Half Of American PhD Students Drop Out, And No One Is Talking About It

The hard truth is that capitalism is turning graduate school into a confidence game.

You read that title right.  Half — roughly 50% — of Ph.D. students in American programs drop out before completing their degrees.  The numbers are a little better in STEM fields, with roughy 60% graduating, and worse in the Humanities, hovering around 49% graduating (with a higher likelihood that students will stick around for years before leaving without their degrees).  What, exactly, is going on here?

Look, the Ph.D. student is no delicate flower.  You have to be pretty dedicated to a subject if you’re going to pursue a Ph.D. in it.  You have to be willing to pack up and move, often across the country or even to a foreign country, and survive in a strange place on a small salary (the average Ph.D. stipend is around $30,000 a year, though this number seems high to me–in the humanities, I’ve seen stipends range between $16,000 and $25,000, if the stipend is offered at all). You have to be willing to socialize almost exclusively with other academics (often a prickly task), and spend most of your spare time on research and teaching, often with minimal support. Most suffer from stress, loneliness, imposter syndrome, and a host of other emotional issues that often come with the academic lifestyle.  The person who sizes up these risks and still decides to pursue a doctoral degree is a person who values academics over just about everything else.

These may sound like rare qualities, but the fact is, there are too many qualified, deserving graduate students for the academic job market to support.  While the number of PhDs awarded in the U.S. is increasing to a record number with each year (see the above link), job prospects are dwindling in comparison.  Tenure-track professorial positions — that is, the coveted university teaching and research career that is the goal of most Ph.D. students, especially in the humanities — are decreasing as universities hire more and more adjunct instructors.  For those not up on their academic lingo, an adjunct instructor is basically a part-time professor, hired by the class and not provided with benefits, research pay, or job security.  Adjunct professors work more hours than tenured professors and get paid less — in the $20-25,000 range, for those able to find enough work to support a life as a full-time adjunct (by no means guaranteed). This is barely more than one-third the average salary for a beginning tenure-track professor.  These “contingent faculty” make up about three-quarters of university instructors, making the labor crisis in university teaching just as ravaging as that of the gig economy in fields like writing and graphic design — especially since adjunct work, by its piecemeal nature, often leaves workers underemployed.

It isn’t long before the exploitation inherent in the present university system causes doctoral students serious stress.  Graduate students are high mental health risks and support to that end is rarely provided to them. Those who leave often end up mired in student debt and with few career prospects.  How did we get here? Why is nobody taking action?  And what can we do about it?

Now comes the time for full disclosure: I’m one of the 51% of humanities Ph.D. students that left their program before graduating.  Here’s my story: I come from a family of educators, one side in particular being loaded with English professors of distinction, all of them having found steady tenured employment in the post-war education boom.  I was always an advanced reader and a high academic achiever; I had a panic attack the first (and only) time I failed a high school test. I graduated from my undergraduate and masters institutions with honors, and then I moved to Connecticut to pursue my Ph.D. with the goal of becoming a professor, as was the family tradition.  And that’s where I hit the wall. My academic work remained successful, but the isolation and stress of the Ph.D. student’s lifestyle, combined with a hopelessness brought on by the thin job prospects and my own anxiety, made it impossible for me to stay. I left after two years, having successfully completed my coursework but with no certificate to show for it.  And this is typical of half the people in my position.

The ivory tower is crumbling.

Well, you might be thinking, sure, I knew that.  But for someone like me, raised in the belief that the academic world offered a certain type of life as a public intellectual, it is a frightening prospect.  Tens of thousands of students like me enter Ph.D. programs each year, believing that education is the highest good, and that professorship is a lifestyle earned by their years of dedication to academics.  And the value of such is, at the very least, rapidly changing.

I’m not necessarily blaming universities themselves for this–at least in the case of public universities, a decrease in funding is certainly contributing to the increasingly exploitative labor model–but the fact remains.

So how do we fix the problem — increase Ph.D. graduation rates and improve job prospects for those who get the degree?  Some have suggested that the key to decreasing Ph.D. attrition is in some form of change to university culture. This is an excellent point–better mental health care and emotional and intellectual support systems would also do wonders.  Some blame for the attrition rates is surely due to a lack of promising job prospects, and many suggest significant amendments to the current university labor model. This is also an excellent idea. The adjunct teaching model is not a viable replacement for the old tenure-track model, and should not be treated as such.  Professors deserve benefits and job security.

The problem with these approaches, however, is their top-down nature.  There is negligible overlap between those capable of changing university culture and labor structure, and those who stand to benefit from the changes.  So I recommend another top-down approach, but one I think would please just about every academic type I’ve encountered: until things change, let’s limit the number of students admitted to Ph.D. programs in the first place.  And for those of us inclined to the academic life, let’s give more serious consideration to the idea of opting out of the current system, putting aside the fear and shame with which we are trained to view such a prospect.

Think about it.  Fewer PhDs means fewer academic job candidates, means higher labor costs, means changes to the system.  Think of how the Black Death reshaped the economy of fourteenth-century Europe.

Or, better yet, think of Saruman standing atop the ruins of his tower at Isengard.  Imagine no Grima Wormtongue at his back. How would you propose we bring him down, if not by starving him out?

Education is important.  After all this, I still believe that critical thinking and lifelong intellectual engagement can save us all.  The kind of intellectual work that academics do–or, at least, intend to do–is good and necessary. But the hard truth is that capitalism is turning graduate school into a confidence game.  For now, the only way we can escape unscathed is by refusing to play.


[Image via Shutterstock]


Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is a survivor of Academia and an aspiring elegant person. She lives in St. Louis with her family and a lot of books.
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