Tuesday, September 11, 2007


In comments from a few days ago, JC bemoans the PhD graduation rate at his alma mater. I can relate—my dept has a pretty dismal attrition rate. And while on the face of things this might look like just one more way my dept excels in its suckitude, upon closer reflection I’m not so sure.

A lot of the people who don’t finish the program really shouldn’t finish—they get kicked out or wither away because they just can’t hack it. This is a good thing, ultimately. Depts aren’t doing people any favors by stringing them along when they have no hope of ever working in the profession.

And then there are the folks who bail because they’ve got something better going on. It was a pretty formative moment in my graduate education when I realized that the people who made it all the way through my program weren’t necessarily the smartest or the best philosophers. Often, they were the ones who stuck around because they had nothing better to do.

But there are also people—really good people—who don’t finish because many of our faculty members are perfectly happy to let good people fall through the cracks. I’ll save my bitching about those fuckers for another post.

Still, it’s sort of a mixed bag, the attrition thing.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think the best predictor for grad. school success is how good you are at getting up again after being knocked down. Of the entering students in my year, five (out of an initial of around 15) got Ph.Ds. This was a much higher percentage than the classes preceding ours or since. Of these five, three of us ultimately got tenure track jobs (after being instructors and visiting assistants at various places around the country for a number of years). One of those three's performance had been so bad his first year of grad. school that his funding was almost pulled. Another was told after taking his candidacy exam that even though he'd passed, he needed to reevaluate if he wanted to continue in the program. The third lost his funding the semester he was defending. Besides being the last people that faculty members would have predicted would get tenure track jobs, what these people had in common was dogged, irrational perseverance when bloodied (and, given the state of the market, they had good luck in common as well).

You are right that six years is a long time in your mid-twenties, and a lot of people who leave graduate school simply decide to go on to other things.

This being said, the Leiter Report would be much more helpful if each department ranked had to state the percentage of their students that had tenure track jobs eight years after matriculation. Placement statistics are meaningless without knowing attrition rate of entering students and then modding for that.

Also, I worry that schools with such high attrition rates (and programs with bad placement rates for that matter) are in effect exploiting people for cheap grading. Maybe Texas A & M has it right. You can't get a Ph.D in Philosophy there without getting an M.A. in something else. This ends up giving people other more readily available options.

Anonymous said...

Some of the stats are problematic though, and I wonder if anyone has a real sense of the attrition rate. I recall in grad school seeing reports that indicated that attrition rates are actually best "guesses", since people who simply "disappear" after course-work and/or exams are not always assumed to have left the program (and may not EVER do so officially). And the odd case of someone finishing after a decade makes programs loathe to write anyone off officially, although my hearing a retiring prof asking the "who are these people" question about a list of names he had (formally!) signed on to advise is a bit chilling still...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's why it would be best if the statistics just had percentage of people with tenure track jobs a certain number of years (say 10) after matriculation. For example, a school with 50% of the 1997 matriculating class having tenure track jobs by 2007 would still rank higher than one with 5%.

Leiter is still the best resource for determining where you should go, but it's still very flawed in just this way. He very effectively measures perceived star power of faculty, but there are tons of other factors determining the likelihood of placement. For example- (1) Do the degree requirements and faculty help students have a maximum number of papers under review or published by the time they get out? (2) Does the school have adjunct work for recent grads so that they can stay in the game for a few years? (3) Does the institution give students experience teaching a variety of classes, and help them put together a good teaching portfolio? (4) Are the students coming out of the place so narrow that they are likely to be viewed as bad interlocutors and teachers by second, third, and fourth tier instituions? (5) Does the institution support (financially as well as in terms of practice and proofreading) students giving papers at conferences prior to their graduation?

Lower tiered (in terms of faculty fame) schools that excel in all of these things will have better placement than schools that don't do these, or that do them badly. For example, my subjective impression is that at least during the nineties (I just don't know what's going on there now) Bowling Green had a very good placement rate. The practical ethics grads they were putting out had reputations as also being very solid in core analytic, and their students were very active in presenting papers and publishing.

It's probably not possible to delineate all of the ways departments can excel and falter here. This is why Leiter should just post percentages of matriculating students with tenure track jobs ten years on. I predict there would be surprises.

Anonymous said...

speaking of master degrees in something other than philosophy paying off:

i bet they'll be rushing to get masters degrees in philosophy anytime...

Anonymous said...

Jon Cogburn is right: it makes sense to have placement data arranged by entering year not by graduating year. The latter hides the attrition rate -- and also time to degree.

And don't get me started on exploiting grad students for teaching. That seems to be the basis of the economic model my university operates on. And there's nothing faculty can do about it.

-- A Guy with Tenure

Anonymous said...

Still on the subject of exploitation, I happened to be reviewing my department's rules and regulations for grad students (don't ask, but the explanation has something to do with my not having a life), and I came across a clause that says, very clearly, that, when there is a conflict between a graduate student's teaching obligations and, say, their other obligations (like writing a dissertation), they are to remember that they are contractually bound employees of the university and should pretend that they aren't also doing something as frivolous as writing a dissertation.

-- A Guy with Tenure

Anonymous said...

There were six students who entered my program with me. Five are still around, while one is MIA. Stories abound about his whereabouts. Some say he went insane, others say it was his love of white noise (seriously), others claim he married his rocker girlfriend, and others say he couldn't teach his classes and was frightened by students. I always wonder where such students disappear to. Oh well, such is life. Keep grinding, right?

Anonymous said...

I'll take a page out of 50 cent's book. Get a Ph.D or die trying, then publish or simply die.