January 13, 2004

Chronicle Colloquy on PhD Attrition Rates

In some humanities programs, only one of every three entering students goes on to earn a doctorate. No comprehensive national statistics are available, but studies suggest that the attrition rate for Ph.D. programs is 40 percent to 50 percent.

That has been the way graduate school has worked for years. It's about separating the wheat from the chaff, some professors will argue. Others may spout additional clichés about cream rising and sink-or-swim environments. The good students get through, they say.

-- Scott Smallwood, "Doctor Dropout"

"Given the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into graduate study by institutions and the federal government, not to mention the years of the students' lives," asks Scott Smallwood, "should we accept a system in which half of the students don't make it?" His article is the background piece for a Colloquy Live on Leaving the PhD Behind," to be held this Thursday, January 15, at 1 pm.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 13, 2004 09:11 AM

while 50% sounds like a lot, it makes me wonder what percentage of people who don't go into academia stick with their same job for the first 7 or 8 years right out of college? I would bet the "real world" attrition rate is comparable...

Posted by: d at January 13, 2004 09:27 AM

Um, that begs the question of whether entry-level jobs are meant to be stayed in that long.

Me, I think the real question needing to be asked is "What does it mean, to be accepted to grad school? What has a grad school committed to?" I'd surely like to see that answered clearly.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at January 13, 2004 10:24 AM

Chris Golde is above-average clueful, by the way. This could be good, if she isn't shouted down by the "IT'S NOT A PROBLEM! AND IF IT IS, IT'S ALL THE FAULT OF THOSE LOUSY GRAD STUDENTS ANYWAY! GO AWAY AND LEAVE US ALONE!" people.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at January 13, 2004 10:26 AM

At the place I got my degree, my cohort did indeed attrite by _at least_ half. However, it must have served as a wake-up call, as subsequent cohorts seem to have stayed largely intact.

Hmm... now that I think about it, I'm not sure that many of my cohort managed to find permanent academic work after grad school either. Maybe we were a bad batch! ;)

Seriously, though, that does seem like a problem on at least a few fronts -- at the entry stage, where clearly initial screening of potential enrollees is not rigorous enough; during grad school itself, where greater efforts to retain students are needed; and afterward, when the question of the institution's responsibility to those who leave (both with and without degree in hand) is raised.

Notice that I am putting most of the onus on the institution and the faculty it employs.

Grad students do need to do their assigned work, and maybe a bit extra to make themselves marketable, but it doesn't seem right to me that they should have to worry about how the program is functioning too. That's what they are paying for, isn't it? A program and faculty that work?

Posted by: Rana at January 13, 2004 11:14 AM

There is more value to a PhD program than acquiring a few letters after one's name. Coursework, research experience, teaching experience, and networking with people who have similar academic interests are all highly worthwhile skills in their own right.

A few months ago, I learned that the time-to-attrition at my university is the same as time-to-completion. If it takes an average of 6-or-so years to finish, it equally takes an average of 6 years for an average PhD student to decide to drop out of the program entirely. I would guess that the first few years of a PhD are more intensively focused on skills-acquisition, to the extent that students taking a while to decide whether or not to leave are not going to get that much more out of their efforts by sticking around quite that long. How does this compare with other instititutions?

Posted by: S. Worthen at January 13, 2004 11:45 AM

To answer Scott Smallwood's question: Yes, I can accept the idea of graduate programs in the humanities with 50% attrition rates--*if* that attrititon and competitiveness are properly represented to aspiring graduates students before they take the plunge.

That doesn't mean that the best students are the ones who make it--that notion is just plain hilarious--but it means that as in law school, med school, and other competitive academic environments, students in the humanities may at least understand that graduate school is not warm and fuzzy but has an intense "weeding-out" component that isn't usually acknowledged by society at large.

Posted by: J.V.C. at January 13, 2004 12:05 PM

In my program, for my year, the attrition rate was 90%. Ok, maybe it's really 80%, because there's another guy who might finish. Still.

That sounds like an appalling figure, but looking the people and stories in my cohort, I don't see so many injustices. A few people didn't have the intellectual ability, got the hint, and left. (It's really not obvious that this was knowable beforehand.) A few decided that they'd rather pursue safer career choices, and more power to them. Some just got sick of philosophy. Four of us made it to the dissertation stage. In various ways, three lost interest, lost motivation, just couldn't finish. We all know what that's like.

The point of all this is that they seemed to have a fair chance, for free, and on a (barely) livable wage. In the process, most learned it wasn't for them, and that's a good thing. Better than throwing good time after bad. Good to find out what it's like, think some interesting thoughts, and so on.

On the other hand, some (e.g., me) might come from less-than-impressive backgrounds and end up with good jobs, as most of those who have finished our program have. And that wouldn't be possible if we increased completion rates and thus sharply curtailed admissions rates. Just another data point, that's all.

This is rambling, and sorry. I'm not a status-quo apologist. Don't Chun me. I'm just trying to figure out just what the problem is. I agree the attrition rate is bad, but I'm not sure just what that means.

Posted by: fontana labs at January 13, 2004 01:06 PM

Attrition sounds passive. Some - indeed most? - people who leave surely make a choice to do so: decide it's not for them or that they want to do something else with their lives. Supposedly, people now change careers several times throughout their lives. If it were a job, 3-5 years and then a decision to change to something else wouldn't seem unusual to me.

Posted by: reba at January 13, 2004 01:30 PM

"during grad school itself, where greater efforts to retain students are needed"
The important question here is WHY the students drop out. If its because of financial issues, ie not RA/TA salary not enough to live on or because of admistrative problems, then the school should to something about it. However, if it is beacuse students cannot cope with the academics or style of teaching, then its proberbly better that they leave. It could be that the students are not suited for the style of teaching at a particular insitution, or perhaps they simply dont have what it takes. Either way,why should any insitution do anything?

WHEN students drop out is also worth considering. If students drop out in the first or second year, then its not a big deal. The problem is stringing along students for 5-6 years, all the time using students as cheap labor.

I am all for grad schools giving a shot for more applicants,then weeding them out in the first or second year. Honestly, there is too much uncertainty in admissions. By givng more people a shot,it gives more power back to students in determining their futures. I would rather take my chances with entering and failing grad school than to have some committee decide I dont have what it takes from the onset.

A PhD in general trains future researchers.Some of them move on to become teachers. Others dont. Research unfortunately is not for everyone. It is not just book smarts or "political skills", but a certain creativity, determination and curiosity that is needed. Not everybody can do it, thus it follows that not everyone gets a PhD. The key is to minimize the opportunity costs of people who attempt to get a PhD. Better funding and earlier weeding out processes benefit everyone. It gives more people a change to pursue their dreams, and at the same time ensures another generation of scholars.

Posted by: Passing)Through at January 13, 2004 01:33 PM

Out here, better funding might not appear for a while, at least. If the governor has his way, fees for graduate education will rise 40%, on top of all the hikes of the past two years. Yikes! I wonder if this will cause more students to seriously reconsider pursuing the Ph.D dream, and/or more departments to seriously reconsider admitting/ funding certain applicants.

Posted by: DM at January 13, 2004 01:56 PM

There's some question-begging in the statement about funding of grad students, only to see half of them drop out.

How many grad students pay back that funding by delivering services to the university, such as teaching?

I'm with those who say let more students get a shot if they like, and whoever remains, remains.

And I say this as a English Ph.D. dropout. In my case case, dropping out was related to the lack of real intellectual rigor (i.e., based on testable assumptions) and the politics. Once I recognized that my success in the program would largely be an exercise in being clever, I lost interest.

Most people are better at being clever on demand than I am, anyway, for one thing, and for another cleverness isn't a serious intellectual endeavor.

Posted by: IB Bill at January 13, 2004 03:01 PM

The average attrition rate at ABA approved Law Schools is 13%, 4% for academic reasons. The attrition rate at Stanford, Harvard and Yale law schools is below 2%.

A 50% attrition rate for a grad school is a sign of something wrong.

Posted by: Joe O at January 13, 2004 03:02 PM

Comparing attrition rates of law schools to grad schools is really comparing apples and oranges for so many reasons. The lack of structure in grad school compared to law school is one. The length of time to completion in law school (3 years) compared to grad school (6+ years) is another. The job placement rates for law grads is also much higher when compared to most Ph.Ds in the humanities and social sciences. The comparison just isn't valid.

Posted by: cwd at January 13, 2004 03:12 PM

"The average attrition rate at ABA approved Law Schools is 13%, 4% for academic reasons. The attrition rate at Stanford, Harvard and Yale law schools is below 2%."

