Disclosure plea on PhDs

April 25, 1997

The PhD productivity of graduate school professors should be made a matter of public record in the light of the huge variation in the number of students faculty members guide towards their doctorates, says an American researcher.

The researcher found that over a seven-year period some professors at two universities were listed as academic advisers to nearly 20 successful doctoral students. One professor claimed 66 in the course of his career. But for others, the figure was zero.

The highly productive faculty shared certain social characteristics. The professors tended to be more conversational, make better eye contact, were more likely to invite students to their homes and develop long-term relationships with them. They spoke of loving their work, and talked about students in terms of "we" rather than "I" and "they".

Roughly half of all United States graduate students fail to complete their doctoral programmes, it is estimated - a persistent pattern in the past few decades. But University of Maryland researcher Barbara Lovitts points the finger firmly at the system and, in some cases, faculty, rather than students themselves. She admits her proposal to publish the figures is a "hot potato".

But doctoral "non-completers", as Dr Lovitts prefers to call them (she considers "drop-out" a pejorative term), are often left confronting failure for the first time in their lives, disappointed and depressed, their careers thrown off track. They are, she says, the in-visible casualties of American higher education.

Dr Lovitts fell by the wayside at two graduate schools herself, the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University. But in truly American fashion, she took her humbling experience and used it for her third and finally successful attempt at a sociology doctorate. "We were outcasts," she writes, introducing her dissertation, Leaving the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Analysis of the Cause of Departure from Doctoral Study. She was left wondering, she said, "what happens to us, why so many of us are unhappy, why do so many of us leave?" Dr Lovitts surveyed the careers of people who did and did not complete PhDs at two leading US universities, for her dissertation at the University of Maryland, which she is now turning into a book.

The US awards about 40,000 PhDs a year, if foreign students are included. Dr Lovitts' is by no means the first attempt to find out why about 40,000 more do not make it. Some attrition is good, scholars note: students find out, by trying it out, that they do not really want to do research.

But research universities in the University of California system, for example, have spent considerable effort tracking students who drop out and encouraging departments to ensure there are annual reports to monitor progress.

If universities seriously wanted to draw up "report cards" on graduate school faculty, they would also need to look at the time taken to complete, experts say. But such controversial proposals are un-likely to emerge. For one thing, a current gripe is that the US is producing too many PhDs, rather than too few - students who then compete for a dwindling number of academic jobs.

Nonetheless, Dr Lovitts' study suggests that the students who do not make it, enter the field with largely the same grades and social skills as those who do. Students need departments that embrace them, along with interested professors with people-skills, she says.

The weaknesses are in the social structure of graduate life, she concludes. Successful students are typically well-integrated as research or teaching assistants, with a desk on campus. Financial support was a major factor, but full fellowships were no guarantee of success, perhaps because they did not bring social interaction. Something as simple as a graduate common room can boost student integration with the university.

US universities have allowed the high and persistent rate of "silent exit" among graduate students to continue for decades, said Dr Lovitts. "They don't learn why they are leaving, they don't look at the student, so they can blame the student." Instead degree advisers need closer scrutiny, she argues.

Dr Lovitts interviewed about 30 non-completers personally. One, a maths student who gave up after seven years, broke down in tears. So did a woman who had never understood why her grades disqualified her from continuing.

These highly qualified people - who may already have a master's degree - often resorted to low-paid blue-collar jobs, as waitresses or even farm hands, she found, while they put their lives back together.

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