Are our best students dropping out?

Alton Thompson has an interesting blog post about dropout rates in Ph.D. programs. It seems that while most faculty (and, I would add, many students) assume that people drop out because they aren’t up to snuff, it may in fact be that the best students are finding that it is graduate school which isn’t up to snuff. Especially women. Thompson quotes a report by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson:

Everything about the way students depart reinforces this conviction. Most leave silently; they simply disappear, without communicating any reservations about the program to faculty or administrators. Exit interviews or follow-up contacts with departing students are rare. Moreover, students are effectively discouraged from voicing complaints while they are still actively enrolled. The ‘successful’ student is ‘happy’ and compliant; such a student is more likely to receive financial support, good teaching assignments, and strong letters of recommendation. A student who criticizes the program is a problem. Of course this reasoning is circular and self-fulfilling, since complaining students may well be turned into problem students by neglect or discrimination. Meanwhile, the accumulated silence of previous ‘dropouts’ reinforces the view faculty prefer to hold: the problem is with the student, not the program.

Many faculty thus conclude that the way to improve student success is to admit better students. Yet our evidence and that from other studies suggest that students who persist and students who leave are equally well qualified. The Lovitts survey found no meaningful difference between the undergraduate grade point averages of the students who did complete the Ph.D. and those who did not. The only notable difference in grade point averages surfaces when the students are separated by gender: female-completer, 3.57; noncompleter, 3.62; male-completer, 3.52; noncompleter, 3.49. In other words, women who abandoned graduate study had a somewhat higher undergraduate grade point average than those who stayed. What’s more, women leave in higher numbers, thus suggesting once again that attrition is due to something other than ability.

This is certainly true of what I observed among my cohort at Temple, where a large number of very talented women never finished. Its true that if the 50% of people who seem to drop out of Ph.D. programs all decided to stay, the already glutted job market would be twice as bad as it is, but if there is something about graduate student culture which is driving women out at a higher rate then men it needs to be investigated. Thompson also links to this piece in Inside Higher Education about the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion Project, which emphases the importance of funding for allowing students to complete their degrees. Unfortunately, this data isn’t yet broken down by gender, so we can’t see if financial support is disproportionately affecting female students.

(via Michael Turton)

10 thoughts on “Are our best students dropping out?

  1. If I might quote Divine here, “I smell deep dark trouble.” Such statistics are barely meaningful given the incredible diversity of demands on students in a PhD program, the incredible diversity in quality and goals of PhD programs and the variety of reasons why people might or mightn’t chose to drop out. I think the leap to the claim that it is an indictment of low standards in departments is BS. Of course “attrition is due to something other than ability” but there is no warrant for assuming that that something is bad… it could be a range of good reasons as well.

    On the one hand, I would certainly hope that students who determine that a program is not up to their own standards would figure it out and leave as soon as possible–for their own sake and not because there is some kind of unspoken requirement that all PhD programs be stellar, rigorous or non-stepfordwivish. On the other hand, many students, smart as they may be, just haven’t quite figured out what they want from life by the time they are 22-23, and maybe grad school wasn’t it… and I think this is equally likely to be true for men and women. In both cases, it is more likely that we have very poor mechanisms for channeling people into the roles they want to fill, than that PhD programs are somehow systematically of low quality or gender-biased.

    Looks like a case of lies, damned lies and statistics to me… 🙂

  2. It is hard to say without having access to the original report, but this one statistic was particularly striking:

    “Of those students who completed the degree, fully 85 percent shared an office with other graduate students, while only 46 percent of those who left the program shared an office.”

    I remember one year we had a large office which was also partially a storage room – we pulled in a couch and had a steady stream of other graduate students visiting. This certainly made a difference in terms of my own socialization into graduate school.

  3. The fact that questionnaire based research of this sort leaves all the interesting questions unanswered is, of course, why we do anthropology. And I’m with ckelty here: comparison across PhD programs generally seems meaningless to me because of the enormous differences in what that means in different fields. As for dropout rates, grad school is really different from an undergrad major–it makes sense that some number of people who like school figure out that they don’t in fact want to be academics. And the assumption that a shorter time to completion is the ideal seems unjustified. In response to a university wide move to set a 10 year limit on degrees, my own grad department argued convincingly that most of their best students (measured by what job they ended up in) finished in between 8 to 12 years, with no discernible difference quality within that range. Indeed those students placed better than those who finished more quickly. Taking time to completion as a measure of the quality/supportiveness of a PhD contributes to the absurd notion that an anthropology PhD should be finished as quickly as a physics PhD, leading to models of funding based on unrealistic times to completion. Unless we reorganize our research so that students do small projects under the direct supervision of their professors, funded by their professor’s grants and fitting in to their professor’s research projects, then anthro PhD’s will take a while.

