A third of the PhD students don’t finish.
The above was a seemingly innocuous line in a department email I received last week. The email was not about completion rates, or what we can do to change them. In fact, the email had absolutely nothing to do with PhD students finishing (or not finishing) their degrees. It was just in reply to a question about changing (or actually implementing would be more accurate) a candidacy deadline.
Anyway, as innocuous as it is, it was pretty scary to read that. You know how in first year university courses, there’s always some professor who says “Look to your left and now look to your right; one of you won’t be here next year.” This might actually be true for PhD students! And then I started to wonder, where did that stat come from? I had never heard it before, and there was no ‘proof’ in the email that it was true.
I wrote a post earlier this year called A PhD in 4 years? about how long PhDs actually take according to StatsCan. But I didn’t seen in that article any information on the number of students who drop out and fail to finish.
A quick search this morning led me to PhD Degree Completion in Canadian Universities by Frank J. Elgar from Dalhousie University. (I’m not sure that link will work, but if you search for the title, you’ll find the pdf.) Now this report is from 2003, and a lot of the data in it dates back to the 90s and 80s. I don’t know how much anything has changed in the years since, but it doesn’t appear many (if any) people spend their time compiling these stats.
The report has some staggering information, that can be quite depressing. For example:
In contrast to the PhD degree that was imported to North America over a century ago, the ideal of three years from bachelors to doctorate is now nearly impossible for students to achieve. Most PhDs in Canada are conferred after 7 to 9 years of study after the bachelor’s degree (CAGS, 1997). Median time-to-completion of the PhD has nearly doubled during the last three decades (from 6.5 to 11 years). Furthermore, lengthening times-to-completion coincide with falling completion rates, which now hover around 50% in most disciplines and even lower in the arts and humanities (Baird, 1990).
Is that not scary? This report gives even worse odds of finishing. Instead of 1 in 3 failing, now it’s 1 in 2! Now, I’ll give a line of caution here and say that the data on completion rates comes from a 4 year period between 1985 and 1988. So this data is bit old. But, consider the above quote which as been indicating a negative trend towards completion, along with a trend towards more time spent working towards your degree.
This graph here is from the report, showing percentage of students to finish their Masters or Doctorate depending on area of study. There’s another that breaks it down even further, but this one gets the point across. And really, it shows that for natural & applied sciences, it’s around the 2/3, which is much better than arts and humanities down around 45%.
The report actually tries to provide some help for departments who want to change this. It includes a study where they talked to dean’s of graduate programs across Canada, USA and Britain, and looked at what departments could do.
It does make you wonder if your department has done anything to change/fix this. In fact, I think I’ll ask my supervisor about this sometime, it might be interesting to hear what my department is (or isn’t) doing, and if they even track or care. Does your department freely talk about this?