remove "NY Ivy" from their list of grad school options.

12. honore - April 01, 2010 at 09:30 am

2. A PhD student in AgriSci found herself alone on a “required field trip” for all Masters & Doctoral students. Upon arriving at the isolated site, she immediately noticed that she was the only student there. Her “advisor” explained that the others were unable to attend due to last minute circumstances...

13. felesere - April 01, 2010 at 11:34 am

The department at a major research university in which I earned my PhD relied heavily on graduate student teaching assistants. The TAs taught three classes per year, often a total of 70 students. Compared to faculty, who taught four classes per year if not fewer due to release time, often a total of fewer than 40 students. The TAs collectively taught and continue to teach over half the students enrolled in the department. Result 1: high attrition, slow progress toward degree. Result 2: Recruiting push to get more grad students specifically to cover teaching load. Yes, that was stated in public. Result 3: Development of new MA program to lure undergrads into staying in department for another 1-2 years (via loans, not TAships). I am eternally grateful to my adviser and committee, but the system is broken.

14. johntoradze - April 01, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Yes, the problem is deep in graduate programs. The problems are:

1. Economic dependence of the university system on duping graduate students as cheap labor on the pretense of moving them toward a degree. This causes a conflict of interest on the part of the administration that has a need to con its workforce.

2. Academic corruption's roots have grown deep in the 50 years of enhanced grant funding since sputnik. The millions of dollars available has now evolved a 2nd generation of specialists at intellectual theft, data manufacturing and criminal networking to obtain grants, fancy titles, etcetera. Graduate students are the people who see it from the trenches. They know within a year what is going on. This means that it is necessary that professors retain their absolute power over students, power to destroy their careers, drive them out of academia, and break their spirit. The alternative would mean that highly placed professors, chairs, and some big names would have their fake careers exposed, ended and in some cases those professors would go to prison for defrauding the federal government.

3. This same huge income stream from federal grants has created a conflict of interest inside academic administrations. Since exposing a professor's lies, cheating, theft and fraud would mean harming the image of the school, they do nothing. But it goes deeper than that. The school stands to lose millions in administrative income from lost grants if they allow things to be exposed. So the "easy way out" is taken.

Just to give a sense for the scale of the financial conflict of interest inside university administrations I will compare the grant income of a major research university to the GDP of nations around the world. This university recieved a total of a bit over $500 million for all its research programs. That means roughly $180 million went for administrative purposes. If it was a nation, it would be around 179th in the world. But, since it's "tax revenue" is so high, it would rank somewhere around 160th in the world as a government.

It isn't a very nice view of academia. Academia, with its left leaning views prides itself as a watchdog. But this is the reality today. The academic enterprise is riddled with cancer, deeply ill. The way graduate students are handled is just a symptom of how sick the system is.

15. chov3980 - April 01, 2010 at 02:29 pm

Alright, we all understand the need for more graduate student support, but not just for producing doctorally-prepared graduates for the sake of producing them. What about cost-benefit analysis or needs analysis first? Higher ed is too much of a money machine these days and not about doing the right thing.

By the way, when did the credential PhD(c) become acceptable within the academy? A person who has not finished all of the requirements for a doctoral degree should NOT be using the letters irrespective of their candidacy for the degree. Does anyone else have a problem with this? I sure do.

16. davi2665 - April 01, 2010 at 02:48 pm

For far too long, graduate students have been used as the cheap labor to help the professors bring in grant money and to help the university to strive towards being a research machine. That is great in an environment in which the faculty are very well funded and can take on those graduate students and support them. Unfortunately, many of the graduate programs (especially biomedical) take students into the program, provide a few very cursory overview courses (of course, on molecular biology), and then shuffle the students through "lab rotations" where they get to try out a few laboratories and see where they might like to do their dissertation. The end up with an education a cm wide and a hundred km deep, with little or no breadth of education or understanding of the broad picture, and in the case of basic sciences, the application to human physiology and disease (which is a virtual requirement in the NIH era of translational research).

I consider bullet point #3 in the report, above, to be just the opposite of what is needed- the students need a broader and more thorough background, not a quicker shove into the laboratories as slave labor. Graduate support should cover two years of course work, and then the home research laboratory for the dissertation should pick up the costs- if it takes 7.7 years(!!!- ridiculous), then let that laboratory foot the bill for graduate research in perpetuity. If the department does not have faculty with sufficient funding to cover this support, then perhaps they should not be educating graduate students. Unfortunately, too many programs take graduate students in numbers necessary to fill their own departmental needs, with little or no regard to the field as a whole. So even though there are 300 applications for every tenure-track basic sciences position in a top research university, podunk university will admit 40 graduate students anyhow. And SHOCKER- many of them choose not to finish, or are not able to sustain the long haul. The answer is not to throw yet more money at the situation, and produce an even greater glut of also-ran graduates; rather, the program should become highly selective, take only the very best graduate student candidates who can be supported on training grants (competitively obtained) or extramural funding, and let the professors actually hire technicians and research scientists to carry out their research, rather than exploiting cheap graduate student labor. Even in some of the top research universities with which I have been associated, I have found perhaps 1/4th of the total number of graduate students who actually should have been there, and were truly cut out for a life of Ph.D. research and academics. No wonder the average age of researchers getting their first RO1 through NIH is rising- it takes them decades to get through their graduate training and perpetual post-docs to even find a position (if at all) through which they can request extramural research support.

