Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Travesty Continues: Multiple Concerns with low PhD Completion to Students

Can we assume that there is really something quite brilliant in human nature that drives us onwards, and that this brilliance deserves to be nurtured?

In our work with doctoral students we consistently see this spark of life and so it is with great concern the we ask what is the cost to the individual student of the 50% completion rate?

There is no way to accurately measure the personal cost of failure. Whether we couch it in the terminology of “completion” we should not lose fact that for the student on the wrong side of the 50% completion rate, it feels like a costly and significant life failure not to be granted their PhD.

Certainly not all doctors are successful, which makes it even more difficult to measure this cost because it can’t be definitively proven that positive returns would have materialized had the person earned their doctorate.

Failure is not easy to measure in industry where, at least, we can measure the stress points, and the physical results relating to mechanical failure. Human lives are infinitely more complex. There is no single story but rather many points along several continuums which this section will try to unpack.

We can be assured of some degree of emotional distress prior to the decision not to complete. The continuum of this can be seen as ranging from, “I can’t afford this anymore,” to “I’m not moving ahead I might as well give up,” or the more serious, “I’m so depressed I might as well just quit.”

Another reaction will be anger, sometimes turned outwards at how the University or their supervisor failed them, and sometimes turned inwards to deprecating self-doubt and depression.

The continuum of financial costs are measurable and for these we look to Karen Kelsky (2013) who provides data. She asked a series of survey questions through her blog at

Randomly selecting 1000 people, from her data regarding indebtedness incurred as part of graduate work, resulted in a range between $0 and $200,000.

A caveat is that because the survey did not specifically break out Masters versus PhD indebtedness it may be possible that the larger figure is inclusive of both.

Whenever the responder noted a series of figures with the degree earned after them we divided equally between the number of degrees which were mentioned. In most cases this would result in a conservative PhD estimate.

Students believe that taking on debt for tuition is investing in their future. But how much investment is necessary for a doctorate?

Of those 1,000 participants, the average indebtedness was $31,000. Approximately a third (354) had zero debt, and another 132 people incurred indebtedness less than the mean. 294 individuals make up the greatest amount of debt (ranging between $70,000 and $200,000). 

Clearly graduate education for many is not cheap, and for is something for which some will incur a long-standing debt and that is incurred whether or not the final degree is granted. 

As might be intuitively obvious, comments from participants in the survey range in accordance with the amount of indebtedness and whether or not they succeeded in gaining their doctorate. 

Those who did not incur debt feel fortunate. Those who incurred some debt comment on scrimping and saving to live at a meager level. It was worth it (or not) depending on their outcomes. 

Those who are in the last third and incurred a lot of debt also tell stories of spouses who lost their jobs, unavailable teaching assistantships, working full-time just to get by, etc. Many partially lived off their student loans or credit cards, and or complained of high living expenses not covered by scholarships. 

Stories also abound where life got in the way, including: massive student debt left after divorce, or choosing to quit even when two thirds of the way through because of a variety of challenges, including the teaching assistantships was no longer available.

Those who do not finish are faced with not only indebtedness, but also the loss of future income. Data are clear that Higher Education correlates (30% of the time) with living at more than two times the median income range. This is true not only in the US but around the world as well (US Dept of Ed, 2012).

Some part of the loss of lifetime income, intuitively, must be because not obtaining the degree for which you are going into debt decreases your chance of taking on the next level of management position in your chosen field. 

If we can assume that the more driven person is the one who attempts graduate work, then this is a double-edged loss to both the individual and the company will not have that person in their pool of potential employees.

As can be inferred from these data, the personal cost of non-completion of doctoral work is alarming on the personal level: loss of sense of self, debt, and loss of lifetime potential for success in your field.

Falling back on Oblinger, 2014 we assume these students “missed a connection somewhere, some pathway through the doctoral process” was not formed. 

We believe it behoves higher education to find the missing links to build those connections. With approximately 1,000,000 people entering doctoral level graduate work each year and taking approximately 5 years to complete on average, we can well imagine that approximately 5,000,000 people are working on their doctorate at any given time. 

This means that 2.5 million of them will not graduate. If we can change these completion statistics even a few percentage points we stand the potential to greatly enhance personal outcomes.

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