Why Johnny and Janie don't finish their PhDs

Half the students who begin school do not finish.

If this statement described an American inner-city public school system, the story would already have made headlines. Outraged parents would be asking hard questions of the mayor at the next press conference. If it described undergrad athletes at your local collegiate sports factory, the NCAA would already be leaning on the program to change something.

But this statistic is not about those students. It describes students enrolled in American Ph.D programs.

This dirty secret, long known to officials at universities, is gradually becoming public. For decades, half the students who begin doctoral programs at American universities have been walking away.

But why call this secret 'dirty'? Doesn't it makes sense that high number of people would fail? Aren't doctoral programs supposed to be rigorous? demanding? elite?

The secret is dirty because the students who walk away are not failing. They are successful. The grades non-completers earn are as high as those of their colleagues who complete their degrees. Recent research shows the undergraduate GPAs of female students, in fact, to be higher among the walkoffs than among their colleagues who finish. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have already completed at least two college degrees just to get where they are. Their competence for academic work, and their willingess to follow through, is established. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have invested enormous amounts of time and personal resources into the very programs they decide to abandon.

Finally, the secret is dirty because it's a secret at all. Why aren't prospective students given information about attrition rates at schools where they may enroll? Why aren't attrition rates factored into US News and other magazine rankings? Isn't education about supplying people with knowledge? Why are students denied information, from educational institutions of all places, about a phenomenon that has a direct bearing on their chances of success at that school?

Yet a secret it has been. American university officials typically run from discussions of attrition rates. When pressed, many shift blame onto the students who leave. 'Some people are not cut out for academic work,' they say. Remember, these officials are speaking of degree-holding persons they screened and chose to admit into their own programs. When pressed, officials also reveal, very quickly, that they rarely have any contact with the walkoffs at all. They don't know why their students leave. They haven't asked.

The blame shift just doesn't hold up to examination. The truth is that an attrition rate of 50% represents an enormous vote of No Confidence in a system. As one pair of researchers observes: 'many students who depart are conducting a referendum on the departmental culture; they are voting with their feet.'

University officials suspect as much, of course. They simply prefer denial over action as a coping mechanism. How else to explain the widespread lack of curiosity, on the part of people who make their living conducting research, about a phenomenon happening right in front of them?

Fortunately, a number of people are getting curious. One result of that curiosity is the Council of Graduate Schools PhD Completion Project, a seven-year research program supported by Pfizer Inc and the Ford Foundation. Statististics released by the CGS on Monday are summarized this week in Inside Higher Education.

One pattern that emerges: humanities departments have a great deal to account for. Across the board the humanities doctorates take longer to finish, require more borrowing to fund, and are more likely to be abandoned than the same degrees in any other area of study.

Respondents to surveys report that the most important factors in their completion of degrees were (1) availability of funding, (2) a capable mentor, (3) advance knowledge of the environment. A high percentage of the walkoffs, though, also possess (1) funding and (3) advance knowledge. The greatest predictor of completion turns out to be (2) a capable mentor. Students invest in the schools where faculty invest in them.

Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson, veterans of research in this area, have noted candidly that 'the real problem is with the character of the graduate programs rather than with the character of their students. Yet most faculty assume that the best students finish their degrees and the less talented and qualified depart.' They go on to observe:

Everything about the way students depart reinforces this conviction. Most leave silently; they simply disappear, without communicating any reservations about the program to faculty or administrators. Exit interviews or follow-up contacts with departing students are rare. Moreover, students are effectively discouraged from voicing complaints while they are still actively enrolled. The 'successful' student is 'happy' and compliant; such a student is more likely to receive financial support, good teaching assignments, and strong letters of recommendation. A student who criticizes the program is a problem. Of course this reasoning is circular and self-fulfilling, since complaining students may well be turned into problem students by neglect or discrimination. Meanwhile, the accumulated silence of previous 'dropouts' reinforces the view faculty prefer to hold: the problem is with the student, not the program.

