Doctoral Program Attrition (guest post)


“[A]s it turns out, the rate of attrition from philosophy doctoral programs often exceeds 30 percent.”

In the following guest post, Martin Willard and Carolyn Dicey Jennings (UC Merced) discuss attrition rates at doctoral programs in philosophy in the United States and Canada, why they are important, and the value of graduate programs disclosing them.


[Richard Tuttle, “IV” from Stacked Color Drawings]

Doctoral Program Attrition
by Martin Willard and Carolyn Dicey Jennings

Anyone who has earned a philosophy PhD in the US or Canada knows that not everyone who enters doctoral programs completes them. Even students who receive fellowships to attend highly-ranked programs do not always complete them. No doctoral program is immune to the problem of attrition. Sometimes students leave for reasons having nothing to do with their course of studies: health or other personal reasons; family reasons, including relocating with one’s partner; financial reasons, especially for those who do not receive financial support; and other reasons that can arise regardless of the course of study.

Other students leave their programs for reasons more specific to the programs themselves. They might leave for academic reasons, transfer to another doctoral program, or leave because they no longer want to study philosophy at the doctoral level. Those who leave because they no longer want to pursue a PhD in philosophy have a variety of sometimes overlapping reasons: they are no longer interested in teaching, they have decided to pursue careers outside the academy, they find academic/departmental life too stifling, they want to make more money than academia offers, they believe they will never finish and are concerned they are wasting their time, they believe a master’s degree in philosophy has satisfied their philosophical “itch,” and so on. Students leaving for these kinds of reasons generally end up in careers outside the academy.

Unfortunately, statistics on attrition from doctoral programs in philosophy are not maintained in any reliable or comprehensive way. Various sites track nonacademic careers for philosophy PhDs,[1] but none—at least none of which we are aware—reliably track doctoral program attrition or completion.[2] The lack of reliable attrition data is significant. Although attrition need not reflect the quality of a given program or job prospects for its graduates, it certainly can. When a student leaves one program for another, this can say something about that student’s views of the relative merits of the two programs. And when a student leaves philosophy entirely, this often says something about the student’s perception of academic philosophy as a career. Students considering a program have an interest in knowing whether that program has a relatively high proportion of students who do not pass the comprehensive or qualifying process. Students likewise have an interest in knowing what proportion ultimately stay in academia and what proportion begin careers outside of academia. This requires access to attrition information.

Prospective doctoral students in philosophy obtain various bits of information about the graduate programs they are considering. They usually know where their undergraduate teachers got their degrees, and those professors might well recommend their alma maters or other doctoral programs with which they are familiar. Students also know where the philosophers whose papers they have read (and whom they are perhaps seeking to emulate) hang their hats. Students have access to several additional sources of information: the website of each department under consideration; the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR); APDA; and the APA’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Philosophy. The departmental website contains such things as the departmental faculty and their areas of specialization, the requirements of the doctoral program, available financial support and, usually, a page entitled “Placement.” The PGR contains an assessment (and ranking) of the quality of the doctoral programs it evaluates, based on external faculty reviews of the faculty in each department. APDA provides evaluations of doctoral programs provided by former students as well as the proportion of past graduates of each PhD program who have obtained employment in academic and nonacademic jobs, among other information. The APA Guide reports information about attrition, time to degree, and placement—though not all departments are equally assiduous about responding to the APA’s requests for this information.

