Schools Seek To Shorten PhD Times

At a recent workshop in Virginia, graduate-school leaders bemoaned U.S.’s less-than-stellar doctoral completion rates, discussing ways to improve student retention, communication, and mentorship. But at Harvard, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students fare “a lot better” than those at other universities, according to former GSAS Dean Theda Skocpol.

Only about 57 percent of the nation’s graduate students complete their Ph.D.’s within 10 years, though graduation rates in different disciplines vary greatly, according to a study released by the Council of Graduate Schools, the workshop’s co-sponsor.

“It is certainly a continuing and growing concern of graduate deans,” said William B. Russel, dean of the graduate school at Princeton. “There are projects that are gathering more data on the present situation.”

Russel said that graduate schools should focus on mentoring students and providing realistic expectations for applicants.

“Many of us are beginning to put data on the Web that at least show admissions, data completion and attrition data, and placement data,” he said.

Russel cited Yale and Duke as graduate schools which have been making online information more available for students, but said that Harvard and his own school Princeton are not up-to-par when it comes to providing online information.

Skocpol disagreed with the assessment of Harvard, saying that Harvard does an excellent job communicating the realities of graduate school to applicants and students alike.

“There certainly isn’t any issue of transparency at Harvard,” she said. “All students are told what the funding is and how they can get fellowships and it has a big effect.”

Additionally, Skocpol said that Harvard’s Ph.D. completion rate is “way above” the national average, though she could not provide the exact percentage.

According to Kyle M. Brown, president of the Graduate Student Council, the obligations of academics, the difficulties of finding money for tuition and research, and increasing personal obligations make life hard for graduate school students.

“As graduate students are older, they often have families or spouses and they have to worry more about funding,” he said. “They’re no longer provided for by parents and you have to worry about supporting yourself and completing your degree.”

Skocpol said that Harvard plays an active role in giving social and financial support to graduate students. For example, Harvard provides daycare for children and fully-funded fellowships when students who are finishing their Ph.D.’s.

“Harvard does a good job to support us,” Brown said, adding that the most important factor for graduate school completion is the individual’s perseverance. “It’s all about self-motivation.”

GSAS Dean Allan M. Brandt was not available for comment.