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In my limited experience, the two biggest factors seem to be (1) inadequate funding and (2) grossly inadequate supervision.

On (1), a PhD just takes a long time, and given how professionalized we're all expected to be on the market, 4-5 years isn't really enough, especially when you add in language requirements and interdisciplinary competence. Maybe if grad students didn't also teach or TA, but then they'd be screwed on the market. Plus, funding levels seem to mostly be inadequate for the cost of living, which isn't great.

On (2), I know of many, *many* supervisors who routinely take six months or more to return comments. Several take a year or more. Often, this is because they prioritize their undergrads and their own careers. In many cases, their career-prioritization clearly isn't working all that well, given their outputs. There's no excuse for this, and it clearly compounds (1).

Having PhD students is a privilege (for which you get all kinds of reduced workload!), and if you can't be bothered to mentor them properly then you have no business being in a position to take them on in the first place. It's grossly irresponsible, and at your salary, the department could easily hire two fresh PhDs from the market who'd do a better job, handle double the workload, and probably have better collective outputs, too.

I also know of one case where some shockingly racist behaviour at the departmental level (including the imposition of ad hoc requirements on this student alone) pushed a student out, although they ultimately finished elsewhere. Hopefully that's an unusual case.


I'd like to suggest an alternative: For at least some people, they drop because they figure out what the future holds for them if they stay. At the place where I did my PhD, I saw several people leave with just an MA or less. Some of them fit the poor mentoring / poor funding pattern Michel notes, but others had quality mentors and just seemed to realize that the rewards for completion (i.e., competing for a small number of jobs that don't pay that well compared to other options) were not worth the years of effort it would take.


I don't have statistics on this. But my recollection while in graduate school was that drop outs tended to occur at two places. First, end of year two of coursework. Some students found that graduate school was challenging and they actually didn't enjoy it, so they left. Second, ABD. Some students didn't have an adviser to push them and/or they left the city. They slowly trailed off and eventually dropped out. I'm not sure departments should do anything about the first type of case. Advisers should do something about the second type of case, but I don't know how to make them.

Derek Bowman

It's worth noting that Tim's second kind of case can also fall under Andrew's explanation. Writing a dissertation is a challenging endeavor that requires a lot of self-direction and self-motivation. That, in turn, requires the confidence (or at least the hope) that it will be worth it in the end. Getting to the ABD stage is one natural time to face the stark realities about employment.

Faculty who advise graduate students should definitely take that responsibility seriously, but many of the problems are systemic, not individual.

Current PhD Student

Many factors have contributed to my decision to sideline my PhD program in favor of a normal job. (I'm still in the program, but I treat it like a hobby at this point.)

Here are my motivations:

1. The biggest problem is that (with notable exceptions) professors did not run good courses. Far and away, the courses soured my experience of the program. (I don't know what's so hard about assigning some readings and talking about them methodically, but wow did these people figure out how to mess it up, lol.)

2. The program also has other problems: there's too much coursework (three years of coursework...even if you have an MA); a set of program requirements with no pedagogical purpose (a foreign language requirement...but no course has ever integrated any foreign language work); faculty turnover (two faculty left, several new ones have been hired); a grad director who responds punitively given the opportunity; lack of mentorship; too many junior faculty; no curriculum (just random courses offered).

3. The realization that the likely best case scenario is pretty bad: getting a TT gig at university or college that I've never heard of, in a location that I don't want to live in, teaching philosophy to students who resent that they have to take it. Other bad scenarios: $50k/yr visiting assistant professor fixed-term roles...anything fixed term...

4. I got tired of being poor.

David Lu

I think specific factors vary quite a bit from individual to individual. One area where programs can do better is in supporting students to drop out. A lot of students stay longer than they should because of hesitancy to drop out. There are various reasons for this hesitancy, but a big one is that they don't know what to do next.

When I dropped out, I knew about others who had also dropped out but I had no clue what they did to transition out of the academic career path. While I enjoyed my program and people and I thought the mentorship was good, I had no guidance about what to do if I were to drop out. If you drop out, you're completely on your own. I stuck around longer than I should have.

Now we have a fairly sizeable directory of philosophers in industry that you could potentially draw upon to help mentor and guide your grad students out of the program.


The low expected value of going on the job market is the number one reason I've heard from students who've left their programs.


I wish I had dropped out! What a total waste of time!

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