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Graduation rates

Linnea Ista lkista at UNM.EDU
Fri Sep 6 15:28:46 EST 1996

On Fri, 6 Sep 1996, S L Forsburg wrote:

> Linnea Ista wrote:
>  My roommate from grad school and I were talking last night and she
> > mentioned that the completion rate for PhD students in my former
> > department is less than 50% (this from a professor within that department
> > who is on the graduate education committee).
> > 
> > Is this unusual?
> Seems a tad high to me.  Is that every class, or did they just have a
> bad
> year?  (Which happens to all of us). But see comments below...

It is the average of the past few years.
> > Also is it unusual for a department to pass people on comprehensives and
> > then later decide that their  progress toward their degree is
> > insufficient and drop them? I was the first casualty in such a purge a
> > few years ago and I am just curious.
> I think this depends on how the department is set up.  Some 
> departments are more lenient on admissions, expecting to cull the class
> later on; others are very  rigorous on who gets in, with the 
> expectation they will all be  able to succeed. Many departments 
> use the comprehensives as a  screening process (which personally I 
> think is appropriate--rubber stamping students with a pass does no 
> one any favors later on).  Others use comps as  a means to determine 
> minimum competence only; they may intend the inevitable screening
>  to occur downstream in the meat and potatoes of thesis research.   
I think ours were medium, certainly half the people who took them the year 
I did failed.

> Overall, I  think that  attrition at most stages is normal, 
> and not a bad thing.  People change, sometimes they find themselves
> in over their heads, or in the wrong field.   
> Problems come when the students feel that they were lied to, or
> treated unfairly, and certainly the system is not perfect.

In my case (and one other that I know of) we were allowed to flounder for 
a few years. The assumption was that we weren't working hard enough. I 
_did_ express my concerns to my advisor about three years before my 
defense that the approach we were taking was not going to produce a PhD 
for me. I was told that of course it was and that plenty of people had 
gotten PhD's from negative results particularly in my research area and 
besides the granting agency just didn't care about the project that I 
knew would produce results. Besides, working on a project such as mine 
would make me a better scientist becasue it would teach me how to trouble 
shoot (and it did). He was more surprised than I that my 
disseration was rejected at the defense. I heard from members of my 
committe that others with far weaker dissertations than mine.

For the other person whose story I know well, the advisor in this case 
insisted on a single approach to a problem. When it wasn't working there 
was no help, just that she needed to try harder, even though she knew 
there had to be a better approach and when she found that approach was 
denied the supplies to carry it out.

The general feeling is that there was an attempt to make the department 
"stronger" by getting rid of the students admitted  under the old 
departmental chair and replacing them with people from really good places 
like Yale and Harvard. This was going on when I was there. Student morale 
dropped precipitously in the last two years. This year no one who was 
accepted into the program chose this place.   

>  But it is a hard truth that not everyone qualifies, and admission to a 
> PhD program is  not a promise that one will get the  degree. 
This is true and I am not denying that. I didn't think I was. These 
people are in addition to those who dropped out because they didn't want 
to be there or knew science wasn't for them. 

 p.s. I have had success since. In my current job I am in charge of an 
entire project, design my own experiments, write my own papers (the first came
 out just recently, a little after a year into my new job; a year which 
included setting up a new lab), and help to write grants. I actually am 
glad most days that I did get that "consolation prize masters". This job 
would not have been available to me if I had a PhD. The only times I 
really regret it is when I am told I am not a "real scientist" because I 
have the worng degree.

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