Good point. A standard part of "applying to law school" advice is to check the attrition rate of the programs to which you apply. Anything higher than 15% is supposed to be taken as a sign of trouble.

No law school with pretensions to high ranking would argue that a high attrition rate was a good thing, a mark of its competitive distinction, an indication of the effectiveness of its rigorous weeding-out process, and so on. To the contrary, the top-ranked schools rather boast about their low attrition rates. A high attrition rate is seen as evidence of a second-rate program.

I'd be interested to know if the case is the same with med school. My guess is that it's closer to law school than to grad school, but of course I could be wrong about this.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 13, 2004 03:26 PM

I'm surprised the attrition rates aren't higher than what's reported here. The dearth of decent jobs in the humanities is reson enough for most to leave.

Actually, I'm far enough removed from grad. school that I can't really even imagine what sorts of people are in grad. programs these days. I mean, given the job situation, or rather, the lack thereof, who is going to grad. school in the humanities?

Posted by: Chris at January 13, 2004 03:28 PM

One reason attrition rates might be so high is that at some of the better schools, you get paid a stipend just for attending class for the first two years (no teaching). So, if you're coming from an undergrad position where you (or your parents) not only paid tuition but also paid all of your cost of living, it starts out being an extremely sweet deal. There's basically no risk in starting a program, especially if you're not sure what else to do.

Then, when you have to start teaching for your stipend, and as you get farther in and realize how tough the job market is, grad schools begins to be less appealing.

Maybe grad schools should operate like the military: if you take free tuition and a stipend for the first two years, but fail to complete your teaching "service" and then graduate, you have to pay the school back for funding you in the first two years!

Posted by: af at January 13, 2004 03:53 PM

I take your point about the differences. But since JVC suggested (#6) that grad school attrition rates represent the same kind of weeding out that takes place in law school and med school, I think it's worth noting that high attrition rates are not an expectation, much less a conscious policy (let them all in and then weed them out) at law schools.

I suspect a somewhat higher attrition rate for grad school is all but inevitable, for all of the reasons you mention. The question is, how much higher? I think 50 percent is too high. It indicates too much misuse of too many people's time, energy and resources (eg, as the Smallwood article mentions, a kind of waste of the money that comes from various funding agencies).

For me, the high attrition rates suggest that programs are taking in many more people than they can reasonably handle. Yet another argument for reduced enrollments.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 13, 2004 03:57 PM

One of the graduate schools I applied to and was accepted at offered me a four-year free ride, basically enough money to pay for tuition and books and such. Since the English department had no attached composition program (I never could quite figure out the deal there), there were only a few teaching opportunities during your tenure as grad student--most people claimed to have taught 1-3 classes during the whole time they were there (which of course makes you wonder what they thought they were training people to become). This means there was no possibility of steady income coming from the school itself--just the four year scholarship.

Anyway, I emailed a number of grad students in the department, to help me make my decision, and was told that the school regularly admitted 14 students, gave them funding for four years, and then "required" them to battle it out for additional funding. Generally, seven students would receive funding past the fourth year. Since the average grad student I spoke with was in YEAR SEVEN of the program, they were really only funding 50% of their grad students.

Two students I spoke with were on a year's hiatus, working shit jobs in order to make enough money to pay for the following year's tuition. One was in her EIGHTH YEAR, and saw no indication she would be finishing until at least YEAR TEN. And she had been admitted with her MA. (Professorial politics, I was told, played a large part of the problem--it was very hard to seat a committee who would agree to pass a candidate.)

It was a terribly, terribly prestigious school. But I was forced to turn down their offer.

Posted by: Winston Smith at January 13, 2004 03:57 PM

I'm going to agree with what IA says in #17: increasing enrollments and then weeding people out in the first two years is a recipe for harsh feelings and unfair decisions.

Why? My college roommate got into UVA's English department in the early 1990s as part of a large (60-80 odd) cohort of graduate students. After the first year of classes, that number was cut over 50%, reducing the cohort to 30-40 Ph. D. candidates (those cut got one more semester to finish a terminal M. A. degree).

The problem with the "weeding out" was that the sheer number of students meant that objective criteria for promotion to the Ph. D. program were almost impossible to determine. My friend had straight As in all of his UVA classes and still failed to make the cut. There were too many good students, so decisions ended up being made based on patronage--who knew whom, who liked whom, etc.

I'm sure there would be ways to tweak such a system to make it more fair, less arbitrary. But I much preferred my program's approach: taking no more than 12 students a year and supporting all of them for 5 years (something the program was doing long before the MLA urged departments to reduce enrollments).

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at January 13, 2004 04:42 PM

"For me, the high attrition rates suggest that programs are taking in many more people than they can reasonably handle. Yet another argument for reduced enrollments."

Well IA, how does one decide who should have a shot at obtaining a PhD and who doesnt? The problem with over rigourous enrollment selection is that its unfair to students from lesser know undergraduate colleges. If some department can only take in 5 students a year, how many guesses that the admissions people will play it safe and all of the admissions will be from the Ivys? Now if the enrollment is say 25 students, students from the lessor-known schools will have a shot. So will students whose undergraduate major was in some other discipline. Well if they dont make it after the first year, they had their shot and they were found wanting. Isnt it better to have larger enrollments and then weed out the lesser qualified students after the first/second year?

A quick question to people who have gone to humanitites grad school. Are comps a common thing for humanities grad students and if so when is it usually required?

Posted by: Passing_through at January 13, 2004 04:47 PM

I've put a post up on my site commenting on this here.

Posted by: John Bruce at January 13, 2004 05:00 PM

I'm grateful to those of you who posted comparative attrition rates for other academic fields.

I think one of the reasons we're looking at 50%+ attrition in the humanities is that while not everyone believes that law school or med school are laughing matters, all manner of people think they can just breeze into a graduate program in English or history and revel in dilletantism for a while.

Just before the big dot-com crash, I met a highly successful techie who decided she was burned out on long hours and hard work, so she took her savings and jaunted off to a graduate program in the humanities expecting it to be some sort of sabbatical. I'm sure she was hardly alone in this fantasy. I'm sure she's wishing she'd saved some of that money now.

That's why I think much of this goes back to a misunderstanding about graduate school in the humanities among the general public. They simply don't get that these are competitive professional training programs in which the work, much of it soul-draining, expands to fill every waking minute. Their graduate program will not be a glorious extension of the cool senior seminar they loved so much. Unfortunately, we can shout and scream and light the watch-fires of Gondor all we want; every year, hundreds and hundreds of bright, idealistic students will defy us to discover this truth on their own, the hard way.

Posted by: J.V.C. at January 13, 2004 05:07 PM

From the article, statistics on attrition from UCSD: 70-80% of entering Ph.D.s in science and economics obtain a Ph.D., 30% of entering Ph.D.s in history obtain a Ph.D. (3% are still enrolled, more than 10 years after entering!)

Science Ph.D.s are structured somewhat differently than history and economics Ph.D.s, and I believe that lab work in the sciences probably helps them develop better relationships with senior faculty. But what on earth is driving the huge difference in attrition between economics and history?

Posted by: Matilde at January 13, 2004 05:09 PM

I was one of eight new doctoral candidates who arrived here in August '98. Two have since finished their degrees, two of us are still dissertating, and the other four have gone on to other lives. So, assuming that my colleague and I eventually defend, our class will be 4 of 8 -- statistically average, I guess.

We're essentially guaranteed funding for five years -- full tuition remission plus an annual stipend of about $11,000. But with a 2/2 teaching load and an archaic comprehensive exam system, almost no one finishes in five years. I've only known two people who have pulled it off, in fact.

But, because grad students and adjuncts handle all of the comp courses, our program keeps bringing in more and more students each year. The M.A. classes, in particular, have grown to ridiculous sizes.

I almost quit three years ago. The financial strain had just become too great, and my wife was tired of working horrible jobs so that we would have health insurance. Instead of quitting, I gave up my assistantship and took a full-time job on campus. I now write from 6:30 - 8:30 am, put in a full day's work, then go home and read. There's no rational reason for me to continue -- there's certainly no great job waiting for me at the end of it -- but I think I'm writing a potentially interesting book, and I want to see it through.

Posted by: Darren at January 13, 2004 05:22 PM

Passing_through writes "However, if it is beacuse students cannot cope with the academics or style of teaching, then its proberbly better that they leave." Somebody else mentioned work expanding to fill every waking moment.

