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    The Crucial Issue of Doctoral Non-completion
    Chapter 1: The Crucial Issue of Doctoral Non-completion

    The completion rate for Ph.D. degrees has become a topic of pressing, national attention in recent decades for graduate school deans, public and private funding agencies, faculty members, and graduate students. Despite recent national attention focusing on doctoral completion, the Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project, which examined both private and public institutions nationally, reports that the completion rate ten years after students begin their doctoral program remains low at 56.6% (Sowell, Zhang, Redd, & King, 2008). Additionally, the analysis indicates that completion rates continue to vary considerably by field of study: 49.3% in humanities, 54.7% in mathematics and physical sciences, 55.9% in social sciences, 62.9% in life sciences, and 63.6% in engineering. Such low completion rates result in concerns ranging from the waste of limited resources and our "domestic talent pool," to the detrimental effects on students’ lives (Smallwood, 2004; Workshop on Graduate School Attrition, 1997).


    Doctoral non-completion is an expensive proposition not only for society and institutions, but also for individuals. Doctoral education exists, in part, to meet highly educated individuals’ needs for advanced learning opportunities. Doctoral coursework is expensive because, by design, it tends to have a much higher teacher-student ratio than undergraduate work and because each doctoral student requires many hours of one-on-one research supervision by a member of the research faculty. Whether or not a student graduates, each and every doctoral student represents a substantial investment in terms of time, intellectual resources and public and private dollars. When students graduate, they move out into various professional domains as representatives of their university, with their accomplishments reflecting on the university, and with their professional work serving as recompense to the taxpayers and other individuals and organizations that fund doctoral education. When Ph.D. students fail to graduate, there is little or no return on these investments. For example, society misses out on scientific or social advancement the students would have created later in their careers (Lovitts, 2001). In addition, "low Ph.D. production rates … put the existence of doctoral programs (and the faculty who teach them) at risk" (Lovitts, 2001, p. 3).


    Would-be graduates also make substantial investments in doctoral education. Doctoral students move families, incur financial obligations, and surrender substantial opportunity costs in order to pursue their degrees. Furthermore, they make a substantial psychological investment, since doctoral study presents an incisive challenge to the ego integrity of academically-oriented individuals. If they complete their degrees, Ph.D. graduates can move into professional positions that justify the costs incurred by students and their families. Failure to complete can leave individuals with psychological and family turbulence, massive debt and limited career potential (Golde & Dore, 2001; Lovitts, 2001).


    While it is clear that this widespread problem of non-completion impacts students, faculty, administration, and society, the sober reality is that doctoral completion rates remain low. Due to heightened awareness of this issue, many institutions and departments have implemented programs ranging from improving targeted recruitment to establishing mentoring groups (Barry, 2005; Guadelope-Williams, 2005). Although well-intentioned and worthwhile, many of the approaches for improving completion rates are piecemeal in nature. Specifically, the majority of the practices currently being implemented target solely one aspect of doctoral education.


    In a review of current scholarly literature about this trend, several questions arise. Why do we not approach the study of this salient issue in the same comprehensive and integrative manner through which we conceptualize research topics in our individual field, whether that be physical sciences, social sciences, or humanities? Moreover, when most of us frequently rely on data analysis in our own subject areas, why is it that we are less likely to utilize research and data pertaining to this national concern which impacts our own professions?


    The Graduate School at the University of Georgia sought to develop a comprehensive strategy for improving doctoral education and, in turn, completion rates, by approaching the problem in much the same way we approach our own research—in a data-based and systematic manner. In this monograph, we will describe the comprehensive and data-driven methods prompting action by both administration and doctoral programs. Before explaining these methods in detail, Chapter 2 briefly describes the premise of our work examining doctoral completion.


    Each of the remaining chapters focuses on our findings regarding university-wide and program-level policies that facilitate doctoral completion. Chapter 3 explains the role of a university’s administration, both as a proactive leader in the examination of doctoral completion, and as a support to doctoral programs at a university. Chapters 4 through 7 delineate the doctoral completion literature and findings from our studies as they relate to the theoretical framework we developed. Lastly, Chapter 8 provides strategies that graduate school administration and doctoral program faculty members can utilize in order to improve doctoral completion. The information in this monograph describes the doctoral education improvement process at the University of Georgia (UGA) and is designed to be a resource for graduate school deans, university administrators, and doctoral faculty. While we hope it will be a valuable resource for your university and doctoral programs, it is important to note that not all of the recommendations and ideas from this monograph will be appropriate for every organization. Additionally, please refer to our website at to learn more about our research project.


    Back: Front Matter      Next: Chapter 2


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