Publish or perish: Should graduate students publish before graduation?

The Graduate Education Initiative (GEI) discussed in Educating scholars: Doctoral education in the humanities was focussed on improving graduate education.

Two important premises of the project were that improvement would involve reducing time-to-degree (TTD) and both reducing and shifting attrition among entering cohorts (so that less people dropped out and those that did dropped out earlier). Driving these premises lay the startling statistics about TTD and attrition in Humanities PhD programmes: about 50% of entering students left their programmes before completion, and about 1/2 of those who stayed failed to complete their degree by the end of their seventh year (the mean TTD across departments was 7 years, 3.5 months).

Speeding up time to degree, however, brings with it potential costs as well: perhaps humanities graduate students are taking so long to write their dissertations because the work is intrinsically time-consuming, or because they are concentrating on quality over speed, or because they are writing articles and otherwise polishing their resumes in preparation for the job market. Does speeding up TTD at the cost of these activities improve graduate education?

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Those who can’t teach do? The importance of “failure” to the survival of the humanities

Educating scholars: doctoral education in the humanities has an interesting set of chapters addressing the question of what happens to PhD students after they leave their programmes, with or without a degree.

The study of focussed on graduates of prominent departments in ten elite universities who were in programme in the period between 1991 and 2001 and so is looking at both a fairly strongly marked class of student and a strongly marked time period: the students they are following had what they describe as high “departmental prestige” when they entered the job market; and, while predictions of the faculty shortage in humanities that in part prompted this study (4) never actually appeared, their subjects do appear to have graduated into an academic job market that was more open than that immediately before or afterwards.

So with all these provisos in mind, what happened to the students? A number of sets of figures stand out.

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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.

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