My grad school coursework included a bit of training for those of us who might end up managment instead of academia, during which we were repeatedly told that we mustn't rely on scheduling people (creative workers) for more than 40 hours a week; it can be maintained for a month, but too much longer led to burnout. Brief review of studies that showed it and citations to more.

Then the faculty turned around and told us that, yes, we were expected to work more than 60 hours per week, and like it. I've had faculty members in other departments tell me they worked every Saturday and expected to see all their grad students there.

This is just wrong.

Posted by: ABD Instructor at January 13, 2004 05:33 PM

#23 above asks why there is such a great disparity in attrition rates between Econ. and History Ph.D.'s (and we ought to add English here as well). I think the answer is fairly obvious. Econimcs Ph.D.'s oftten have their pick of good jobs, and if academia isn't to their liking, there are myriad opportunities for them in the non-academic professional world. History and English Ph.D.'s, on the other hand, face a bleak, and getting bleaker future as far as employment prospects are concerned. This alone would seem to suffice as an explanation for the disparity.

On a slightly different note, as I read through this thread I'm disturbed by the underlying view that some seem to be expressing that many who leave grad. school do so because they "couldn't cut it" or some variant of this notion. Perhaps this is the kind of narrative that is forged within the grad. student lounges, but it seems quite false to the existing landscape of fact.

You can count me amongst a group of individuals who attained the Ph.D., and did so in somewhat record time, and desperately wishes he had had the wisdom and good sense to have dropped out. In my view, the brave ones are the ones who leave. The timid and scared stay.

Posted by: Chris at January 13, 2004 05:51 PM

To Matilde [post #23]
Any undergraduate student asking their professors for advice/recommendations regarding economics graduate school will definitely have the folloing conversation.

"How good are you in math?" or something along the lines of that. Then, professors will begin to scare you with the math requirements for economics. After that, majority of students decide that grad school is not for them.

Then then topic turns to how economics program works. Most economics programs are very structured, micro, macro and econometrics.Then you get to do the stuff you like. Students who think they can stomach the math but only want to focus on stuff that interests them will decide grad school in econ isnt for them.

Now those few who remain, professors will then talk about the odds of getting into a top program (small) and the odds for getting a academic position (even smaller). Economics programs attract many international students, many who are very qualified. Since the pool of applicants is larger, the chances of making into a top program is pretty slim. The odds of actually getting a teaching positions is even smaller. More sudents are discouraged and decide not to go.

Something about the students who choose to study econs. They are proberbly more analytical thus more likely to weight the costs and benfits of the program instead of thinking to doing it for interests alone.

Thus the students who eventually do decide to go into an econ grad program are pretty prepared, thus lower attrition rates. Proberbly econ profs do a good job of scaring students. :)

Posted by: Passing_through at January 13, 2004 06:05 PM

Regarding Chris's reponse to my question above: do you think that then that a 20-30% attrition rate is approximately the natural rate of attrition and that the remaining difference between economics and history is due to the lackluster job market in history?

By 'natural rate of attrition' I'm thinking of the attrition that would occur as people discover that the profession is just a bad match for them and move on to other things.

Posted by: Matilde at January 13, 2004 06:07 PM

That's an interesting, and important question Matilde, but I have no way to answer it. Anything I would say would be sheer speculation. (not that that's stopped me in the past) I'd love to see some sort of formal study or survey of people who left Ph.D. programs in the humanities that asked them to list the top five reasons they left. I'd be willing to wager that the lack of employment prospects would be somewhere near the top of those lists.

Posted by: Chris at January 13, 2004 06:16 PM

The funny thing is that if the job prospects are really bad, staying in school should be optimal. You get paid a little and it doesnt create gaps in your employment history.

Are the job prospects for leaving with a MA in the humanities any better? I know that the market for MS in the enginnering is pretty good, thus not everyone finishes the PhD. I am not sure this is the case for humanities phd students. Information on what people who left actually do will be illuminating. Law school? Journalism school? Disillutioned shell of former self?

However, does anyone actually believe that people seriously considering grad school in the humanities are unaware of how bad the job market is? If they are already aware, then the "lousy job market" theory will be less important in explaining the attrition rates.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 13, 2004 06:56 PM

My sister entered a PhD program in International Studies on a fellowship. To her surprise, the fellowship only covered her classes--she was on her own for her thesis. None of the students in her class could afford to continue in the program.

She was an adjunct there for several years (teaching 2 classes under her maiden name and one under her married, because the university owed benefits to any adjunct teaching 3 classes--it was understood that if she ever got caught she would immediately be fired from the third class). She ended up getting Microsoft certification and teaching people how to use software that she has never actually used herself.

Posted by: Shamhat at January 13, 2004 07:54 PM

"We're essentially guaranteed funding for five years -- full tuition remission plus an annual stipend of about $11,000. But with a 2/2 teaching load . . .

But, because grad students and adjuncts handle all of the comp courses, our program keeps bringing in more and more students each year. The M.A. classes, in particular, have grown to ridiculous sizes."

I think that this answers everybodys' questions.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 13, 2004 07:55 PM

I have to agree with #27. Econ professors & programs are very good at scaring students away. I attended several "recruiting weekends" at schools that had accepted me. At all of them prospective grad students were told that they could expect no more than 4-5 hours of sleep for the first year. We were also told that US students had higher than program average attrition rates & that US students also seemed to have trouble passing the first year exams. The pass rate for first year exams at the schools I visited averaged between 60 and 80% of thos WHO TOOK THEM and the failures were almost entirely by US students. The schools also noted that they expected a 50% attrition rate of US students during the first year alone. At every weekend the prospective grads went back to the hotel & talked about this - "Do you think you can do it?" and "Do you want to do this?"

At the school I chose 10 of the 15 US students I met during the recruiting weekend showed up. 6 of us took the first year exam, 3 passed. The other four decided they hated it & left to take jobs. The 3 that did not pass walked away with a masters & applied & were accepted to other econ programs.

I don't think that tighter admission policies would have changed this. All of the people at the recruiting weekend had great grades & test scores. Among the three of who passed, the running joke is that whichever prof bet on us as the trifecta to stick out the year and pass the exams cleaned up. Of the 6 math majors that started the year (math background supposedly the best indicator of success in this program),4 took the exam & only 1 passed. I was not a math major & easily had the worst preparation. If the admissions were tighter, I wouldn't have gotten in, and yet I am successfully completing the program & am nearing completion on dissertation.

It is interesting that of the foreign students, only those moving to higher ranked programs have left. I think this could be a factor in the difference between science and humanities programs or economics & history. U.S. students with science or econ backgrounds have other options. We can go get a job. It is much harder for foreign students to do so. If the percentage of foreign students in the sciences or econ is higher than in humanities, then I would expect a lower attrition rate in science & econ. The grad students in the programs have fewer options.

Posted by: Jenna at January 13, 2004 08:17 PM

To Just Passing Through (#30): I think it's become something of a truism that for many (not all) non-academic professional fields, a Ph.D. can often be a liability in seeking employment outside of academia. I've read numerous accounts by employment counselors who advise their clients to not include the degree on the resume unless the degree is clearly relevant to the job or field.

As for the idea of "kickin' it" for a few years in grad. school, all while earning a "cool" $11,000 for the year, consider the better alternative of "kickin' it" for a few years for actually a little more money in an entry level job that actualy leads to something or somewhere ...

Posted by: Chris at January 13, 2004 08:28 PM

No law school with pretensions to high ranking would argue that a high attrition rate was a good thing, a mark of its competitive distinction, an indication of the effectiveness of its rigorous weeding-out process, and so on. To the contrary, the top-ranked schools rather boast about their low attrition rates. A high attrition rate is seen as evidence of a second-rate program.

It was only 30-40 years ago that many top programs prided themselves on flunking half of the first year class in their law school.

Some really interesting changes have moved through law schools.

BTW, compare the time to completion and the attrition rate in PhDs in Business vs. Econ vs. English vs. History.

I suspect that the natural rate of attrition is close to that of a good law school for a properly run graduate program. The rest is the result of administrative issues and field issues.

Posted by: Steve at January 13, 2004 08:40 PM

The most common way to do it is by using teaching assistants, who teach sections of high-enrollment, high-"profit" courses like freshman comp very cheaply. The money they bring in subsidizes the graduate seminars they take. But this is actually less important to the TAs than it is to the graduate faculty, because without graduate enrollment, they'd either be out of jobs or teaching freshman comp themselves. So the faculty's object is to have as many graduate students as they can justify, and the number is, not coincidentally, going to be driven by the need to fund a certain number of graduate seminars to keep the faculty employed at what it prefers to do.


