Blogs > Cliopatria > Ph.D. Programs: Rare Quantitative Data

Oct 19, 2004 1:50 am

Ph.D. Programs: Rare Quantitative Data

Just when I'm about to give up reading them, someone at Crooked Timber posts something useful: Duke University's Ph.D. Completion and time-to-degree data.

The completion rate for history students admitted in the early 90s was 64%, nicely in line with their social science division average (which is exceeded only by bio-science; everyone else was around 60-62%). However that figure was arrived at by including two-thirds of students from the 1992-1995 entering classes who are still enrolled: history had nineteen of these 'tenured students' (we're talking people in the 9th to 12th year of their program) the most of any department (in fact, that beats three whole divisions). Now I'm not one to point fingers, having finished in the twelfth year myself, but I do wonder if two-thirds is a reasonable completion rate for this population?

For reference, the Duke History time-to-degree figures show that the median (this is for Ph.D.'s received, so its a different population, but it's still interesting) was a very respectable 6.5 for the early 90s, but it shot up to 8.0 in the late 90s. The national average also rose, though only from 8.6 years to 9.0, but that's still a troubling trend.

Duke is doing reasonably well, but let's talk about that nine-year national average, shall we? My understanding is that just about every major Ph.D. program was working on streamlining the process, building structure into it (more group seminars, dissertation prospectus presentations, multiple advisors) and providing more support (financial aid, teaching, career counseling, etc) so that students would finish in a more reasonable time; instead the number is increasing.

We've talked about the overproduction of Ph.D.'s before; now we need to talk about the training and support they get.

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Jonathan Dresner - 10/19/2004

My mistake.

The universe has a lot of armpits, doesn't it?

Ralph E. Luker - 10/19/2004

Jon, Duke is in Durham, once memorably described as "the armpit of the universe." UNC is in Chapel Hill. They are both in the research triangle of North Carolina.

Michael C Tinkler - 10/19/2004

The lack of jobs certainly worked for me - as did the availability, so long as I was enrolled, of inexpensive access to health insurance. I could work part time and be registered as an "in-residence" student for the simple payment of the activity fee. For that I got library privileges, gym access, and the opportunity to buy into cheap insurance. Not that I didn't LOVE it, but if there had been an earlier cut off I might well have buckled down and wrapped up the dissertation earlier (when the time finally came, it only took 5 months to finish).

David Lion Salmanson - 10/19/2004

Does the Duke study start from when the students are admitted to grad programs or to PhD programs? A lot of students at Michigan got around time to degree issues by coming in with a MA and taking comps after a year and a half instead of two and a half years.

Also, I think the job market thing operates less directly than Ralph supposes. B/c the market is so tight, students (and often their advisors) are convinced that dissertations have to be outstanding. Projects are bigger in scope, more complex, and just longer. (Brad Perkins pointed this out in the required grad seminar for first year Americanists). Also, w/ tenure being such a hard thing to get these days, the diss better be very good b/c the first book has to be very, very good. I can think of a couple of cases where the diss was actually longer than the book.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/19/2004

I could buy the market effect, I suppose, if we can find some data to back it up; I know of isolated cases where people did delay, because they didn't have a job lined up, but only people with really good funding....

Living circumstances? I don't know; Duke's time-to-degree was lower than average: is Chapel Hill driving them away (or would it be even lower if it were, say, New Haven?)

Sharon Howard - 10/19/2004

This is another of those stark contrasts between the American and British system. The overwhelming expectation here is that full-time PhD students will complete in four years. Why? Because that's the deadline set by the public funding bodies (for historians, the Arts & Humanities Research Board and the Economic and Social Research Council), and if departments don't achieve it with a certain percentage - I believe it's something like 75%, but don't quote me on that - of their funded students, the grant bodies will simply not fund their students any more (for a while at least). Which would be disastrous for any department that wants to attract PhD students. The same bodies also drive the training agenda. The ESRC has had strict requirements in place for some time (which apply to all students who would fall under the ESRC remit, not just ESRC-funded students), and the AHRB (though in a very different way, with much more emphasis on individual needs) has introduced this in the last few years. Support beyond basic research training is another matter... and the fact that it has to be provided doesn't necessarily mean that the students think it's any good...

Those deadlines, as you can imagine, create their own pressures and problems (one worrying trend is that the required 'originality' element of the thesis is apparently being removed in some universities). Of course, British PhD students are far less likely to have heavy teaching workloads than their American cousins, and there are plenty of other ways in which the two PhD systems are quite incommensurate (no taught program in the British PhD for a start).

Ralph E. Luker - 10/19/2004

I wonder, Jon, if the state of the job market doesn't influence the rate of completion. If one doesn't have a sense that there's a job out there waiting for you, there just may not be much incentive to move along. Another factor, I think, in this is finding satisfaction with the circumstances of living around the research university. I've known a lot of graduate students who found a way to make a living in, say, Chapel Hill or Cambridge and the prospect of moving on to Sage Brush City or Pine Valley just isn't very appealing.