Of course, the job crisis in philosophy and the humanities more generally is well known, and the issue of doctoral program transparency—transparency about departmental attrition, demographics, time to degree, and placement—is beginning to be recognized, too. But the majority of doctoral programs do not disclose attrition information on their departmental websites. This is unfortunate because, as it turns out, the rate of attrition from philosophy doctoral programs often exceeds 30 percent.[3]

Let’s look at some of the numbers. The University of Wisconsin, for example, tracks not only its own doctoral programs’ completion rates but also those of its Association of American Universities “peer” institutions.[4] For approximately 15–20 of the University’s peer doctoral programs in philosophy at public universities (a total of 97 entering students), 56 percent of the students who entered in 2006 completed their respective programs within ten years after entering the program, 8 percent remained in the program after ten years, and 36 percent were no longer enrolled in the program and did not complete it. Similarly, 55 percent of the students at the peer doctoral programs who entered in 2007 (102 total students) completed their respective programs within nine years after entering the program, 9 percent remained in the program after nine years, and 36 percent were no longer enrolled in the program and did not complete it. For this group of AAU peer universities, then, the philosophy doctoral program attrition rate was 36 percent (PhD Retention/Completion Rates).[5]

Similarly, the University of California system tracks its doctoral program completion rates (UC Doctoral Program Statistics). For philosophy cohorts entering the eight doctoral programs in the UC system from 2006 to 2009—a total of about 185 entering students during that four-year period—49 percent completed the programs in eight years and 62 percent completed the programs in ten years. While UC does not provide attrition rates, the reported ten-year completion rate suggests an attrition rate in the neighborhood of 30 percent.[6] The overall admission rate for these eight doctoral programs is just 10 percent, indicating that it is not a lack of selectivity that causes this level of attrition.[7] The three most selective programs in the UC system had ten-year completion rates of 62 percent (UC Berkeley), 77 percent (UCLA) and 66 percent (UC San Diego) for their 2006-2009 entering cohorts.

Attrition rates are available for other well-known doctoral programs, although this information is usually provided at the institutional level, not the departmental level. For cohorts of students entering the University of Pittsburgh’s doctoral program during the ten-year period from 2006 to 2015, the average annual rate of attrition was 31 percent (Doctoral Program Statistics).[8] For cohorts of students entering Princeton University’s philosophy doctoral program between 2000 and 2009 (total=94), 74 percent had completed the doctoral program and 23 percent had left as of June 2022 (PhD Completion and Cohort Analysis).[9] For cohorts entering NYU’s doctoral program during the ten-year period from 2005 to 2014 (total=65), the attrition rate was 20 percent.[10] At Yale University 17 percent of philosophy doctoral students entering during the eight-year period from 2009 to 2016—8 of 46 doctoral students—had left the program as of October 2021 (Graduate School Statistics). At MIT, the attrition rate for entering cohorts of doctoral students in linguistics and philosophy from 2006 through 2014 was 16 percent (Graduate Education Statistics).[11] At the University of Michigan, 7 of 61 of doctoral students entering from 2006 to 2015—11 percent—left the program without completing it as of September 2022 (Program Statistics).

By contrast, the attrition rate for the196 ABA accredited law schools averages 7 percent (ABA Required Disclosures). And the attrition rate for the more highly ranked (roughly the top 50) law schools is much lower—less than 2 percent.[12]

The point here is not to call attention to the attrition rates of any particular doctoral programs. Rather, it is to suggest that this is the sort of information that should be accessible to prospective graduate students. Moreover, although offices of institutional research at many universities publish attrition or completion rates, very few philosophy departments post this information on their websites.[13] Some might argue that attrition information is misleading unless one knows the reasons for each departure. Both UNC and Wisconsin provide information about whether the student left with or without a master’s degree, and UNC reports whether the student transferred to another program. It also is easy enough to include, along with the attrition statistics, a general statement about the various reasons a student might have for leaving a program.[14] In our view, if a 21-year old prospective student is capable of deciding whether to enroll in a seven-year doctoral program in philosophy, then they likely have the ability to interpret that program’s attrition data as well.

In a recent Blog of the APA post Kevin Zollman argues that the extremely challenging job market for permanent positions in philosophy does not justify downsizing doctoral programs. (See also Justin Weinberg’s post at Daily Nous.) Prospective students should be free to make their own choices about whether to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy.[15] But as Professor Zollman notes, departmental faculty must be honest about the risks inherent in attending a doctoral program. These risks include attrition rates, median time to degree, initial job placement, and long-term placement (five and ten years after degree). To date this kind of transparency is largely lacking, even among selective doctoral programs. We think it’s past time for leading doctoral programs to begin disclosing the risks of enrollment—including the risk that the matriculant will never finish.