A great comment.

Posted by: Steve at January 13, 2004 08:58 PM

I find the discussion - and concern - over attrition rates at law schools puzzling. It didn't factor into my decision in choosing a law school at all, and I don't recall it being meaningful consideration in any of my classmates thinking, either.

Principal considerations for myself and among my peers were (in order): LSAT score; geographic region in which you anticipated to practice; your anticipated field of specialization; and the schools bar exam pass rate. Factors beyond those tended to be individualized (tuition cost, family support, clerking opportunities, etc.)

Attrition rate, if it meant anything to us, was more an indicator of students transferring to law schools having greater prestige or more agreeable clerking/employment opportunities, and not of the comparative rigor of the programs. Certainly, the attrition rate at my school (advertised at less than 5%) did not factor at all in my thinking.

I suspect, however, that comparing a PHD program to a professional program is not too apt. Law students are not expected - or even permitted, usually - to teach in their own schools, as seems to be the case for grad schools. Adjunct faculty invariably consists of practicing lawyers generally recognized as experts in their field by the local legal community, never students. Student-edited law journals published by the schools reflect well on both the students involved as well as the school, but nowadays tend to serve more as an indicator of the fields of law emphasized by the schools curriculae than they do about academic rigor, quality of the graduates, or the overall quality of the programs of study.

A more meaningful factor than any of these academic indicia, to a prospective student, anyway, would be the schools comparative success at placing its graduates in clerkships as high up in the appellate chain as possible. This is because the legal community places a high premium on the ability to anticipate what the high courts will decide (not surprising), and the community rather logically concludes that the best way to develop this ability is by actually assisting in the formations of these decisions (also not surprising). Consequently, a law school which enjoys a high rate of graduate placement at the appellate level is viewed by the legal community (which is also the community of relevant employers) as producing graduates who possess this most-highly-valued-of-all-legal-skills of being able to anticipate what ultimate decision-makers - judges - are going to do.

In sum, the material concerns revolve around perceptions as to the potential for success AFTER law school, not DURING it. Attrition forms no appreciable part of the calculus.

Posted by: Bill Richards at January 14, 2004 01:04 AM

I see what you are getting at. To clarify, my post was assuming that people should stick it out if they either dont already have a job or that that job doesnt fit into ones career plans. If your next best offer is a temp one, perhaps sticking with the program isnt such a bad idea. A guy with an MA flipping burgers for 3 years isnt a good thing to have on a resume when applying for another job. Who would you hire, all things considered equally? Some guy with a newly minted PhD or some guy with a MA and spent 3 years flipping burgers AFTER receiving it? Unlike temp jobs teenagers do which signals resposiblilty or a good work ethic to future employers, lousy jobs after graduation sends the wrong signals to employers.
"If this guy is that good, why wasnt he making use of his talent/training after graduation?"
A fresh phd with no work experience is at worst an unknown. Maybe he is good, maybe not. Not sure the same holds for leaving prematurely to a temp job.

As a side note, I dont think the propects for people with a MA in economics are that good. Ususally MAs are given as a "consolation prize" for people who drop out, fail comps or cant get thesis done. Not exactly the stuff employers want to hear. (Now dropping out doesnt ALWAYS mean inferior or less capable, just that perhaps that particular discipline wasnt their thing.) As far as the skill-sets go, a MS in OR/IE type disipline will be a much bigger payoff that a MA in econ. The difficulty in getting into these programs are approximately the same and probably just as hard to complete. (OK I am stretching this a little. Depends on econ direction you choose. The more rigourous classes are pretty much the same level of difficulty). A factor in people sticking it out in econ programs?

Posted by: Passing_through at January 14, 2004 04:00 AM

I have to throw my hat into the "high attrition rates aren't a problem, but rather how we come by them" ring. Given the disparity between the expectations and reality of graduate school and post-graduate school experience, I would argue that grad schools aren't doing a good enough job of getting people to leave. Rather, people are hanging around for 4, 5, 6, 7 or more years and then realizing how much they hate their lives and that they can't get a refund on the time they spent.

The other problem is that it is frequently the "wrong" 50% (or 25% or 75% or whatever it is at a pzarticular school) leaving. My experience getting a PhD is that it wasn't talent or aptitude or intelligence or love of the subject or hard work that was the determining factor, but rather a combination of staying power and a willingness to be subject to the forces of inertia.

I think a partial solution would be for American graduate programs to stop admitting students directly to a PhD program, but rather force them to go through a genuine (as opposed to a "here's a free degree on the way to your PhD type) Master's program first.

Posted by: Jay at January 14, 2004 07:01 AM

Jenna (#33) and I appear to have had very similar experiences in our econ Ph.D. programs. In my program also it was the grueling coursework (I remember getting up at 6am on Saturdays to start working, and spending many nights at the office) and qualifying first year exams that drove most students out of the Ph.D. program (some because they couldn't pass the exams, others because they decided they hated it). Even knowing what you were getting into, it was a tough year.

No one would have bet on my graduating cohort, either, I think. So there definately is something to the notion that it is difficult to determine who will finish a Ph.D. by looking at the characteristics of the entering class.

Posted by: Matilde at January 14, 2004 09:47 AM

Since I'm currently dealing with placement issues in a vocational college, it occurs to me that another factor might account for some of the discrepancy between law and humanities attrition figures. In this state at least (CA), schools offering vocational degrees are required to have a 75% placement rate _in-field_ after graduation to receive accreditation. Similar percentages are required in terms of students completing their programs on time. I don't know if law schools fall into this category of vocational schools, but I suspect they might. Meanwhile, degrees that are not directly aimed at a particular vocation (most "liberal arts" degrees, including the humanities) do not fall under this requirement.

So a question might be, should they?

Posted by: Rana at January 14, 2004 11:11 AM

Hmmmm.... I'm wondering how fellowship vs. non-fellowship fits in here. I went to a place where I really don't know what the attrition rate was. In my class, there were about 4 Americanists, 2 Medievalists, a Latin Americanist, and 4 other assorted Europeanists. Of those, I think only two of the PhD students didn't finish (a couple were MA people who went away after a year or so). On the other hand, of the people I know from classes before and after me, I can think of 4 Medievalists who vanished: one to have babies, two to serious illness, and one because he decided after one semester that it wasn't worth it -- partially due to family pressure.

What I found was that there were several things that affected people's leaving that didn't have much to do with the institution:

  • Students decide early that grad school isn't what they thought it would be and get out quickly
  • Much depends upon how quickly one finds an advisor and how much they bond -- a friend at a Big 10 school almost quit after her MA because she hated her advisor, but fortunately found another who fit the model of Doktorvater
  • Much depends on discipline and self-motivation on the part of the student. Once coursework is over, it's very easy to get distracted (unless the advisor is a nag). This could explain why some brilliant people drop out, but many fairly average folks finish.
  • Sometimes, life gets in the way. Grad students are at ages where marriage, childbearing, and aging parents often coincide. People make choices they can live with, and sometimes grad school gets sacrificed for a better-paying job with health insurance becaus that's what is needed now.
  • I hear some departments are cutthroat and really suck. Students have to compete for funding and the environment isn't conducive to survival, let alone completion.

Let me add as a disclaimer that I may be a bit out of touch, having left in my 6th year to do PhD research and only communicating with a few friends and my advisor for much of the remaining (ulp!) 6 years. I couldn't see an option to finishing after spending so much of other people's money and time and good faith, not to mention that it would have been a waste of my time had I not finished. I also was in a very supportive department and had an incredible relationship with my advisor and his family, and a couple of faculty and peer mentors who were incredibly supportive. I know many other students in my department who can say the same.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at January 14, 2004 11:14 AM

I think the problem is that PhD programs are basically free. Law students and medical students have lower attrition rates because they have to take large student loans. That deters students who might not want to complete the program, and the sunk cost provides an emotional incentive to stay. Schools need to make their programs less economically attractive.

Posted by: Xavier at January 14, 2004 05:12 PM

I agree completely with the above. In fact, I think the present ranks of graduate students in English, History, and Philosophy would be drastically diminished if they were required to actually pay tuition instead of just fees.

Sadly, though, such a tactic would do little to alleviate the present glut of job candidates, but it would go a long way toward lowering the ever-increasing body count.

