Graduate Program Completion Rates for STEM Fields

Ann van der Merwe - November 2013


STEM-FieldsIn May 2013, the Council of Graduate Schools released the results of its recent study on graduate program completion in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These results indicate that completion rates are increasing overall, rising between 6% and 8% during the three-year period studied. They are still well behind those in some others fields, however, most notably business. For example, 67 percent of MBA students completed their degrees after two years while only 41 percent of STEM students had finished their degrees in that same time frame.

According to the CGS study, an overwhelming majority of STEM students who completed their graduate work cited motivation and determination as the most important factors in their success. Personal support from family and going to school full-time were also mentioned as success factors by a large number of students. Conversely, having too many other commitments – whether personal (e.g. family) or professional (e.g. a full-time job) – was cited as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to finishing a degree program.

This study demonstrates two key things. One is that while many employers in STEM fields offer some form of tuition reimbursement for graduate study, the challenge of juggling work, school, and personal commitments remains. In fact, finding balance may even be more difficult for people in these fields, whether this challenge is due to the demands of the work itself or due to the personalities of most people drawn to work in them. Also, while personal motivation and family support are obviously important to achieving any degree, their value to graduate students in these fields is especially noteworthy. Perhaps STEM students do not anticipate the same kind of tangible professional rewards for their additional study as do their peers in business and some other areas, thereby lessening the external motivation to earn one. Or, perhaps the employment opportunities for those without advanced degrees in these fields are varied and plentiful enough to decrease a student’s desire to finish.   

The CGS study was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and is the largest such study of its kind to date. Five universities contributed data to the study: Loyola University (Chicago), Purdue University, Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville), Texas A&M University, and Wright State University. More details are available at


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About the Author: Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio.  She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history

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