Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?

Dec 4, 2016

By Te-Erika Patterson

With half of all doctoral students leaving graduate school without finishing, something significant and overwhelming must be happening for at least some of them during the process of obtaining that degree. Mental illness is often offered as the standard rationale to explain why some graduate students burn out. Some research has suggested a link between intelligence and conditions such as bipolar disorder, leading some observers to believe many graduate students struggle with mental-health problems that predispose them to burning out.

But such research is debatable, and surely not every student who drops out has a history of mental illness. So, what compels students to abandon their path to a Ph.D.? Could there be other underlying factors, perhaps environmental, that can cause an otherwise-mentally-healthy graduate student to become anxious, depressed, suicidal, or, in rare cases, violent?

Research suggests that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs possess the academic ability to complete their studies, but systemic issues at schools may lead to high attrition and mental distress among graduate students. In exploring what exacerbates mental-health issues among graduate students, it may be wise to shift the focus away from labeling graduate students “deficient” to investigate how institutions themselves may be causing attrition.


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8 comments on “Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?

  • Hmm … maybe it relates to the fact that doctorial studies are by their nature very effort intensive, typically difficult, and high stress. Add to this that students often have financial worries, and in a modern twist now face increasingly dubious job prospects upon graduation (nothing like be the most educated person at your McWorkplace). Could it be that such things might leave them to wonder if they will ever really get tangible benefits from all their education? Just a guess …



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  • NorthernVoice #1
    Dec 4, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Could it be that such things might leave them to wonder if they will ever really get tangible benefits from all their education?

    A few years ago one of my sons decided that he was more likely to get tangible benefits to help his career, by doing short training courses on specific subjects relevant to his work, rather than a post-graduate degree, which he thought would simply put him a couple of years behind the field he was working in, and then land him with the problem of acquiring another well paid job on qualifying.

    He is now technical director of the IT company where he works at a level well above a post grad degree.



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  • I think I may be missing something.

    This story covers the stresses and strains of studying at the highest level. The author leans in the direction of emphasising a need to support the mental health of these graduate students – with the down side being that poor support means they drop out.

    One could comment that perhaps it’s not a bad thing that half of all graduate students drop out – perhaps their ideas are just not that great? The Atlantic doesn’t say.

    One could also comment that faculty have a lot to do and expecting them to mentor doctoral students is a bit rich – PhD students are (with very rare exceptions) adults and they’re presumably interested in what they’re studying? The Atlantic does not seem to seek any evidence, but merely parrots the comments of those who support a model of: All grad students are good, therefore we must be at fault by not supporting them enough and that’s why they drop out. The Atlantic promotes this idea by being wholly uncritical.

    We’re given a few comments and studies saying that students complain about a lack of support. There are no control groups, or blinds, but the Atlantic is pretending that this is empirical data, not just anecdotal.

    Do sales people complain that they get no support from their Sales Manager, that they feel they have to manage their problems on their own, that they get stressed out when presenting their results and are they sometimes paranoid about what their Sales Manager and Directors thinks of them? From my very significant experience: Yes, yes, yes and yes – in spades.

    Do workers, in every field, ever stop complaining about their managers.

    Are the students just a bunch of whiners? It seems like they might be. We’re given the example of someone who found the switch from undergraduate to graduate studies a challenge – from “doting professors” to “You get [it] or you get out”. It seems to me that this person might just as well complain about growing up and having to do things for herself. In addition, being a graduate student surely comes with the perfectly reasonable expectation that you (a) know what your studying,(b) have the skills of a graduate – i.e. the honed-razor-sharp ability to study and (c) you’re fully engaged in the subject because, hey, you’re studying it at the leading edge – right? “You get [it] or you get out” seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable stance in that scenario. Am I wrong, and if so why?

    Does the level of faculty interest correlate with the level of grad student innovation, or the newness of their perspective? This avenue is left unexplored by the Atlantic. At the end of the day, when all’s said and done, PhD studies are supposed to produce work that pushes forward, that develops, their chosen field. If that isn’t happening, why would a professor (or indeed anyone, ever) even be inclined to be engaged – especially if they have students who are doing something interesting and useful? I’ll bet that correlates in some way with the 6% figure.

    Are some students trying too hard? We’re given the example of a family man with a full-time job who is also studying for a PhD. That’s a lot of work, by any measure, and I just can’t empathize with someone who is essentially being greedy and moaning about something he decided to do for himself because he took on too much.

