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The Ph.D. Completion Project

High attrition rates and lengthy times to degree in many doctoral programs inspired the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) to implement in 2004 the Ph.D. Completion Project, a seven-year, grant-funded initiative at 29 U.S. and Canadian research universities. With support from Pfizer Inc. and the Ford Foundation, the program is collecting data from participating institutions and assessing the impact of interventions in such areas as selection of graduate students, mentoring, and financial support.

Historically, fewer than three-quarters of students who enter U.S. doctoral programs complete their degrees. In Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, the completion rate was higher for men than women, and women were more likely to take longer to complete their degrees. Over all fields, minorities tended to complete their degrees at lower rates than white students. Interestingly, while African-Americans had lower Ph.D. completion rates than whites in engineering and math and physical sciences (47 and 37 percent as compared to 60 and 52 percent), both groups completed degrees in life science at the about the same rate (60 percent). Researchers have attributed this to NIH-sponsored programs for minority students and to university-led interventions that began in the 1990s.

Research shows that most students entering doctoral programs (including women and minorities, who are less likely to finish Ph.D. programs than men or majority students) possess the academic ability to complete the degree.  The Ph.D. Completion Project has identified six institutional and program characteristics that influence student outcomes: selection, mentoring, financial support, program environment, research mode of the field, and processes and procedures.

At Brown University, my alma mater and a participant in the program, efforts focused on supporting grad students at "critical transitions" in their early years of academic study. This included more emphasis on careful selection of advisors and reaching academic milestones within one's academic program, as well as additional resources for students seeking funding and writing grants. These were augmented by the establishment of services for advanced students preparing to write their dissertations. Students seeking help in translating their research into writing can now consult with a dissertation writing coach or attend workshops designed especially for those making the transition from researcher to writer.

Demand for workers with advanced training and degrees, as well as concern over the small representation of women and minorities graduating with higher degrees, is a major impetus behind this project. The Ph.D. Completion Project seeks to address growing concerns over the competitiveness of the United States, particularly in science, engineering, and mathematics. Even small improvements in attrition and completion rates would have a large impact on many of these issues and the composition especially of the U.S. science and engineering workforce.