To see this, compare the range described above in terms of attrition: 11 to 36 percent. The mean number of 2012-2021 PhD graduates per program covered by APDA is 40. Thus, a low attrition program would have graduated 40 of an original 45 entering PhD students, whereas a high attrition program would have graduated 40 of an original 63 entering PhD students. The mean proportion of graduates from this period now in permanent academic employment is 38 percent (around 15 of the 40 students, on average). If we include attrition information, the proportion of entering PhD students now in permanent academic employment could vary from a high of 34 percent for low attrition programs to 24 percent for high attrition programs. This is a difference of around 1 in 3 to around 1 in 4 of the incoming students eventually getting permanent academic jobs. We take this to be a difference worth communicating to prospective graduate students.

To help visualize this, we created an infographic that highlights in orange those students now in permanent academic positions. Worth noting is how the orange group—that is, the proportion of those who end up in permanent academic jobs relative to all entering PhD students—varies with attrition rate. The first pair of slides use the range of 11 percent (low attrition) to 36 percent (high attrition) with average employment rates, whereas the second pair of slides compare two actual programs for demonstration purposes (Yale and Pittsburgh). The first pair of slides use APDA mean values for all 2012-2021 PhD graduates (38 percent in permanent academic jobs, 38 percent in temporary academic jobs, 15 percent in nonacademic jobs; APDA blog post), whereas the second pair use concrete values from the programs in question (APDA table).

Further, philosophy as an academic discipline has an interest in better understanding the nonacademic careers of its PhD graduates and helping to prepare them for those careers. Without attrition information we have an incomplete grasp of how many PhD students ultimately find themselves in nonacademic careers. If we take the same infographic used above and change the color codes, we can visualize this:

Now, all students who have attrited are coded with the same purple hue (but a different shade) as those now in nonacademic careers (since it is likely that those without a PhD are now in nonacademic careers). As above, it is worth noting the change in the proportion of purple from the first to the second slide, and from the third to the fourth slide. Again, this difference makes it all the more clear that a significant proportion of those who embark on PhD degrees in philosophy are now in nonacademic careers, and so philosophers ought to consider how best to prepare their PhD students for these careers.

Going forward, two questions warrant further consideration. First, what is the best way of collecting and reporting attrition information? And second, what does the information about attrition we already have tell us about philosophy doctoral programs? Regarding the first question, attrition information displayed on departmental websites is much more accessible to prospective students than information only available at the institutional level. The format used by North Carolina and Wisconsin is both easy to maintain and simple to understand. It is more useful than seven-, eight-, or ten-year completion data, which usually omit final attrition data. Likewise, it is better than annual attrition rates which, if raw numbers of attrited students are omitted, do not permit calculation of attrition rates over several years.

Regarding the second question, we believe that high rates of attrition, together with high rates of nonacademic employment for doctoral program graduates, belie any suggestion that the only function of a philosophy doctoral program is to train university faculty. To the contrary, in light of the diverse career paths doctoral program matriculants in fact take, program faculty should support the career paths of all doctoral students, including those who ultimately choose not to pursue university teaching positions.