Posted by: Chris at January 14, 2004 05:39 PM

There was another point/question raised somewhere above in the thread that I wanted to respond to, but forgot. Someone asked, rhetorically, whether anyone entering graduate school in the humanities is not aware of the job crisis these days. I'd have to say that many must not be aware of it, because why, readied with a candid and decidedly not-sugar-coated account of the statistical prospects for gainful academic employment, would anyone opt to go?

If people opt to go to grad. school fully cognizant of the sink-hole that awaits them at the end of the 7 years, well, then that's on them. But in my experience, entering graduate students often have at best only a vague and undefined sense of the prospects. Shoving statsitics at idealistic 22 or 25 or 26 year-olds is not going to bring the point into relief. What has to be explaiend to them, what so man of us know becasue we live it, is what the day to day grind is like, what it's like to live your professional life as a second (or third) class citizen, and how this eats away at one's self-esteem. And after one's self-esteem is at the appropriately low level, then what needs to be explained is what it's like to have to go begging for courses each October and March (or August), and also what it's like to live with a drastically fluctuating income level from year to year, or semester to semester. The hard reality of the following statement has to be made clear, painfully, unambiguously clear: "Last semester," Margo, a 32 year-old adjunct faculty at Urban Univ., said, "I made enough money to afford my apartment by myself, buy a new printer, pay off last Winter's gas bill, and pay for my trip to MLA. This semester, I had to give away my cat -- can't afford the food and litter - and I'm looking for a roommate."

Now do you still want to go to grad. school? If yes, well, okay ... you're insane, but okay ...

Posted by: Chris at January 14, 2004 06:10 PM

I'm in a department full of bright, creative grad students who face some difficult job prospects. At a recent gathering we were discussing our experiences applying to grad school, and it turned out that all of us (10+ people) had made the determination that we weren't going to pay a dime, and wouldn't go to any school we didn't get funding at, and would leave (or go on leave) before we'd ever pay tuition. Making humanities/soc sci PhDs pay tuition to get PhDs would lower the calibre and quality of those entering the profession so much as to threaten the future of those professions. It's an absurd proposition.

My experience on a PhD program admissions comittee that was trying to be as selective as possible (cohort of about 10 students targeted, 250+ applications) absolutely confirms passing_through's fears. I tried to fight it, but it was very hard to get the (primarily ivy educations) faculty members on the committee to take seriously the application of students from state schools with directional designations in front of the name of the state. It seems highly likely to me that the factors that determine where you choose to go to college at age 17 say much about your ability to cut it as an academic, but an awful lot of people seem to think they do. Confirmation bias, I suppose.

Posted by: DJW at January 14, 2004 06:17 PM

To be clear, my second paragraph referred to post #20.

Posted by: DJW at January 14, 2004 06:20 PM

Lowering the number of PhD students by raising tuition could lead to long-term shortages in the increasingly critical number of radical intellectuals.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at January 14, 2004 06:21 PM

Making humanities grad students pay tuition seems to me to be a sure-fire ticket to ensuring that the professoriate is made up of individuals from wealthy backgrounds.

After all, you have to pay for med school or law school, but you have decent employment chances once you finish--and the starting salaries in those fields will help to pay off the student loans.

If would-be humanities grad students had to pay tuition on top of living expenses, then only the most financially-advantaged applicants will apply.

This does not seem like a particularly useful way of shaking up an entrenched professoriate, esp. one that is still grappling with a (largely unspoken) class problem.

(I write here from the POV of someone from a one-income family, and said income took 30 years to break $50K. I wouldn't have been able to attend grad school without tuition support.)

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at January 14, 2004 06:39 PM

"Shoving statsitics at idealistic 22 or 25 or 26 year-olds is not going to bring the point into relief."

Why not?
22 or 25 or 26 are approximately the ages people graduate from college and begain to negotiate the job market, evaluating job offers, car loans, apartments to rent, marriage, kids etc. They can or have to evaluate their lives in such other areas, why should grad school be any different/more difficult?

I suppose that most people getting into grad school have a good idea of what awaits them. Grad school applications today are very competitive. Some guy walking off the street and applying for a decent program is unlikely to make it. I am doubtful that they can be THAT clueless about their career paths.

My take is to raise the bar for obtaining the phd while still allowing students a shot at the degree. Its not difficult to design objectives tests and exams that can fail a significant portion of people. Weed out EARLY and treat those that remain well. This way, the best remains while those who dont are not that worst off since they have only spent a year or so trying. They were given their fair shot.

While failing students may seem cruel at first, is denying them even the chance to prove themselves any better? Or making them take up loans to pay for their PhD? The goal is equality. A person's "pedigree", comming from the "right" undergraduate programs shouldnt be the determining factor. A person's personal wealth shouldnt be a determining factor. By admiting students and subjecting them to the same criteria and grad training before weeding them out objectively is fair to all parties. Failing people is not cruel. Failing to give them a decent chance is.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 14, 2004 07:37 PM

"In this state at least (CA), schools offering vocational degrees are required to have a 75% placement rate _in-field_ after graduation to receive accreditation... Meanwhile, degrees that are not directly aimed at a particular vocation (most 'liberal arts' degrees, including the humanities) do not fall under this requirement.

So a question might be, should they?"

Rana, that's a great question.

For an undergraduate liberal arts degree, I would say no. I think a strong case can be made for the value of a general liberal arts education not as vocational preparation for a specific career but as broad background for any number of pursuits.

But a postgraduate degree is supposed to be preparing candidates for a specific career. I would like to see some sort of link between accreditation and attrition rates and placement rates. Or at least between departmental rankings and attrition rates and placement rates.

It's not unreasonable to expect any specialized program (including a humanities graduate program) to provide accurate information on how many of its aspiring entrants actually end up pursuing the specific career in question. So I think pressure should be exerted on grad programs to publish complete and accurate statistics on attrition and placement. But who is in a position to exert that kind of pressure?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at January 14, 2004 08:38 PM

But who is in a position to exert that kind of pressure?

Brian Leiter has had some success in persuading philosophy departments to post placement rates. I suspect that we need not one who but a whole bunch of whos--reasonably eminent whos--in different fields. (That sounds vaguely Seussian.) Where's Cary Nelson?

Posted by: Miriam at January 15, 2004 01:14 AM

PhD programs in the humanities are basically free? Maybe if you're lucky (or smart enough to insist on going somewhere that pays for it all). No, I sure didn't have to pay tuition, thanks to that teaching assistantship. But I did have to pay fees, and I did have to take out significant student loans, as it's rather difficult to survive on $6000 ($12,000 when my assistantship was 2/2) a year. And I don't think that situation is unusual. Granted, it's not med or law school--but it ain't really an attractive financial picture, either, especially when it's stretched out for 7 years or so. (Unless you're the university, of course.)

Of course, having to pay tuition probably wouldn't have stopped me from going to grad school, as I was an in-state resident at a state school at the time and my tuition would have been fairly low. But it sure as heck may have kept me from applying to, say, Harvard. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing.

Posted by: anonymous me at January 15, 2004 11:06 AM

I am not certain what the problem is with grad school atrition. As it is the market is way too clogged. Should we ensure that even more people get PhDs that may never bear fruit in the way the recipients hoped -- the tenure track job -- rather than weed as the process carries itself out? And don't people drop out for an array of reasons -- they aren't good enough, they don't work hard enough, they don't care, they hate it, they have other options, their spouse becomes a factor, etc.? In other words -- yoiu may never know who's going to make it and who is not. Ours is a competitive arena. Some people, for whetevr reason, aren't going to get through. Why the hand wringing? Or, to quote Bugs Bunny, "What's the hubbub, bub?"

Posted by: dcatsam at January 15, 2004 12:10 PM

The "hubbub bub," at least as far as I understand it, is that attrition rates may be an indicator of something many have suspected but been unable to adequately prove; namely, that many departments in the humanties over-stock their grad. programs for a variety of questionable if not altogether unethical purposes.

The emphasis on capability, or a variety of intervening factors -- family, etc -- to explain these attrition rates is misplaced. These kinds of explanations are the stock and trade of dept. chairs, grad. program directors, and adminsitrators who are often falling over themselves to say 'problem, there's no problem here, this is just the normal ebb and flow of things, all in keeping with established statistical variablities'. The point that seems to be ellided in this thread is that the majority of dept. chairs, tenured faculty, and adminstrators still refuse to acknowledge that there is a labor crisis in academe, or that grad. programs are nurturing grad. students through their programs toward a certain and unfortunate waste land of non-employment. These attrition rates suggest otherwise.

One disappointing aspect of the original article that IA referenced is that the author quoted only one lapsed student, at the end of the article, who left because of the uncertain employment opportunities at the end of her journey.

