Love and marriage and progress-to-degree: Surprising effect of marital status and gender on PhD completion

From Educating scholars: doctoral education in the humanities:

We ask “Do the gender differences in attrition and completion patterns that we have observed reflect differences in family status by gender?”

To preview our findings, we find that there are no gender differences in the attrition and completion among students who are single. The overall gender differences in completion rates and attrition rates that we observed… are driven by the fact that married men are less likely to leave graduate school and more likely to earn degrees, whereas married women and single women do not differ in these respects. Having children at the time of entry to doctoral study is associated with increased chances of completing the degree within 10 years among men (but not significantly so), but this is not the case with women. Furthermore married men with children at the time of entry to doctoral study have shorter TTD [Time to Degree] than single men. In short marriage and fatherhood are beneficial for men when it comes to completing degrees. At the same time, contrary to popular expectation, marriage and motherhood are not detrimental for women (157, emphasis added).

I’ve long felt that the greatest pressure on attrition in graduate school, particularly PhD programmes, but also lower levels, is life. I.e. one is in graduate school at exactly the same time in one’s life when people with similar abilities and training are establishing themselves in careers, business, and, especially, families. As with the “popular expectation,” I assumed this would result in greater attrition pressures on women.

So it was a surprise to see that marital status has its real effect on the attrition of male students and that it doesn’t affect women.

I suppose I’m not surprised to see that marriage might have a positive effect on men (it generally seems to). But I’d been sure it would have a negative effect on women.

One unfortunate thing is that it for technical reasons the authors found it not possible to draw conclusions about the effect marriage-while-in-programme has on student completion and attrition rates. I wonder, for example, if those single men (i.e. the ones who were single on entry) are leaving due to additional pressures from beginning in-programme relationships or families? Another interesting question would be whether students who marry-in-programme differ by gender in the educational and professional focus of their spouses? I.e. do women tend to marry other graduate students or faculty members? Do men tend more often to marry women outside academia or in “portable” professions like law, medicine, and teaching? My anecdotal experience suggests they might which may help explain the attrition of men who were single on entrance.

That male and female graduate students have different kinds of marital experiences, both before and during graduate school is suggested by an interesting table in Educating Scholars (Table 7.1, p. 159): female graduate students have about twice the divorce rate of male students on both entry and exit (3.8% vs. 1.8% divorced by entry; 7.2% vs. 4.3% by exit).


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