NOTES

[1] See, for example, the website Academic Philosophy Data & Analysis (APDA).
[2] Similarly, it is difficult to obtain reliable and comprehensive statistics about those philosophy PhDs who teach for a few years and then leave academia.
[3] The following research on degree completion and attrition was undertaken by Martin Willard.
[4] The university does not identify its AAU peers except to say that they are “comparable programs at other public AAU institutions.”
[5] During the period 2006-2015 the University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral program enrolled 68 doctoral students. Of that number, 20 (29 percent) did not finish and were no longer enrolled as of 2022 (UW-Madison Program Statistics).
[6] This assumes that roughly 8 percent of the students remained enrolled after ten years, a figure consistent with Wisconsin’s AAU peer data.
[7] UC System philosophy doctoral program average admission rate is for the period 2016-21.
[8] Pittsburgh does not identify the number of students in each cohort. As a result, the total attrition rate for the period 2006-2015 could differ from the average annual rate of attrition.
[9] The average annual rate of attrition for Princeton’s entering cohorts from 2006 to 2015 is 17 percent.
[10] NYU’s philosophy department provided this information January 10, 2023.
[11] MIT combines attrition data for its linguistics and philosophy doctoral students.
[12] See TaxProf Blog for an analysis of relationship between law school attrition rates and median LSAT scores.
[13] On the other hand, some programs—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) (UNC Program Statistics) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison Program Statistics), for example—publish on their departmental websites the outcomes of each entering cohort: the number of students entering the program, the number completing it, and the number who left the program without completing it.
[14] UNC puts it this way: “Reasons for leaving the program vary widely. Some students may decide that they no longer wish to pursue philosophy. Some may leave for academic or medical reasons. Some may simply receive opportunities to pursue other activities that they find more attractive. Even students from the same cohort who are currently enrolled in our program may vary widely in their progress: students may be nearly completed with their dissertations or be on extended personal leave. Despite the coarse-grained character of the following information, we hope that you find it useful.”
[15] Justin Weinberg makes a similar point in Against Reducing the Number of Philosophy PhDs.


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Alex Bryant
1 year ago

Excellent post, thanks for this.

Two related questions that seem to call out for clarification given the eye-catching 30% claim:

1) Is there anywhere one can find out more about Willard’s research on attrition?
2) Is the Willard research/data inclusive of the data referred to in this post (i.e. below endnote 3), or did a separate investigation into attrition take place that is reflected in the remainder of the post?

David Wallace
1 year ago

Two small observations:

(1) Variations in attrition rates between departments need to be treated cautiously because of small-number statistics. Suppose that 100 departments each admit 40 students over a 10-year period, and each student has a 75% chance of completing the program, independent of which department they are at. Then the attrition rates across departments will range from 10% to 43%, with 30 departments having an attrition rate of 20% or below and 29 having an attrition rate of 30% or above – and it will be entirely because of statistical noise.

(2) I think there is value in separating “the only function of a philosophy doctoral program is to train university faculty” from “program faculty should support the career paths of all doctoral students“. Consider: 4-year medical schools apparently have an attrition rate of 16%-18% (https://www.aamc.org/media/48526/download), not so far from the numbers quoted in the OP for philosophy PhDs – but I take it everyone agrees that the predominant function of medical school is to train doctors. Since there is a non-trivial attrition rate, medical schools certainly ought to keep in mind the fact that many of their students will not go on to become doctors, and should support those who do not – but they can do so without denying that their intended function is to train doctors, that their faculty’s skillsets (as opposed to their university’s career center staff’s skillsets) are not optimized to help non-aspiring doctors to find employment, and that in the substantial majority of cases the right way to support the career path of someone who decides early in a 4-year medical program that they don’t want to be a doctor is to advise them to leave the program.

Rob Wilson
1 year ago

Thanks for the post. I wondered whether you might actually be significantly under-reporting the effective attrition rate, or at least I found myself asking that question at several points. If 56% have completed after 10 years in what is typically a 5-6 year program, with 8% still in progress, the attrition rate is very likely above 40%, given likely exhaustion of funding, death / moves of advisors, new early-in-life or late-in-life financial responsibilities, shifts in life plans, etc.. More generally, a 30s-ish figure for attrition is a minimum here, since there are still significant numbers of students susceptible to attrition; my thought is that those students are more susceptible and the real figure for attrition is likely between 40-44% in that case. Similar considerations apply to the attrition rates reported as in the 10-20% range for Yale, MIT, Michigan; some of those in the relevant cohort haven’t or have barely reached their 5-6 year program end, and there’s usually signficant attrition from 6+ years on for the reasons given.