17. tgroleau - April 01, 2010 at 02:52 pm

I'm skeptical of the 30% number. I suspect that it's higher than that for two reasons:

1) Many programs have both Masters and Doctorates. Some students initially enroll as doctoral students but drop out along the way and exit with a masters. They'd be listed as "PhD drop out". Others initially enroll as masters students, excel, and are encouraged to continue for a doctorate. They'd be listed as "PhD completion". All these programs have to do to improve their completion numbers is start everyone officially as a masters student. If you don't call them doctoral students until after they've "proven" themselves in a 2 or 3 year masters pursuit, you'd have less dropouts.

2) I doubt that the 30% figure includes on-line and hybrid distance programs. I've had direct experience with only a few distance doctoral students but their completion rate is about 10% for a 90% drop out rate.

18. commserver - April 01, 2010 at 02:53 pm

I am considering applying to online Universities for PhD programs. I have had problems getting accepted into traditional programs because I could only go parttime and the schools wanted fulltime students. The school was research facility and students had to be available during the day, which is when I work.

It seems to be self-defeating to want fulltime students who must work to support themselves. At least I can go to online University on my own time and interact online at my own leisure and still work during the day.

Any comments about my thoughts?

19. educationsheeo - April 01, 2010 at 05:29 pm

@johntoradze (#16) ... you are so very right.

Unlike several others who have posted on this site referring to other students, I have my own story to tell. As a graduate student, I had a difficult departmental environment, but my advisor was excellent and I managed to finish my doctorate in 5 years. Also, while the professors were often demeaning to and demanding of their students (above and beyond what could be called "good mentoring"), there was little evidence of actual academic or financial fraud.

As a postdoc, however, I was not so fortunate. I was repeatedly faced with egregious cases of my major professor conducting academic and financial fraud, as well as threatening all of her undergraduate assistants, graduate students, postdocs, etc. with "blacklisting" if they were to speak up against her. My field was narrow and my colleague pool limited; my advisor was famous and powerful (which is why I had chosen her lab in the first place). Still, I could no longer face the hypocrisy of doing life-saving research in such a life-draining environment, and I decided to leave the field.

Figuring that I was safe from "blacklisting", since I was moving into a different area of work entirely, just before I left the university I went to the dean of the medical school to voice my concerns about my major professor. He confided that many individuals from that lab had voiced similar complaints, but that his hands were tied, as the university appreciated the huge load of administrative funds received through the grants she garnered (often, as I found out, fraudulently).

This happened to me as a postdoc, and was enough to make me leave the system. Can you imagine the effect on her graduate students? Many of the amazing young scientists I had the priviledge to work beside in that lab never finished their dissertations. Disgusted with the politics of academia, they chose to do something else with their lives instead.

20. novain - April 01, 2010 at 05:37 pm

#20 - commserver

Here is my two cents of advice. There is minimal chance of success in finishing a PhD through online medium. Infact, universities offering such options should fully detail how they implement it, how many have graduated (if any) and how many have dropped out.

Unlike a masters program, doctoral programs are completely a different ballgame that has a lot of unstructural learning and interaction unlike traditional coursework related programs. Also, it is absolutely essential to have a supportive advisor!! He/she does not have to be famous but provide good mentoring support. This can only be gauged by the experiences of previous students/postdocs under the advisor.

21. rambo - April 01, 2010 at 11:45 pm

the real problem in PHD programs is ideology and politics. Most field/discipline are too liberal, left-wing. Most professors have no real-world work experiences (like serving in an embassy for 2-3 years or an operational assignment in the government).

22. tridaddy - April 02, 2010 at 09:17 am

rambo #23, you can always depend on someone to make an outrageous comment in which he/she has not taken it to its logical conclusion. There are graduate students at medical institutions that have professors that see patients regularly or work within the diagnostic lab system or even a pathology department. Perhaps you don't consider this "real world work" but it was certainly the part of the application of science in my PhD degree. Think before you type.

23. johntoradze - April 02, 2010 at 11:57 am

I suspect "rambo" has involved himself in a PhD program in political science or something similar. In my former life I studied asymmetric warfare in the field and published on it for military use. One thing was absolutely clear to me after that - I would never be able to get through any program in the civilian world. It was bad enough going through a science doctorate where the work was cut and dried, in a milieu of cheating, lies and fraud. But the "fake sciences" associated with politics are purified brown-nosing combined with absolutist, wilful ignoring of facts.

What I think rambo is probably referring to is that unlike other areas of academic endeavor, graduate programs in foriegn policy, political science, etcetera are commonly run by opinionated sophomoric (generally leftist) twits, chomskying at the bit.

Those in biosciences can relate to it this way: Ask yourself what you would think of a medical school that consisted entirely of book learning and made a point of never practicing or testing any theories. Consider the state of medicine if the only "lab" for testing an idea was the mind of your major professor and he cared not for facts contradicting his fixed ideas? What would a medical school be if graduated MDs had no requirement to do an internship followed by a residency? What if, in fact, touching a patient, or doing anything closer to patients than walking through the lobby of a hospital was considered a disqualification?

Clearly, nobody would consider that worth respecting. But that is the situation in those fields. So I cut rambo a lot of slack.

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