Posted by: Chris at January 15, 2004 01:26 PM

Sure, but are you saying that of those who leave grad school, none of the factors I mention are at issue? If so, you went to the Nirvana of grad schools. because I can come up with multiple examples of people who couldn't cut it, people who simply hated it once they got there, and people who left for an array of personal and professional reasons. Sure, programs accept too many people to grad school, especially in the humanities, and the motives for that may not be all that charitable. But they also are accepting from a pool of, to my knowledge, willing applicants. Of course there is a labor crisis. At the same time, I firmly believe that the best equipped PhDs have some background teaching their own classes and not simply ta'ing. The biggest problem with the labor crisis is the loathsome habit of filling up departments with part time and adjunct faculty. But expecting SOME teaching from PhD students who plan to go into universities, and, you know, teach, is probably not only the right thing, but to do otherwise would be irresponsible not only for the grad student, but for their future students.
Beyond that, which students would you keep out? Given the attrition rates, clearly the admission process is not a great predictor of success, unless someone can tell me with certainty thaqt the attrition rates happen to coincide with the bottom half or so of every year's applicant pool at every institution. Assuming that attrition rates are a problem, you've identified it. Now what is the solution? To whom are you proposing we write the rejection letters? Or are you advocating giving more PhDs in this market? (And if you were at AHA this weekend, I know you aren't proposing that . . .)

Posted by: dcatsam at January 15, 2004 02:41 PM

"Beyond that, which students would you keep out?"

Quite frankly, all of them, but then I am an extremist.

Posted by: Chris at January 15, 2004 04:02 PM

As a much-maligned (here) 22 year old applicant to a PhD program, I can tell you how I decided to deal with these issues--in full knowledge of academic labor exploitation.
1. I applied only to the very top programs in my field, and I will go only if they give me full tuition and a stipend. This way the deck is _relatively_ stacked in my favor if/when I finish the program. I also hope to avoid crushing debt.
2. I'm working right now at a job I love. I will probably be continuing (very) part-time with this job even once I leave, providing supplemental income and maintaining my contacts in the extra-academic world, should I choose to leave.
3. I've also applied to law school, and I'm considering a joint degree program.

Why all these checks/backups on my application to graduate school? Because of things I've read like this blog and this comment thread. I love my field, and I want to do research and teach in it, but I can't rely on faculty (or anyone, really) to make sure that the profession is a viable one for me. So, I don't count on staying in the profession, and I make backup plans.

I don't think that choosing to go to graduate school is totally crazy. I just think one needs to have some kind of backup plan with which you would be happy _already in place_ before going.

Posted by: m at January 15, 2004 04:19 PM

As someone who finished her degree in the humanities, in record time, at an Ivy League school, with an award-winning dissertation, and has had no job offers: honey, you keep that law degree close to hand.

I have to admit that unlike the perspicacious 22 year old above (#58), I did not realize the difficulties of the job market when I entered my allegedly fully funded program (which led directly to bankruptcy, do not pass go, do not collect $200). Idealistically, I just wanted to pursue research and learning in my subject. Unlike the econ profs, no professor who wrote recommendations for my grad school application discussed any difficulties with me or mentioned the job market as an issue. Naively, I grant you, I assumed that if I did the work well my shining reward would come -- nothing fancy, just a job at a four-year liberal arts college, that was my wish.

And what do I wish now? Frankly -- and due solely to the job market -- that I had quit five years ago. Attrition ahoy!

Posted by: humanities cynic at January 15, 2004 06:38 PM

Aren't there already too many lawyers out there?

Posted by: DM at January 15, 2004 07:37 PM

Ph.D. \2/ is how my daughter addresses envelopes to me. That is, I have one, and after 10 years experience with that, am rounding it out with another for which I am an ABD.

What I have learned, and would like to contribute, is that in my first Ph.D. program, in a social science field, I had the opportunity to observe faculty before forming a committee, and chose as my Dissertation Chair a man who was proud of the number of PhD dissertations he had chaired, and had an enviable record of bringing students to completion of the degree. Few of his colleagues seemed interested in a similar record; of course there's a qualitative issue involved, but he certainly did not mind if I did an excellent thesis. The signal seemed to be where he decided to hold the oral defense of the dissertation. The closer to the office of the department chair, the better the dissertation.

In the humanities area in which I am now pursuing the elusive Ph.D., two of my three committee members are in another country. Of the three people at this research university who might have chaired my committee, I picked the one with the best record at chairing women's dissertations. Then he had to pick me; yet we were familiar with each other before I entered graduate school, which helped.

I was the first Ph.D. in the social science department to be a divorced single mother, and still make it through. In the second humanities experience, I am a person with disabilities. That has not prevented me from winning two competitive fellowships for external study. The combination of disabilities and debt is a problem; I look around at my own university and do not see anyone who is disabled on the faculty. Combined with the poor job picture, and some discouraging interviews despite existing publications, I have to expect not to get employment in my field.

The biggest question is what do I owe to those who have expended so much time and effort in my training. Should that effort have been expended in proportion to my future employability, in proportion to my number of publications and presentations as a grad student, in proportion to my contribution as a critical thinker in the Department's Colloquium, in proportion to my ability to inspire students to become majors in my field, or even in proportion to my ability to serve as a role model? Completing the dissertation, rather than going AWOL, is at least a way to put one's gratitude for teachers into words.

I think, though, that there are adaptive behaviors that successful graduate students follow, policies that isolate critical factors and try to control them. This doesn't happen all at once; the discussion so far has isolated one of them that the evidence indicates is important. That variable is physical presence in the department in which one studies. Immediately one thinks of students in interdisciplinary programs, who have no departmental home. Many departments have no offices for graduate students; my first department, a social science, did not have any space at all for students, most of whom were commuters. That actually suited my lifestyle at the time, but did not speed me through.

The second department (humanities) has been at two locations: the first with two spaces for graduate students, a lounge and a computer lab; and the second with lounge, computer lab, and three grad student offices, which are gradually getting annexed. There is a lot of sharing going on: the spiffy lounge is shared with another department and both departments' faculties; the computer lab is shared with three departments. The offices are shared by schedule, and by catch-as-catch can.

This is a detailed preamble to the point that on fellowship I met a grad student at another research university who said it took him a year to realize that he had to be physically present in the department. He wound up cleaning out a closet in the department. Unless a graduate student does something to be visible and present, there is an immense risk of being misperceived by the department as a whole (or subsection), and it is not only the relationship with a chair that determines whether one can survive graduate school without attriting, but the collective weight of the department as well.

The poor job prospects encourage dilatory behavior, or attrition, as well. Why not watch West Wing, where Aaron Sorkin's scripts mimicked graduate school interactions in some ideal sense, and not bother with solving the next dissertation problem. Who cares?

With no interaction with other educators--fellow TAs and collegial professors--what does it matter that one slacks off? I will remember from this colloquy the comment that "You have to have the wolf inside you." Somedays I do, somedays I don't.

Yes, there will be ways to make my scholarship known, whatever I do. Is that worth missing West Wing?

Posted by: Ph.D. squared at January 15, 2004 09:00 PM

I finished in less than the required time it usually takes partly because funding was not guaranteed after the fourth year. But, I needed to justify (if only to myself) the 15,000 additional debt (even with a stipend and tuition waiver, I had to take out loans) I'd accumulated.

Posted by: A at January 15, 2004 09:28 PM

Only $15,000? I wish I were in your shoes. After 6 1/2 years in grad school, I accumulated a whopping $55,000 of student loan debt, which I have managed to whittle down to around $43,000 less than 2 years out of grad school. Not a bad start you say? Well, I still have a long way to go to pay it off. And for what? A $38,000/year job I kinda like in a part of the country I don't want to live in. I'm saying this to myself more and more each day--"I wish I had gone to law school."

Posted by: cwd at January 15, 2004 10:23 PM

PhD^2 raised a number of issues in number 61, but this is the most interesting one, I think:

The biggest question is what do I owe to those who have expended so much time and effort in my training. Should that effort have been expended in proportion to my future employability, in proportion to my number of publications and presentations as a grad student, in proportion to my contribution as a critical thinker in the Department's Colloquium, in proportion to my ability to inspire students to become majors in my field, or even in proportion to my ability to serve as a role model? Completing the dissertation, rather than going AWOL, is at least a way to put one's gratitude for teachers into words.