    As someone who suffers from depression I sympathise with the those graduate students experiencing stress-based depression – though I note that this is largely (if the Atlantic is to be believed) a self-inflicted injury as the students seem to mostly stress themselves out by having too high expectations of themselves. And, again, they chose this path themselves – as the Atlantic notes, there is no evidence that a PhD is an advantage outside academia. They don’t have to do it. This, it seems to me, is actually the main reason most grad students drop out – realization of futility. They’re bright people after all.

    Universities, in the Administration Building, have a vested interest in pumping up the number of graduate students – for the money (even the half that drop out will put in at least a year’s worth of fees) and for the reflected glory from those who graduate with a PhD. Might these be perverse incentives, and might they be a part of the reason that faculty are overburdened with students and can’t give them enough time? Might this be the tail wagging the dog – is a business model for academia damaging universities? The Atlantic is silent – one might even say deviantly so.

    The Atlantic is pushing the universities’-administrative-departmental-agenda, the all-human-institutions-are-better-for-being-run-like-businesses meme, promoting the cult of the-individual-at-the expense-of-wider-society, the hard-work-is-noble-at-any-personal-cost fantasy, a university is, like, Big School idiocy, the a-survey-is-automatically-scientific trope, the all-students-are-children-in-disguise-who-must-be-given-extra-mattresses madness and the certificates-are-important-and-should-be-awarded-to-time-servers-who-pay-their-bills foolery (disclaimer: I only included the easy-to-spot ones, there may be others).

    So far so normal in a Skeptical Critical Media Reader reads the Atlantic.

    Still, I can’t help thinking I’m missing something.



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  • “(S)hift the focus away from labeling graduate students “deficient” to investigate how institutions themselves may be causing attrition.” EXACTLY!

    I gave up 2/3s of the way through my second MA (after having had several years teaching experience as well) primarily because the tenured faculty at that second graduate school were so lazy. About the same time that I quit, I remember seeing an interview with a columnist for Roll Call (in the US) who said: “Make ’em work a 40-hour week!” I was a member of AAUP up to the point when I overheard one of the older, tenured graduate faculty members say, in the elevator we were both in, that “perhaps the MA comps should be a take-home exam”! Sure, make the most important test for Master’s students a who-can-cheat-the-best exercise. Then, it became apparent that these language specialists did not know how to write test questions (Describe some of the advantages of theory X. Some? three or four or five?) or even model answers to delineate what they were looking for as acceptable answers.
    Don’t get me wrong. I still remember with great respect my undergrad and first grad mentors: men of knowledge who typed ditto masters on old manual typewriters or wrote out by hand on the backs of old department memos, supplemental materials: Because you need to read/learn this!!! But the majority of the faculty in my second graduate department should have been stripped of the academic rank, defrocked, and booted out to the curbside.



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  • I’m currently doing an MA in Political Science, and although I have not technically quit the program, I as well as the vast majority of my colleagues will quite likely refrain from continuing on with a PhD, chiefly because such a path is just economically unsound. I’m quite positive that the vast majority of undergrad students have dealt with “sessional instructors” at some point during their studies, and I’m sure that some students will inevitably come to discover that these instructors get paid peanuts (it seems that they even make less than full-time teachers who typically have way less education!). With the politics of tenure, tenure track, etc., pervading throughout universities, it seems like pursuing a PhD is not as practical as it used to be before. I thought tenure was based on meritocracy — in that tenure is achieved by producing a number of quality publications — but now I am seeing that is not the case. And if you’re not interested in becoming a professor, then having a PhD may be even more disadvantageous because it makes you overqualified for normal jobs.



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  • With the politics of tenure, tenure track, etc… I thought tenure was based on meritocracy — in that tenure is achieved by producing a number of quality publications — but now I am seeing that is not the case.

    Do you actually have any reliable evidence to support your claim?

    My experience is that, in research universities, tenuring is indeed based on measures of academic success which, these days, is very much dependent also on the ability to secure external sources of funding (a very competitive endeavor, as anyone who has tried it knows very well).

    In my view, the notion that tenure is some kind of nepotistic, political or socialistic privilege that should be gotten rid of is suspect and dangerous, to say the very least.



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  • nkarimi #5
    Dec 8, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    I’m currently doing an MA in Political Science, and although I have not technically quit the program, I as well as the vast majority of my colleagues will quite likely refrain from continuing on with a PhD, chiefly because such a path is just economically unsound.

    I think students of any subject at any level should look at the number of students graduating from those courses and the available employment IN those subjects, along with what sort of competition there is for those jobs.

    Some subjects are extremely competitive, with only the very best having a chance to enter specialist professions.- Often after internships.

    Other subjects have minimal employment prospects anyway – beyond “having some sort of degree”!

    Yet more subjects have a very strong demand for qualified people – but the courses can be very demanding – and so can the jobs which follow!



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