Why Do People Drop Out of Ph.D. Programs?

According to the article “Ph.D. Attrition: How Much is Too Much?” published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the current Ph.D. attrition rate is approximately 50%. That means one out of every two students who start a Ph.D. program leaves prior to completion. And in some programs it’s even worse – studies suggest only one out of every three humanities Ph.D. candidates earns their doctorate.Why are these numbers so low? Does the responsibility lie with the university, with the students, or a little of both? If you’re considering dedicating the next four to seven years to obtaining your Ph.D., it’s crucial to be aware of the potential pitfalls and problems inherent in doctoral education. Here are some of the most common reasons for doctoral dropout:

Lifestyle Mismatch

Most applicants to Ph.D. programs are aware that they’ve got a long, single-minded track of study ahead of them – one that requires that they pretty much live and breathe graduate school for many years. However, most of these applicants have never experienced a life quite like this before, so they have nothing to which they can compare it. Expectations and abstract concepts sometimes don’t match reality, so when students matriculate, they finally experience what they’d up until now only been imagining. And when faced with the inherent imbalance of a graduate student’s life, some decide it’s not for them.

Advisor Mismatch

Some Ph.D. programs, particularly those in the sciences, require more lengthy and extensive work with advisors than do others. The faculty advisor in many cases heads their advisee’s research team, so a harmonious, or at least respectful, relationship is crucial for the student’s academic success. Students experiencing a problematic relationship or poor communication with their advisor may transfer to a different institution, or leave their studies altogether.

Job Market

The academic job market is grim. In many fields, the primary reason for obtaining a Ph.D. is to enter academia. Some students may slowly realize this during the course of their studies, and leave their programs in search of better job opportunities. Others may realize that they can accomplish their career goals with only a master’s instead of a Ph.D., so they decline the opportunity to spend the additional three to five years completing their doctorate.

Academic Experience Differs from Expectations

Particularly in the humanities, doctoral programs sometimes focus more on theory and method than on content. Students arriving at English literature or history Ph.D. programs anticipating a content-heavy course load may be disappointed. And if they didn’t realize the nature of the curriculum in advance, it could lead to departure from the school.

The Reality of an Academic Career

Many students pursue their Ph.D. because they’re interested in teaching at the college or university level. Some don’t anticipate the emphasis on research. When faced with the discrepancy – that faculty is often encouraged to focus on research rather than teaching – they decide that a career as a professor may not be for them. Bottom line: extensive research into the program of your dreams can help you make an informed decision about whether the life of a doctoral student is right for you. Before you apply, speak with current students and faculty at your prospective school to obtain a clear picture about your responsibilities as a graduate student. Then, be honest with yourself. The academic life is a dream life for many, but it’s certainly not a match for all. Is it worth the sacrifice?

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