I was my advisor's first student. She had had tenure for several years and had never taken a student, despite the fact that she was a rising star in her area. The quarter that she agreed to take me on, she also turned down at least two other students that I know about, as well as several more before that. A few months later, I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she had chosen me out of all her suitors. She replied, "I wanted my first student to be someone I knew would finish."

Wow. Talk about pressure. I have to say that there were points during my dissertation work where this perceived obligation to her was the only thing keeping me going, so I suppose that it was a good thing.

But to answer the question of what you owe your advisor(s) in terms of perseverance, the answer is nothing. Advising students and doing it well is their vocation. It is what they chose to do and what they are paid to do. They are not doing a favor by spending time and effort on you, but merely doing what they are supposed to do. The fact that your professors are not shirking their responsibilities reflects well on them, but you don't owe them your life in repayment.

Posted by: jay at January 16, 2004 12:12 AM

My (Research I / Humanities) department completed a five-year review of PhD graduates' ability to find tenure-track jobs. The number was a bit under 50%. It is a number which prospective students might find enlightening -- that is, if they had access to it. As currently stands, the data via the department's website are restricted by password.

Posted by: PerhapsWithTime at January 16, 2004 10:26 AM

Questions for everybody (maybe IA will do a poll?) that I see coming from all this discussion.

  • If you had to do it again, would you?
  • How much time did you spend interacting with other students in your sub-field? Department? graduate school?
  • How much time did you spend interacting with faculty on your committee? in your department?
  • Did the department secretaries know you well?
  • Did your department faculty promote non-classroom interaction between faculty and students? (paper seminars, students as dinner guests, etc)
  • How much did you teach for extra, rather than required, funding, when a student?

I ask these questions again because I finished mostly because I felt obligated and had by that time moved on to a well-paying sales and marketing job. I'd pretty much given up all hope of actually using my PhD; however, when I had the chance to get back into teaching, I jumped at it. I've been employed almost full-time ever since (in the yucky adjunct way) and am now on a one-year contract, looking for tenure-track jobs.

Despite finishing in record time (the wrong way -- we're talking "I thought you dropped out, you've been gone so long" time), I managed to only rack up $9k in grad school loans. Of course, part of this is due to the fact that I worked as a waitress on top of my fellowship and adjunct teaching. Despite knowing people who left mid-program, I don't know of one who was let down by the department -- although some of them don't see it that way. For me, at least, the most important motivating factor after finishing courses was contact with people in the department or at least in grad school. Daily contact meant peer pressure, but also support. When I moved to Europe, the same was true -- thank goodness that chat via telnet was available then -- the advent of net browsers made it even better. Sorry to ramble, but really, of the people I know of who disappeared rather than left for specific reasons (hated grad school, family pressure, etc.), none made the slightest attempt to stay in touch with anyone, except perhaps a couple of students to whom they often complained bitterly about how they felt unsupported. It's hard to get support unless you at least put in minimal efforts of courteous communication and let people know who you are. I doubt my advisor, even though he was a mover and shaker in the department, could have got me the extensions he did, had I not established relationships with even the dreaded Americanists, and had I not been in contact regularly with some kind of snail's pace progress reports.

The thing I appreciate most? Even when faculty in my department clearly thought I was doing the 'wrong' thing (getting married, getting child, moving across the country ...), I was always treated as an adult and told that I should make the decisions that would make me a whole and happy person. I guess from reading the other posts that this is rare, and that's sad, but I cannot believe that this is purely an institutional problem.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at January 16, 2004 01:24 PM

PhD Squared made a good point. She has been well-funded and feels that she owes something to those who made it possible. I agree. I am in my tenth year of my program and for nine years I was funded, six of them fully. I want to finish for personal reasons but I also feel I owe the professors who helped me get this funding.

In my program there are people who started with no funding and got some funding after one year or were never fully funded, and they finished the PhD, but in debt, and went on to become professors. And then there are people who got obscenely large amounts of funding because they were brilliant but left while ABD to pursue something entirely different. That seems unfair to me. I think there will always be attrition, but I think funding perhaps should be contingent on producing something, not an advance payment that one can take and not produce anything at all in the end. Or perhaps those who get funding and don't finish should be required to pay it back? In a job, you get paid after you do the work, not before. So why shouldn't fellowships be the same way? As it is, I don't think the money is being distributed fairly.

Posted by: nunu at January 17, 2004 12:52 AM

In #64 Jay mentioned something that surprised me, although it's a bit of a tangent (as usual for me).

When I was visiting an ambitious research department, I was told by the chair that I should produce my first PhD 3 years after I arrived (by picking up some student who'd been idling around without a committed advisor) and continue to produce 1 per year after that. The other (small, low key) research school I visited didn't have explicit quotas, and weren't as over-the-top, but there was still the expectation that I'd have a PhD student finish every 2-3 years. One of the stronger critiques we students make of my advisor is that in 10 years he's only had one PhD student actually finish. The department has about 4 PhD students (past the master's) per faculty member, although they aren't evenly distributed across the faculty.

What's the rate over in the humanities? How could anybody be regarded as an "up-and-comer" and yet take no students?

Posted by: ABD Instructor at January 19, 2004 10:00 PM

In response to #26 - 2/3 of econ grad students are foreign. If you "drop out" you must return to your home country. Only the best from those countries are probably going to make it to the US anyway. It also reduces the postgrad competition for jobs in the US. I got my PhD in geography in 4 years with the last year on a postdoc back in the UK. This wasn't unusual at my US school. 4-5 years was typical. I had 2 years funding from the university and one year from a foundation and then had to get a job (and in the US it would have to be an academic job).

Now at my current university the maximum support from the university is 2 years after which the student must be assigned to a grant or get a fellowship themselves from an outside funder. They are also charging full tuitition for every year of a PhD.

On the general topic, I don't see a problem of students leaving after a year or two if they find that they had better do something different. But we have cases of people writing dissertations who are far from the required standard and never completing because noone ever told them they weren't any good and they don't seem to have realized it themselves...

After reading all this stuff in the last few months, here and in the Chronicle I am thinking hard about the next round of graduate applicants and what we should look for.

My chair wants to make me director of the graduate program - I'm kind of ignoring him at the moment - I'm up for tenure decision in 1 1/2 years....

Posted by: David at January 20, 2004 02:55 PM

in post #50, Passing through writes:

“I suppose that most people getting into grad school have a good idea of what awaits them. Grad school applications today are very competitive. Some guy walking off the street and applying for a decent program is unlikely to make it. I am doubtful that they can be THAT clueless about their career paths.”

I’m not sure about today but let me explain how clueless about grad school I was in 1998 when I entered my PhD program. When I was accepted and inquiring about the program’s support and placement rate, I received no information on attrition. However, they provided this information about the job market:

1) That 67% of their PhD’s got tenure-track jobs and that the others went into non-academic fields or had postdocs.

2) They provided a list of all the graduates who got academic jobs and these people were generally in very good places—Harvard, Northwestern, Michigan, etc.

Here’s what this information left out that I, at 26, didn't know until I started really examining the job market around my 3rd year of grad school:

1) That of those who got tenure track jobs, a large portion of them took 3, and in a couple instances, 5 years to get them.

2) That there’s a huge difference between a “professor”, a “visiting professor” or an “instructor.” So, in 1998, when I saw someone from that placement list working at Harvard or Northwestern as a “visiting professor” or “instructor” I thought, wow that’s really good. I didn’t know until *after* entering grad school that those are titles for contract/adjunct workers who make less money than most grad students and have less job security.

Finally let me list a few other things, related soley to the dissertation--perhaps the most significant aspect of a PhD program--that someone who hasn't written one can't anticipate:
1) That you can be the most responsible, dependable person in the world, but if your chair is not, you won’t finish your dissertation quickly.
2) That your department can promise you 6 years of funding but if the school cuts its budget during that period you loose that funding, and you won’t finish your dissertation quickly.
3) That teaching composition involves grading papers, which adds about 30 minutes of labor time to your week for each student, also meaning you won’t finish your dissertation quickly.
Not all of these have affected me, but they certainly affect many smart people who did as much research as they could before entering a graduate program. So much of what makes grad school difficult involves qualitative dynamics that attrition and/or placement data can't capture and which high entrance standards can’t alleviate.

