Why are PhD Completion rates so long?

I wrote on Monday about the (scary) fact that 1/3 of all PhD students don’t finish. And that number still terrifies me. But I’ll try to use it as motivation to not become one of them.

Anyway, I wanted to sort of continue that discussion with a post discussing some of the reasons this might be true. I’ll start this, but pointing to an article about this call Maybe our doctoral students are starting too late (it’s from 2005, but still relevant). I found it over at www.universityaffairs.ca, a site I hadn’t heard about before, but might be worth checking out.

The author, Jon Driver, points out some interesting facts. Like the fact that the average age for a PhD graduate is 36. This is influenced by the programs where students come back to get a PhD after working for a while, but it’s still older than I expected. I figured it’d be around 30.

Another interesting point he makes is that:

there must be many PhD graduands who apply for their first permanent positions in academia or R&D in their mid to late 30s.

Which I find really fascinating, because how many careers out there are there where the people applying for them are starting in their mid-to-late thirties? We like to think that most people are set in their career path earlier. And, in a sense, PhD students are – they’ve just been busy spending the last x years studying and getting ready for the position.

Of course, because there are so few faculty positions available versus PhDs looking, it also pushes PhDs to take on post-docs and sessional positions in the meantime, which continues to delay their start into their actual career. And, this, as Dr. Driver points out, means we are

consigning some of the brightest Canadians to 15 or 20 years of combined postsecondary education and low-paying jobs before their first secure positions

Which is scary to think about. On the other hand, by the time one finishes a PhD, I’m pretty sure we’ve all become use to living on a small budget. But that doesn’t mean it’s ‘right’ or the way it should be.

Of course, this raises the question: what can we do? And I’m not sure there is an answer. Obviously, as a student, the best thing you can do is do your best to get the most out of your experience, while also finishing as quickly as you can. At least this way, you can start building your job experience and hoping for that academic job opening.

Are there things the university could be doing? I think so. I think they could do a much better job of informing students of the realities of entering graduate studies. I think they could make statistics like how long it takes graduates to find jobs and where they end up working (academia or industry). I think they could look at why graduates now need post-doc experience that wasn’t needed 20-30 years ago to get similar faculty positions. Is it the program? Is it a way to “weed” out applicants and narrow the pool?

Unfortunately, I don’t think universities are going to change any time soon, and with the recent recession, it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden increase in faculty positions. So, as a student, I’m just going to continue to focus on doing what I can, to finish (and as quickly as possible) and to beef up my c.v.


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