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Trevor Hedberg

I almost feel like this inquiry is addressing me specifically since I have endorsed both those views in written posts on the Cocoon -- both (1) prospective students should consider attrition rates in their choice of grad program and (2) it is not a sign of failure to pursue a non-academic career (even if that means deciding not to finish the PhD).

My thought behind (1) is that prospective grad students usually have the goal of finishing their PhD, and so it makes sense to go to a program where that is more likely to happen, other things equal. But their values could change along the way to the PhD (a journey that is likely to last 6-8 years), and in that case, I'd say it's okay for them to switch trajectories. So that's the support for (2).

But Mike's right that there's a potential tension in these views, since programs with low attrition rates might have them because they are less supportive of students pursuing non-academic careers. I suppose overall you would want a program that has a low attrition rate but where you would still be supported by the faculty if you elected, say, to take a terminal MA and pursue a non-academic career. But given the information that's available, that combination could be hard to find.

I'd say prospective students should still aim for programs with low attrition rates -- in part because I think leaving a PhD program after with no degree after many years of study is the least desirable outcome. Even if one doesn't use the PhD for an academic job, I still think it's worth getting for its own sake. (Perhaps I am influenced by my father's time as a part-time student pursuing an MA in history -- over 30 years later, he still regrets not finishing the degree.) I'd say prospective students should try to inquire with current or former grad students about how the department deals with cases of attrition and how it's perceived. I suspect getting accurate information about that through reported numbers and metrics (such as those listed above) would be difficult even if they were implemented across a lot of programs, but I have generally found that grad students are willing to respond to emails and share their experiences pretty regularly.


I think it makes the most sense for the current project to expand itself, and ask more questions. If multiple organizations are sending emails asking students to fill out forms, it is more likely people will ignore the emails and we may end up with very incomplete information, which can be even worse than no information. I actually switched jobs twice before updating my profile, so I guess I'm worried about how complete the info is, while at the same time I support the project and think it's important.

On the point about attrition rates - whether they are good or bad - I have lots of mixed feelings. I think Mike makes great points, and agree that many grad students drop out for good reasons, and that says nothing bad about their graduate program. On the other hand,I do think that programs which tend to have high attrition rates, tend to be less supportive and don't foster a good sense of community. But this is just what I observed, not statistical.

Peter Furlong

This is an interesting issue. I have long worried that paying a lot of attention to completion percentage could be a problem and for the very reasons that Mike mentions. I also worry about some of the more specific issues Marcus points to. So, for example, he mentions both of the following as important:

The kinds of non-academic jobs obtained by those who don't.

The quality of job-placements obtained by those who choose to leave.

I worry that the answers to these questions may tell us next to nothing about the quality of the program and tell us much more about the sorts of students these programs admit in the first place. So, for example, if school A does much better in these questions than school B does, that might have nothing to do with the quality of education at these two schools and much more to do with the demographics of the students they accept.

Even if we take this info as merely one piece of information, I worry that it will be a misleading one.

Average time to completion is probably a little more reliable in terms of reflecting something about the program rather than merely something about the students they tend to admit, but it brings with it its own problems. First, it seems to me that certain specializations tend to correspond to longer completion times than others. Perhaps I am widely off-base on this, but it has seemed to me (and I have heard others say the same thing) that people focusing in the history of philosophy often require a bit more time than average (perhaps because of the need to gain a command of multiple new languages). Second, students from certain demographics may tend, on average, to have more distractions from outside of their academic work that will lead to longer graduation times. Finally, there is the issue of whether grad programs should be given an incentive to force out students who have taken a bit longer than usual. I know that many programs have policies on the books about requiring students to finish within a certain amount of time, but I also hear that these are widely ignored, at least at some programs. I firmly believe that programs should support and encourage students to finish quickly, but I am less sure whether it is overall beneficial to provide an incentive to cut off students who are struggling at the dissertation stage. Some of these students probably could have been identified earlier and approached about their future ability to finish the program, but in my own (very limited) experience, those who struggle at the dissertation stage are not always those who struggled earlier in the program.

Perhaps there is some value in knowing the average success rate and the average completion rate, but if there is, I don't think it is very high. I would like to see a list of completion times (perhaps something that said "in the last five years, we have had 6 graduates take 5 years to graduate, 8 who took 6 years, 5 who took 7 years, and 1 who took 13 years). I think this would be more useful than averages and would give less incentive to schools to simply cut off those who take more time in the writing phase.

As for other issues, I think that the only way to get information on how supportive a given department is (both in terms of supporting those who choose to leave and guiding students who stay through every stage of their graduate education) is to contact current students and talk to them. Many schools list their graduate students and provide their email addresses online. I doubt most would mind if prospective students sent them a short note asking about these issues.

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