The Journey of a Thousand Miles: New Findings on Attrition from History Ph.D. Programs

Less than half of all history doctoral students will complete their studies within ten years, according to a new study from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), giving history a lower 10-year completion rate than almost all other disciplines.

Drawing on information about doctoral students who entered programs in 1992–93 to 1994–95 academic years, the CGS Ph.D. Completion Project found that barely a quarter of history doctoral students completed the degree by their seventh year—the official termination point in some universities—and only about 48 percent completed the program by their tenth year (Figure 1).

Cumulative Completion Rates for Doctoral Students

This completion rate is significantly lower than our own estimates, which are based on data submitted from the history departments annually. In 2006, history PhD programs estimated that an average of 59 percent of the students who matriculated into their program in 1996 had completed the degree. But one of the issues we confronted in our survey was precisely how to determine when a student actually entered the doctoral program, given that some enter as Master’s students or some other form of transitional status. I spent a great deal of time working with departments trying to develop a consistent definition, but suspected we were excluding some people who left at a very preliminary stage.

The report is particularly helpful for providing some comparative for the other disciplines. From the annual surveys of PhD recipients, we know that history PhD’s take longer than the average for most fields (around 10 years of post-baccalaureate studies). But that only tells us about students who completed the degree, so we could only speculate about how many students fell by the wayside before they could finish the degree.

According to the CGS, students in the other humanities fields completed their programs at a slightly higher rate than history by their tenth year, though history seemed close to catching up at that point. Among the social sciences, students in anthropology and archaeology, political science, and sociology appeared to complete their degrees at a slightly slower rate than history—just approaching 45 percent by their 10th year. But in other science and social science disciplines, the completion rate was well over 60 percent by the tenth year.

Unfortunately, the report does not offer specific information on attrition from history PhD programs. But for the humanities in general, they report that slightly more than 15 percent of doctoral students gave up by their third year in the program, and more than a third gave up by year 10. Almost 19 percent of humanities doctoral students were still counted on the books as continuing toward the degree in their tenth year. The report also points to modest, but not dramatic, differences in the completion rate based on the size of the program (based on the number of students in each entering class) and whether it was a public or private institution.

We will be keeping a close eye on this as more information from this project becomes available, and reexamining our own surveys to see how we might make them better.

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  1. Mary Dudziak

    Although you say that history has “a lower 10-year completion rate than almost all other disciplines,” another way to read the same data is that the numbers in history are nearly identical to the rest of the humanities, and fairly close to some social sciences, including economics. The big gap, not surprisingly, is between the humanities and science and mathematics. The figures are still troubling, but in addressing it, it’s helpful to know that other fields are in the same boat. My conclusion on the Legal History Blog: it is in everyone’s interest to determine ways to make progress toward the PhD, across fields, an education, and not a career.

  2. Sherman Dorn

    The beginning-point question is a legitimate question. In terms of other questions, there are standard statistical tools (survival or event-history analysis) that can address issues of attrition.