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Are We Failing Our Graduate Students?
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Are We Failing Our Graduate Students?

Are we failing our graduatesIn a recent article, “Finding a Partner for Your Ph.D.,” the AAAS/Science Business Office provided advice to prospective graduate students.  They start by presenting horrifying graduation rate data (that their target audience probably shouldn’t even see…).  Even scarier is their interpretation of what these data indicate.  Regardless of how you interpret it, the bottom line is that we’ve got some serious problems.

“According to data from the Ph.D. Completion Project conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS)—the main organization representing graduate institution deans in the United States—fewer than 60 percent of students entering graduate school in the sciences will complete their doctoral degree within a 10-year time frame.”

Let’s reread that last part one more time… Less than 60 percent of students will complete their Ph.D. in under a decade.  A DECADE.

“About one in five people in the life sciences drop out entirely during the program. And by about year six, according to the project data, only about 42 percent of doctoral students in the life sciences will have completed their degree, 34 percent will still be slaving away at it, and 24 percent will have thrown in the towel. For the math and physical sciences, only about 39 percent complete their degree by year six, 27 percent are still going, and 34 percent have dropped out.”

At this point, I can’t imagine any prospective student is still reading.  They’ve likely just signed up for a Princeton Review MCAT, LSAT or GMAT course…

From the statistics, the article goes on to conclude:

“These data underscore the need to pick a graduate school wisely.”

REALLY?! That’s what those data mean?  Not, why have less than 60% of students obtained a Ph.D. in under a decade?!  Not is a 24 to 34% dropout rate acceptable?!  Not, what can we do to improve this?!

In the article, Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, states “Some students might do well in a kind of dog-eat-dog, highly competitive environment; other students would be crushed by that, and would do much better in a much more laid back, laissez faire–type environment,” so therefore it’s important to know where you’ll do best.

Of course, it’s great advice to find a lab, department or program that fits your personality.  We understand the value of advising students based on the current situation.  But in the bigger picture, this feels like a doctor telling a boxer “The solution for your headaches is Alleve” instead of “stop getting punched in the head.”

As a profession, are we unwilling to look at the real causes of our problems?  Or have we just become comfortable with putting band-aids on the symptoms?

Instead, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves questions like:

  • Are students getting proper mentoring from their P.I.s?
  • Are students having to teach too much due to a lack of funding?
  • Are students comfortable and lazy and not leaving the lab?
  • Are lab/departmental graduation requirements too difficult?
  • Are there enough checkpoints in the program to guarantee students are moving forward?
  • Are the “dog-eat-dog” departments really effective?

How can we improve the situation?

Undoubtedly, there are a number of solutions that may improve the situation.  I can’t think of a single reason a student should be in grad school longer than six years.  It’s not fair to the student, it’s not fair to the faculty member and it’s a waste of money.  So what if we strictly limited graduate school to six years?  Not a day more.  Upon acceptance to a program, students would be given their latest date of graduation.  If they aren’t ready for a doctorate by then, they leave with a Masters.  If they are ready but their P.I. wants to keep them around, they are granted a Ph.D. and paid as a postdoc from then on.

Afterall, what is the point of graduate school?

  • Is it to learn?

Students should have learned everything they need to graduate within 6 years.

  • Is it to find out who will be a successful researcher?

If a student can’t do research after six years of trying, that should tell us something.

  • Is it to provide cheap labor for P.I.s to carry out projects?

If a P.I. values a student’s work enough to want them around longer, they should pay them as postdocs.

  • Is it to push people to the breaking point to find out who’s “tough enough” to make it?

We’re not Navy SEALS… There’s absolutely no reason this should be the model.

A six-year limit would apply pressure to the student, PI and department equally.


Students would no longer struggle with the life uncertainty they currently face (answering friends and family, worrying they’ll be there for 12 years, coordinating life with a spouse).  And there would certainly be a fire lit under them to complete the work necessary for a Ph.D.  Few people want to spend six years of their lives to earn a degree they could have received in two.


Individual statistics could be kept on P.I.s (similar to those described in No Welcome Mat) that would allow prospective students to see the ratio of Masters to Ph.D.s granted by each professor.  Taken a step further, what if this rate was factored into NIH funding?  Wouldn’t PIs have a vested interest in maintaining reasonable graduation rates this way?  Remember, we’re not asking PIs to suddenly graduate students in 3 years – this is six FULL years!


Departments would be forced to take a more active role in ensuring students are moving forward.  They could require students to hold annual committee meetings that actually map out the next year’s milestones with the six-year deadline in mind.  If the Masters/PhD ratio of a department was an important factor in obtaining NIH Training Grants, departments would certainly have an interest in improving graduation rates.

Six years should be plenty of time for students to complete a project and to prove whether or not they deserve a Ph.D..  We should be able to set up a graduate system that supports researchers by moving students through the system as efficiently as possible.  For science to remain a viable occupation, we must consider how the career path looks to younger generations.  A 60% chance of earning a degree in under a decade certainly isn’t the kind of information we should be proud of.  It’s time to start addressing the cause, not the symptoms.

Have any other possible solutions?  See any problems with a six-year limit?

1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on January 19, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    […] Are We Failing Our Graduate Students – the stats on graduation rates aren’t pretty- but here are a few ways we could make the system more efficient […]

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