  4. Currently, as disproportionately more women enter PhD programs in Anthro, one could expect to see that higher numbers of women drop out of the program.
    It is also important to mention that balancing a student role with a parent role is not easy. Women who start a long trekk towards PhD in Anthro in their 20s, get to the finish line with “baggage” of family, pets, children. And in the end, it might raise a question: what is more important – incessant stress of dissertation writing and advisor’s approval or time with children. And for the time being, the latter might prevail.
    A study largely focuses on the linear progression: starting PhD and then either completion or droping out. However, one can take time off, have family and then return to finish studies. It does not seem like this statistics is incorporated.
    I do agree with authors, however, that attention is mostly focused on students as cause of the problem. Program requirements as well as interaction with faculty are ignored.
    Comet Jo – you are lucky to be in a program so lenient to the length of program. In my program, there are pressures to finish everything in 6 years (and yes, it is a program of Cultural Anthropology with its lengthy fieldwork requirement).

  5. This is not unrelated to a message I received recently, which I found somewhat terrifying:

    =How to Recruit Gen X Faculty Members=

    The era when colleges and universities could rely on prestige and a little cash to recruit top academic talent is gone. Increasingly, up-and-coming faculty talent is from Generation X, the much derided and little understood generation that is much more than the Gap-employee stereotype you heard about a decade ago. This generation has a different set of work priorities,
    and colleges that understand these priorities stand a better chance of landing the best candidates and keeping them.

    A leading expert on faculty recruitment — will discuss such
    issues as:

    * Why prestige and tenure may not matter as much to this generation as previous generations, and what that means for recruiting.

    * The importance of being “family friendly” and how job candidates judge that now that all colleges are claiming that they are.

    * How Gen X professors view hierarchy and what that means in the context of departments.

    * The importance of transparency and collegiality.

    * In sum, the program will explore what you need to know to recruit and keep the best faculty talent. After a half-hour presentation, *** will answer questions posed by the audience. The entire event will last one hour.

  6. One problem with dropout rates is that its really difficult to determine when they are problem. Lets say you have a department that has a high drop out rate of graduate students. Is the rate high because the program is (rightly) difficult? Is it high because of department infighting or professors who are jerks? Is it high because the students being let in aren’t good enough for grad school? Is it high because the department is letting in too many grad students (some departments let in 30 or more a year and most don’t every finish)?

    These are all questions which make it difficult to compare departments. In many cases the researcher or even people in the department may never be able to access the answer. For example, if students aren’t finishing because certain professors are being assholes towards their students, the department may never know because the students who remain are willing to tow the line while the students who have left will never complain (and might even be reluctant to give their views if they are contacted after they leave).

    Personally, I think departments need some sort of mechanism for anonymous feedback so they can make changes if they are needed (i.e. make changes if the reason for dropout rates is related to unreasonable circumstances or problematic circumstances). However, I’m not exactly sure how that would work. It would have to be some sort of system that all grad students would have to fill out but it would also have to be made in such a way that grad students would give constructive feedback. Right now, I don’t see many professors who would be willing to actually have some system like this (student evaluations don’t really count because they are only deal with one specific course and don’t touch upon other aspects of the department).

  7. Personally, I think a big part of the problem is that the finances of many humanities programs force them to admit more students than they intend to see graduate. They need warm bodies in classrooms, but can’t afford to actually mentor all of them through to a Ph.D. I personally would like to see more graduate programs be up front about this.

  8. About the email Chris received announcing an audio conference on GenX recruitment. Was intrigued by this, for obvious reasons (I’m a long-term Ph.D. candidate whose wife has accepted a tenure-track at UT Austin).
    There’s a neat blog post about that email-advertised conference which states how obvious much of this is.

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  10. Your comments are all good. Another reason of dissatisfaction with a given Ph.D. program for me arose due to misinformation on time to completion and a poorly constructed Ph.D. program for ensuring students progress in a timely manner. I am a Ph.D. student in the sciences at George Washington University. My cohort was closely monitored and introduced into the program over a few week period in 2005. We were told average completion was 5 years, and they even wanted to reduce it to 4 years. This sounded all well and good, but, in fact, no steps were taken by the administrators of the program to ensure that students even reach committee organization and regular dissertation/thesis progress meetings until the 3rd even 4th year for some students. There is simply no tracking or assistance for the student once they have chosen their mentor and started research with their mentor. I spent at least 2 years doing research for a mentor that kept putting off my project, “suggesting” that I do various experiments and small projects that never became part of my overall thesis. I have put together my thesis plan/proposal and am now entering my 5th year. I will not be completing my program for another year or year and a half or more, meaning graduation after 6 years. Knowing many other students in my same program (other cohorts who matriculated at different times), the actual average time to graduation is more like 6 years. I believe that the administrators were sidestepping the truth a bit and would truly scare people off if they said 6 years from the start. I just feel that I was lied to from the very beginning and became very dissatisfied in my Ph.D. program for this reason. I now know of several other schools where student progress is tracked more closely throughout the Ph.D. process and wish I had chosen a different school. So my advice to anyone reading this and considering a Ph.D. program, please be sure to find out time to completion as well as how closely student progress is tracked by someone outside of the mentor. Also, to any administrators reading this, please be honest with incoming and potential matriculating students. There is nothing worse than finding out in your 3rd year that you have another several years to go, when you were told from the beginning a totally different story…

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