For what it’s worth, when we were organising to form a grad student union in the 1980s at Cornell, we did a fairly comprehensive survey of *all* departments on work conditions, completion rates, salaries, etc. and found, much to my surprise at least, that completion rates were close to 50%, not only in philosophy but at least across the humanities and social sciences. (Higher in the sciences; it seemed that funding differentials were a major cause.). That’s in a program that had good funding, admitted 6-8 students per year (so likely offered 12-16 places) from 150+ applications, and had supportive faculty.

I also wondered about the use of the phrase “average annual attrition rate” later in the post and its relationship to total attrition. To me the phrase suggests the % of people who leave programs each year, on average. So after 3 years @ 20% per year, you’d have total attrition of roughly 49% (say, 20 of 100 in Year 1, 16 of 80 in Year 2, 12.8 of 64 in Year 3). Is this how you are thinking of the relationship between the two?

Martin Willard
1 year ago

Alex, David, and Rob–thanks for your comments!

Alex: We noted that attrition rates for philosophy doctoral programs often exceed 30 percent. This was not meant to refer to a comprehensive analysis but rather to information such as the attrition rates of Wisconsin’s AAU peers and the completion rates within the UC System, both of which are cited later in the post. Additional attrition information can be found in Beyond the Academy on the APA website. (https://www.apaonline.org/members/group_content_view.asp?group=110435&id=918649#attrition).

David: (1) I think we would be fine with departments posting an average attrition rate for all philosophy doctoral programs. The problem is that this information is not (to my knowledge) available. The attrition information that UNC and Wisconsin provide is, I think, the sort of thing most prospective students would find useful. Moreover, graduation rate by entering cohort is one of the disclosures the APA recommends departments make to prospective students. (https://www.apaonline.org/page/guidance_departments). Prospective students can use this information to make further inquiries about the reasons for attrition at specific programs of interest to them. 
(2) It is certainly true that philosophy faculty cannot serve as career counselors. But there may be steps faculty can take to facilitate the transition to non-academic careers. Some suggestions along these lines are offered in Beyond the Academy (https://www.apaonline.org/members/group_content_view.asp?group=110435&id=919027) as well as in a recently published book, The New PhD, by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch. (As a side note, the 16 to 18 percent figure is, I think, the rate of those MD-only students who did not complete medical school within four years. The reported average attrition rate for medical schools is 3 to 4 percent.)

Rob: It is difficult to say what the average attrition rate is for all doctoral programs, although I do think the 36 percent figure for Wisconsin’s peers is likely to be accurate, at least for that peer group. The attrition rates for Pittsburgh, Princeton, NYU, Yale, MIT and Michigan might not be representative of doctoral programs as a whole, but I’m not sure this is because of the percentage of continuing students. (I excluded recent cohorts with large numbers of continuing students.) It may well be programs such as these, which tend to offer better than average prospects for permanent academic employment, have lower than average attrition rates. 

Regarding the “average annual attrition rate,” each year of the cited bar chart represents an entering cohort, so this is the average entering cohort rate of attrition—which would have been a better way of saying this. As noted, the actual attrition rate could differ from this because entering cohort sizes can differ. 

Alex Bryant
Reply to  Martin Willard
1 year ago

Thanks Martin, apologies I didn’t see this earlier.

Eddy Nahmias
1 year ago

Thank you for this helpful data. I have wondered if the attrition rate for those who go into PhD programs with an MA in philosophy is lower than those who do not have MA. I suspect it’d be difficult to figure out.

Martin Willard
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
1 year ago

That’s an interesting question. Unfortunately, I have not seen any data comparing these attrition rates.

Charles Lassiter
1 year ago

not a question so much as a comment. “We think it’s past time for leading doctoral programs to begin disclosing the risks of enrollment—including the risk that the matriculant will never finish.” …Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for your work in moving the needle on these issues.

Martin Willard
Reply to  Charles Lassiter
1 year ago

Thanks!