Many faculty thus conclude that the way to improve student success is to admit better students. Yet our evidence and that from other studies suggest that students who persist and students who leave are equally well qualified. The Lovitts survey found no meaningful difference between the undergraduate grade point averages of the students who did complete the Ph.D. and those who did not. The only notable difference in grade point averages surfaces when the students are separated by gender: female-completer, 3.57; noncompleter, 3.62; male-completer, 3.52; noncompleter, 3.49. In other words, women who abandoned graduate study had a somewhat higher undergraduate grade point average than those who stayed. What's more, women leave in higher numbers, thus suggesting once again that attrition is due to something other than ability.

Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

Devising and implementing solutions to such systemic problems will take years. Inertia is a huge factor here: American universities are just now waking up to the fact that a problem exists. So what do you do if you are holding a degree or two and are considering enrolling in graduate school for another one?

A good first stop would be to read 'Straight Talk about Graduate School' by Dorothea Salo. She explodes a number of myths about graduate school. She offers a very smart series of questions prospective students should ask of schools where they apply. Salo notes that a number of good sources of 'grad school tips' may be found out there, but nearly all share the same optimistic, and flawed, assumption. They all talk as if completion of a graduate degree is something under your control. Such 'positive thinking' only gets you so far in graduate school. Most of the time it is a recipe for prompt disillusionment. Success in graduate school depends on much more than your ability to be a good student.

Half the good students, after all, walk away.

Council of Graduate Schools. Ph.D Completion Project.

Scott Jaschik. 'Why and When Ph.Ds Finish.'
Inside Higher Education. 2007 07 17.

Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

Jolley Bruce Chistman. Book Review of Leaving the Ivory Tower
: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study by Barbara E Lovitts. (Lanham, Maryland USA. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

Dorothea Salo. 'Straight Talk about Graduate School.' Yarinareth.



Anonymous said...

I could not agree more! I was an excellent undergraduate student at a top 25 university and in fact received excellent mentorship from two faculty members in my department.

When I entered graduate school, I thought being an excellent student was basically the ticket to getting Ph.D. Sorry, that was a totally false impression. For the first four years of my graduate school, I had an absent mentor who didn't know how to mentor and didn't know how to giude me through the hoops and potholes to becoming a professional scholar. For the first four years working towards PhD candidacy, I basically did 90% of it on my own. After qualifying, I was so exhausted, disillusioned and disheartened I took a hiatus from the programme for four years. I finally decided to go off and do my research and now have returned.

My mentor is no longer the same one. And this new one is very wonderful for me. But, alas, my foundations are weak because of, well, previously shoddy preparation.

Being an excellent student is probably only 20~30% of the equation to getting a PhD. Most of it is the OTHER stuff--politics, knowing how to network, knowing how to find one's place in the scholarship, et cetera, et cetera.

Alton Thompson said...

Your emphasis on knowing the personalities in the environment is very well taken. I have known a number of graduate students in highly toxic departments who lost their advisers in mid-program due to career moves or unforseen health issues. In each case these students then became lighting rods for the hostilities that existed in their departments. They watched their time of completion double: they were invariably sent back to square one on the work they had done so far, and then one research proposal after another would be shot down. They were students. They had no political power and no protection.

I hope you will post updates. It would be interesting to know, when all this is over, what steps you think your university could have taken to improve the experience.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholehearedly. Number 2 was and is my current problem. I was "mentored" by a grad student that no longer cared for the lab, did not write down protocols that people would need in the future, and actually taught me incorrect things. I did not progress as far as I should have at this point. My mentor thinks that I have A.D.D. and is very frustrated with me. This whole experience has destroyed my confidence. I have no credibility when I say something, so I am dismissed as incorrect even when I am correct. I have no personal space as the lab manager watches me like a hawk and has no sense of personal space. Honestly, I do not see myself finishing this program.

Anonymous said...

I must say, I agree with all. The classes were a breeze. Graduated with a 4.0. Trying to work through the dissertation while holding down a full-time job. Which by the way, I have to do to survive. Now on my third advisor with different recommendations and processes, leaves me not wanting to move forward. I also deal with a school which believes, if I did it you must, too. My only push is my children who I do not want to classify me as giving up. I think the entire system needs to be overhauled. Lots of people I have come in contact with who have their Ph.D are not as well rounded as I would hope. I love to learn and expand my knowledge, but this Ph.D. program is something I was given a flase impression about.