Posted by: DMW at January 22, 2004 11:12 AM

Well DMW
"Here’s what this information left out that I, at 26, didn't know until I started really examining the job market around my 3rd year of grad school:"

So how did you find out? Was it in some uber-secret grad class that undergraduates/first year grad students are unaware of? :-)

I fully agree that there are lots of unknowns/problems that are difficult to understand without experience. As you mentioned above, difficult chairs, advisors, budget cuts are major roadblocks. These are INSTITUTION specific. Nobody can predict these in advance.
However, job prospects, salary, etc are INDUSTRY specific. One doesnt have to be in any one particular college to obtain this information. These information isnt any easier or harder to come by whether one is in their first year of grad school, senior year of college or ABD. Perhaps there is more urgency say an ABD compared to a first year student, but this has nothing to do with unversities.

Many have argued around here for more open disclosure by the various programs. One can of course fault programs that misrepresent their attrition rate or funding propects. These are the kinds of information that programs SHOULD provide as accurately as possible.
However, is blaming programs for not informing students the dismal job propects or low salary really fair? If one doesnt do their due dilligence regarding their future industry who is to blame? Dont students have to shoulder part of the resposibility for their actions?

Posted by: Passing_through at January 22, 2004 01:20 PM

Out of curiosity, and boredom, I just googled "careers in academia" and, interestingly, came up very empty as far as any clear, unambiguous declaration of the current state of affairs in academic employment. The most salient fact, repeated several times on several different sites, is that careers in academia are "very competitive."

Passing_Through, I think you are missing the point. Unless one is already a bit in the know (which most graduating undergrads decidedly are not) it is in fact quite difficult to get accurate, clear, unshaded info on the issue. It's not like the jounral "Workplace" is situated front and center on most college and university shelves. Hell, most of my colleagues don't even know of its existence (I asked).

I've been criticized for saying this before, and I'm still not sure why, but nevertheless, I will say it again: college and university seniors, especially those who have done well enough to even consider grad. school, can be and usually are a very impressionable group. (and I do not mean this to be a veield derrogatory or demeaning claim)

Posted by: Chris at January 22, 2004 04:57 PM

Well Chris
Out of curiosity and boredom I googled "history phd salary". Guess what is the first result? "AHA Information: Statistical Data about the History Profession" No prizes for what they detail.
Now how about "salary MLA english"? The first page returns "The 1999 MLA Survey of Staffing in English and Foreign Language ..."
How about this for a change "humanities prospects phd career". The first link returns "04.07.99 - Whither the Humanities PhD?".

I am not even in the humanities business, neither am I trying very hard either. This isnt like attrition rates or funding opportunites which indeed are difficult to obtain (accurate ones not anadotal) and schools should be more open. I am sure people who go through the process of applying to grad school (taking the tests, writng the SOPs,etc) are more than capable of digging out this information than I am. Leads me to suspect that majority of people who entered these programs chose with their hearts, not their heads.

Even assuming for a moment that for some reason potential applicants dont google or didnt think about checking furthur. Almost any undergrad can point out which departments have more resources, which departments have less. Is anyone shocked that the business school usually have nicer stuff than the history department? At any career fair, are undergrads unaware which majors have more jobs and which majors have less? Shouldnt this even suggest that potential phds should be snopping around a little?

There is nothing wrong with choosing with your heart, doing what you love, follow your heart, etc. So long as you are willing to accept the consequences.

Posted by: at January 22, 2004 07:04 PM

Opps post #73 is mine. ;)

Posted by: Passing_through at January 22, 2004 07:05 PM

Thanks Passing-through, I did want to explain why I didn't wake up to market realities until my 3rd year:) It's because even while questioning the prospects of getting a job, professors I spoke to generally urged me (and others) not to worry about it yet, just focus on coursework and the dissertation when you get to it. That advice is myopic; whether it came from a good desire to alleviate fear or a bad desire to cloud over the issues is something I'll leave to my last sentence. The 3rd year is when I saw older grad student friends of mine get shafted during their first year on the market, and yup, that's when I realized how bad things were.

I think the major point is not that young people have no responsibility to obtain as much information about grad school and what happens after as they can; only that this information has to be properly disseminated before it can be accessed at all. And this is precisely where the responsibility of departmental professors kicks in (well, should kick in--see above comment about myopia).

It's a really tough issue. As someone else mentioned, how can individuals be held responsible for large-scale, systematic problems?

Posted by: DMW at January 22, 2004 10:49 PM

Consider yourselves all lucky that Grad school is the least of your worries. I had to drop out of college to support my Autistic son and I envy you all for having the choises that you all have. I love my son, but having a child with a disability was not a choise, I am 40 and can barely manage to get my Bachelors degree much less Graduate school, this is something that will never be in my future and I wish you all much luck.

Posted by: at January 26, 2004 07:50 AM

i'm in my 6th year of a humanities program that takes most people 7 or more years to get through. i've seriously considered leaving off and on for the last couple of years. i don't know why other people drop out, but here's why i've considered it:

when i came, i knew about the "competitive" job market, but felt optimistic about my chances. after a few years in school, seeing the academic world up close, i became less and less sure that i had a shot of doing anything beside endless adjunct work.

since i came to this program, there has been a 50% turnover in faculty. the people i came to work with are no longer here. my current advisor is unreliable. one of my committee members suddenly became hostile to me and i am not sure who i can replace this person with. i have been encouraged to do the work i wanted to do in my program, but have recently begun to fear that my topic will not make me employable.

i support myself by teaching freshman composition, and have started to burn out. i don't have time enough or money enough, or support from my advisor enough, to really make progress on my work.

i knew when i decided to go to grad school that i would have to go where the jobs are. but i'm 6 years older now, and my priorities have shifted. i don't want to follow jobs to places i don't want to live, away from friends and family. i'm in a committed relationship with someone who isn't "portable".

these are my reasons- not reasons easy to quantify.

Posted by: possible drop out at January 29, 2004 05:04 PM

As people of my generation came of age, academia appeared all milk and honey. It represented an alluring alternative to the excess materialism of the '80s. People seemed to believe in a simple logic that we would have opportunities at least as good as those experienced by our undergrad professors (perhaps part of that old - general - myth that new generations would always be better off than their forebears). No one told us about the wretched Ponzi scheme that was really afoot (and only just beginning to develop some real steam). Everyone, on the other hand, kept blabbing about the flood of opportunities that would deluge us in the '90s as Sputnik-era professors retired. (And who knows, maybe some opportunities did arise, but they were certainly not of the comfortable armchair [all the better for taking cigar breaks between classes], hardwood-floor, ivy-wall, "settled" type.)

Something is terribly wrong with this picture. How much longer is the present generation going to put up with the goalposts constantly being moved? The only think I can say is that the more you buy into today's horrendously flawed system, the more you feed it. Perhaps if enough people voted with their feet and refused to put up with this nonsense (on the basis of the types of informed decisions that can be made from looking at websites such as this, among other useful materials) then the slight chance would exist that the system would start being more open to meaningful change and the odds would no longer be in favor of the house. (Though this would clearly involve some sacrifice on the part of today's generation for the benefit of future generations, what prospects in fact exist for today's generation anyway?)

Indeed, perhaps one (hugely) positive thing is represented by the explosive growth of the internet and the deluge of information that implies. Now grad school 'specs no longer have to rely on the highly filtered (and even biased) opinions and overviews of people (information "gatekeepers", actually) who benefitted from the system in a bygone "golden age" and have little empathy for what the modern 'spec must now face. That the exchange of information about grad school conditions has become so much more democratic and accessible is a huge advantage to those who as little as 10-15 years ago might well have otherwise been kept in the dark about the shuddering realities of grad school (and the "opportunities" it would lead to) that we all now know about.

Since we're about at the 20th anniversary of the broadcast of Apple's powerful "1984" Super Bowl ad, think about the level of democratization and empowerment implied there. That's the (indeed, revolutionary) direction in which the calcified, byzantine system of academia needs to head.

Posted by: Spektator at January 30, 2004 09:47 AM

If you are reading this message and are considering a doctoral program in the humanities, I have three words of advice for you: don't do it!

Three excellent reasons:

1. In most humanities disciplines, you will be competing against 100-250 applicants for every entry-level position. That is not a job market, it is a lottery.

2. If you are fortunate enough to win the lottery and get a job, you will most likely have no control over where in the United States you live.

3. If you are fortunate enough to win the lottery and love the area where you live, you will likely earn no more than $45,000 a year in today's dollars during your first seven years on the job--after you spent between six and nine years earning your degree subsisting on poverty wages.

In my experience, most applicants to humanities graduate programs are aware of reason 1, but they do not consider reasons 2 and 3. Unfortunately, reasons 2 and 3 are much more important as you get older.

Don't get on a train that is headed nowhere!

Posted by: Red Baron at February 3, 2004 08:04 PM