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Chronicle of Higher Education
January 16, 2004

Doctor Dropout
High attrition from Ph.D. programs is sucking away time, talent, and money
and breaking some hearts, too

On the first day of graduate school, everyone is still a success. All of the students gunning for Ph.D.'s have lived an academic life of achievement: honor roll, summa cum laude, certificates, scholarships, and
parents who praise their intellectual prowess. Yet as many as half of those bright students -- many of whom have never tasted failure -- will drop out before they can claim their prize.

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 clichs about cream rising and sink-or-swim environments. The good students get through, they say.

Nearly everyone involved, from graduate deans to professors, acknowledges that Ph.D. programs will never have the completion rates of shorter, more clearly defined programs like law and business schools. Some dropouts are to be expected, since getting a Ph.D. can often take six or seven years,
and some of that attrition is healthy, administrators and professors say. But 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, should we accept a system in which half of the students don't make it?

"If actual attrition is really around 50 percent, then this is a scandal," says Michael S. Teitelbaum, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "It's a serious waste of resources and a terrible waste of time and energy on the part of students."

Some researchers have tracked attrition for years. Their studies don't suggest a rise or a fall in the dropout rate. What is changing is university administrators' willingness to do something about the problem. At the recent annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, in San Francisco, one of the most talked-about sessions focused on attrition.

Lewis Siegel, chairman of the council and dean of the Graduate School at Duke University, calls it "the central issue in doctoral education in the United States today." Debra Stewart, the council's president, calls it a "wedge issue." Start dealing with why people are leaving graduate school, she says, and you'll fix a whole bunch of problems.

The timing seems right as well. Ms. Stewart says that the council has been overwhelmed by requests for its new booklet examining the research that has been done on the issue. Just after the meeting, the council announced that Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company, was donating $2-million for 10 pilot projects to study and develop ways to stem attrition.

Why It Matters

Lots of people can't cut it in graduate school, runs the common wisdom. That's the nature of the beast. In his presentation at the San Francisco meeting, Peter Diffley, an associate dean of the Graduate School at the University of Notre Dame, posed the essential question: "Why care? Doesn't it just cull the bottom part of class? Won't solving the attrition problem just worsen the placement problem?"

After studying 10 years of data in four representative departments at Notre Dame, Mr. Diffley found that those simple explanations don't hold water. His research suggests that there is little to no academic difference between the people who complete their degrees and those who drop out -- at least as measured by their Graduate Record Examination scores and undergraduate grades. So, ultimately, the high attrition is a waste of time and talent.

He also calculated that Notre Dame would save $1-million a year in stipends alone if attrition went down by 10 percent, because programs would not over-enroll students to compensate for attrition. "We don't mind spending if there's a product at the end," he says.

Graduate-school administrators also argue that decreasing the number of doctoral dropouts is the fastest way to graduate more American and minority Ph.D.'s. Many of the deans at the San Francisco meeting were worried about what they called a shrinking "domestic talent pool." In the past five years, the number of Americans earning doctorates has fallen by more than 8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of foreign students on temporary visas earning doctorates has risen by more than 5 percent.

The most important reason to care about attrition, most researchers agree, is the effect it has on students' lives. "This is tremendously painful," says Barbara E. Lovitts, who left two doctoral programs before finishing a third one, in sociology, at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1996.

Now a research scientist at Maryland, she is the author of Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure From Doctoral Study (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). She saw several people who had not completed their degrees cry during interviews about their grad-school experiences and the effect it had on their lives -- no matter what their reasons for leaving.

"There is a tremendous opportunity cost," Ms. Lovitts says. "These are people who have never failed before in their lives. They were summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. And for the first time in their lives they've experienced failure. It takes people a lot of years to get over it."

What We Do Know

Even though no comprehensive national studies have been done on attrition from Ph.D. programs, researchers still know a lot about the problem. Many institution-specific studies in recent decades bear out the same trends: Women drop out at a higher rate than men. Minority students leave at a higher rate than white students do. Americans drop out more often than international students. And students leave humanities and social-science programs at a higher rate than those in the sciences.

Researchers and deans concerned about attrition say the first step in reducing it is to gather and publish data on the issue. Admittedly, those would be slippery statistics. How do you decide who counts as a doctoral student? What about students who entered Ph.D. programs but left with master's degrees? And when do you count them as gone? What if they just took a leave for a year and expect to return?

Chris M. Golde, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who is one of the nation's foremost researchers on graduate-school attrition, tells departments "not to get hung up on the technical part." Just come up with a definition that can be easily explained, and a way to gather the data. Then keep putting those data in front of people and ask them to confront the problem.

Many departments, deans agree, don't realize the size of the problem until they see the statistics.

Prospective students often have to hunt around to find information about completion rates or attrition. If they knew that a program had a low completion rate, perhaps that would change their decision to apply. But at some graduate schools, such information simply isn't available.

