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Nearly half of doctorates never completed

A new study published today finds that attrition in U.S. doctoral programs is as high as 40 to 50 percent.

That statistic jumps out from the report, "The Path Forward," a joint project of the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service. It was authored by a group called the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education.

Attrition runs high in Ph.D. programs despite "rigorous selection processes" in graduate schools and "high achievement levels" among those seeking degrees, the report found. Attrition is highest in the humanities: 12 percent of doctoral candidates complete their degrees within five years, and 49 percent within 10.

Completion rates are higher in math and physical sciences (55 percent of candidates complete their studies within 10 years), social sciences (56 percent), life sciences (63 percent) and engineering (64 percent).

Why do so many students fail to complete their degrees? The study cites changes in family status, employment, military commitments, dissatisfaction with the program and "needing to work" as factors driving attrition.

The study also notes that the "expected career path" for doctoral recipients is "less straightforward" than for students who attain master's degrees, which tend to be "geared toward the needs of the workplace."

The report cites several "areas of vulnerability" in graduate education: demographic shifts, which yield a population with "less education than today and lower math and reading skill levels;" immigration, which brings an influx of first-generation students who need more preparation; and rising numbers of non-traditional students, including those seeking a change in careers and those who enroll at an advanced age, potentially in need both of both academic and financial support.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  April 29, 2010; 5:06 AM ET
Categories:  Attainment , Research  | Tags: council graduate schools study, doctoral education study, graduate education study  
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There is also something to be said for the fact that several lab jobs in the sciences, for instance, require a doctorate, whereas unless you're staying in academia or super-high levels of the library system, it is unlikely that you necessarily *need* a PhD in the humanities to advance your career. I could see the motivation being higher for those who wish to hold positions that require PhD's and that they would be more likely to stick with it, rather than going back to school to study in depth for a degree that may or may not be 100% necessary to their career development.

Posted by: | April 29, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

When I was in Business School I knew a few PhD students. The earnings differential between getting an MBA and getting a PhD was HUGE - in the negative. Unless the PhD's were dead set on teaching, they were usually lured away by lucrative jobs in well-resourced companies long before they finished their program.

I wonder how many students across disciplines aim for a PhD because they're interested and want to achieve, but then learn more and change their perspective as they go along? Maybe it's too cheap and too easy to get into these programs, so lots of students start but natually fall out as their determination wanes or goals change.

Posted by: dawn-wise | April 29, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

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