Attrition and Beyond
I think that it is ironic that this survey is the first
time anyone has asked me why I didn't complete
my degree. I never received so much as a postcard
from the department or my advisor.
—A student in English at University Z
who entered in 1985 and left in 1993
I realized I was very unlikely to get a university
teaching job that would support me so I left. To
this day no one from [University X] has contacted
me to ask what I'm doing, whether I intend to re-
turn, why I went AWOL.
—A student in English at University X
who entered in 1984 and left in 1992
OVER THE past two decades there has been growing concern about increasing attrition from graduate programs in general and those in the humanities in particular. Although comprehensive national data are not collected on attrition rates in PhD programs, studies of individual institutions or sets of institutions often suggest that over 50 percent of students who initially enroll in PhD programs fail to ever receive PhDs.1 Such high rates of attrition are thought to be problematic for both universities and the students themselves in terms of wasted resources.2 Fur-
1 Bowen and Rudenstine (1992); Ronald G. Ehrenberg, “The Flow of New Doctorates,”
Journal of Economic Literature 30 (June 1992): 830–75; Council of Graduate Schools (2004);
Rapoport (1998). More recent data from the Council of Graduate Schools' PhD Comple-
tion Project suggest that for a cohort of doctoral students who entered a set of major U.S.
and Canadian universities in the early 1990s, the average completion rate after 10 years was
close to 57 percent; John Gravois, “In Humanities, 10 Years May Not Be Enough to Get a
Ph.D.,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 27, 2007, p. A1.
2 Some argue by contrast that students who leave graduate programs have not “wasted”
their time and that such benefits are rarely considered, much less measured.