Institutions that make it easily accessible are in the minority. At the University of California at San Diego, a comprehensive table of completion statistics is included in the graduate school's annual report, easily found on the Web. Duke University's Graduate School includes links to a wealth of admissions, enrollment, and completion data for prospective students on its Web site. There you can learn very specific information about individual departments -- for instance, that the Ph.D. program in literature bucks the national trend. Of the 27 students who started from 1992 through 1995, 17 earned their degrees, and only 6 have withdrawn.

The Selection Factor

While some students certainly leave Ph.D. programs because they can't do the work, deans say the problem is not usually students' struggling to measure up. A larger portion of the dropout total can be attributed to grad schools' having made bad admissions selections. That doesn't mean the students aren't bright enough. Deans and researchers talk, instead, about that hard-to-define "bad fit."

Even students who make it through the rigorous selection process to win National Science Foundation graduate-research fellowships finish their Ph.D.'s at a rate of only about 75 percent. That's just a bit higher than other doctoral students in the sciences.

At Duke, Mr. Siegel, the dean, has taken to asking department chairmen what proportion of their conversations with prospective graduate students is "about informing students rather than selling your program."

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Richard Wheeler, dean of the Graduate College, says avoiding bad matches is tough in a highly competitive environment. "The higher you crank up the screws on recruiting, the more likely you are to bring in students that don't fit with your program," he says.

Ms. Golde, of the Carnegie foundation, suggests looking at how science departments, which have higher completion rates than humanities departments, generally select students.

"One reason the sciences have lower attrition rates is that you are admitted to be in the Joe Schmoe lab," she says. You and Professor Schmoe "have spent some time getting to know each other and vet each other." That's quite different, she says, from a student who plans to study international labor economics but, after doing years of course work, realizes that there is no one in the department for him to work with. "Why did you admit me?" the student asks. "Why did you come?" the department counters.

"It's like a bad dating situation," says Ms. Golde. "No one is taking responsibility for the match. Instead everyone needs to take responsibility for the match."

The Money Factor

You don't need a Ph.D. to figure out that struggling to rub two dimes together for the seven years it takes to get a doctorate makes getting the degree harder. Money does matter. But maybe not in predictable ways.

Holding a research assistantship improves a student's chances of completion. Teaching assistantships help too, although to a lesser degree. Maryland's Ms. Lovitts, who studied attrition at two research universities, says money alone isn't enough. Students on fellowships, for instance, do not complete their degrees at a higher-than-average rate.

Assistantships really help, she says, because they increase the likelihood that graduate students will interact with other graduate students and with faculty members. "You have to come up on campus and engage in the professional task of the department," she says. "You have to interact with faculty. You get to interact with undergraduates. You're far more likely to get a desk with other graduate students, which puts you in contact with the graduate-student subculture."

Ms. Golde emphasizes that this is another way that the sciences are structured differently from the humanities. In a science department, students are in the lab from the start, working next to undergraduates, researchers, and professors. In English, on the other hand, the first couple of years of graduate school are taken up mostly with classes. "It's just like being a supercharged English undergraduate," she says. "It's not anything like being an English professor."

About 10 years ago, Washington University in St. Louis made a policy shift that administrators credit with substantially raising completion rates. The size of the graduate school was changed to match the number of assistantships that departments could support. That meant a reduction in overall enrollment, but also that every student was now assured of a fellowship or teaching assistantship for six years.

The move has cut attrition, says Robert E. Thach, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The average completion rate is now 70 percent, and he hopes to keep pushing it higher. In some disciplines the change has been sharp. A decade ago, the completion rate was 34 percent in the humanities. Now it's 68 percent.

Attrition "destroys people's confidence in themselves when they perceive themselves as failures, when the problem should be laid at other doors," says Mr. Thach. "We don't want to be in the business of disappointing people."

No Prospects

For Ms. Lovitts, tackling the problem of attrition means that everyone involved -- from deans to department chairs to faculty advisers -- must take more responsibility for what happens to their graduate students. "My personal feeling is that when a university admits a graduate student to a
program, they have an implicit contract to get them through," she says. "But a lot fall down on that score."

Yet the pot of gold at the end of the Ph.D. rainbow may not be there for every candidate. For many of them, despite their love of the subject and their dreams of reveling in the life of the mind, the most logical decision may be to leave.

After a year in a Ph.D. program in history at City University of New York, Nicole Kalian left to take a job as a publicist with a book publisher. Hers was the sort of early attrition that almost everyone agrees is the best kind.

"I didn't see any prospects for when I graduated," says Ms. Kalian, who was shocked to read an article about new Ph.D.'s who couldn't find jobs as adjuncts on enough campuses to earn at least $25,000 a year. "It was frightening, and I could never really shake that thought from my head."

Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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