Mike Titelbaum (University of Wisconsin-Madison) wrote in by email:
I am a big fan of The Philosophers' Cocoon, and occasionally jump into the comments section...[But] There's something that occasionally comes up on Cocoon threads and elsewhere that bothers me...
Often when we counsel students comparing graduate schools, we suggest that they look (among other things) at the percentage of admits who complete the program. The underlying implication seems to be that higher completion rates indicate a better program. But this seems to me out of step with another discourse floating around the internet in general and the Cocoon in particular—that deciding as a PhD student that you don't want to become an academic isn't a failure in any sense.
Sometimes a department has a low completion rate because they're unsupportive, are chasing out certain students, or have a toxic environment. But PhD students leave programs for many reasons, including that the program has done a good job of revealing to them what the academic life is like, and they've decided it isn't the life for them (even though it might be available to them). If a department was pressuring people to stay and finish their degree despite having had such a realization, that would enhance their completion rate but it seems to me would be the kind of department that I would discourage a student from joining.
There's also presumably a big selection effect here. Different departments wind up with different kinds of students. Some populations might be more inclined to decide that academia isn't for them and leave their program before completing. That would hurt a department's completion rate, but perhaps indicate nothing bad about how the department treats students once they arrive. In fact, if a department is more willing to take a risk on certain types of students who might not finish, that might be a good sign about that department's atmosphere and goals.
As I said, this is just something that's been bothering me. I have absolutely no empirical data on any of this, and not even much anecdotal data. But if you're measuring a department by its completion rate, then you're assuming the sole goal of a PhD program is to create PhDs (and possibly then academics). Perhaps instead the first goal of a PhD program should be to help students figure out whether writing a dissertation, completing a PhD, and then becoming an academic is the right path for them?
I think Mike raises really good points here. In email discussion, I suggested that perhaps the best thing to do is to compile and make more transparent both qualitative and quantitative data regarding attrition and job-placemtn.
- The proportion of students who enter a program but do not finish.
- The amount of time that students who leave spend in the program before choosing to leave.
- The qualitative reasons they choose to leave.
- The quality of job-placements obtained by those who choose to leave.
For example, there is a huge qualitative difference between leaving a program after one or two years, compared to leaving after 7-8+ years. At least anecdotally, I've heard some programs tend to have the former (encouraging struggling students to leave early), whereas other programs allow struggling students to flounder for many years. As a prospective student, I would absolutely want to know which kind of program I'm entering. By a similar token, I'd want to know why students who leave choose to do so. Is it because they have good non-academic non-prospects (which might be the case if the program is at a particularly prestigious university)? Or, it is because their program has a poor climate or offers poor mentoring? Again, as a prospective student these are things I would want to know. Finally, I would want to know what kinds of jobs people who leave the program end up getting. Are they well-paying non-academic jobs, or low-paid entry-level jobs with few benefits and little opportunity for advancement?
I'm also inclined to think that it would be good to gather and transparently disseminate similar forms of qualitative and quantitative information about those who do finish their grad programs:
- The proportion of graduates who pursue academic vs. non-academic jobs.
- The proportion of those who seek academic jobs who obtain permanent jobs.
- The kinds of non-academic jobs obtained by those who don't.
- How long it takes the program's graduates to obtain permanent jobs.
In our exchange, Mike said he liked the idea of making these kinds of details more transparent. However, he noted he wasn't sure how this would work. After all, grad programs already have trouble tracking and reporting these details reliably, and perhaps in some cases incentives not to. Here, though, is my suggestion: if grad programs are not well-positioned to gather and make this kind of quantitative and qualitative data transparent, then perhaps some other institution can. If I recall correctly, the Academic Placement Data and Analysis project is engaged in an ongoing process of collecting and reporting these kinds of details--at least for recent graduates of PhD programs. Although I don't know whether they are gathering data on attrition, I imagine something like this could work. For example, suppose there were a site that all new MA and PHD students were encouraged to register at upon entering a grad program. During the registration process, these students might be informed that they can update their profile at any time, answering survey questions such as whether they are still in the program, whether they left without graduating (and if so, after how many years), what kind of job they obtained if they left (including the job's salary), and so on. I imagine that if this kind of site and database were well-designed and monitored--and if it made its findings transparent--then it might go a long way to giving prospective students accurate and useful information for making informed decisions.
As someone who has known grad students who very much regretted joining their program, I think a project like this could be a very important service to many people. I'll never forget a fellow I met on a flight to the Eastern APA many years ago. He had been in his (highly-ranked) PhD program for 8+ years, and he was absolutely at the end of his rope. He told me that his program was very dysfunctional, that hardly any of its students ever finished, and he just seemed hopeless. And he's far from the first grad student I've met who felt that way about their program--whereas I know others who loved their programs and felt like their program put them in a good position to succeed. These, I think, are the kinds of details that prospective students should know. Further, public reporting of qualitative and quantitative information like this might also function as an important accountability mechanism--as few programs, I think, would want to become known as "that program" that fails its students.
But these are just my thoughts. What do you all think?