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ND average time to Ph.D. – 6.1 years

Jenn Metz | Friday, October 12, 2007

Notre Dame’s 1,300 doctoral students at The Graduate School complete their degrees in an average of 6.1 years, two years less than the national average of 8.2 years, according to the National Science Foundation.

Terry Akai, the senior associate dean of The Graduate School, said Notre Dame’s policies, such as requiring dissertation topic approvals within a certain time frame, are the major mechanisms keeping the time reasonable.

“We want them gainfully employed. We use carrots and sticks to push them out the door,” he said.

Doctoral students in 20 programs make up more than two thirds of The Graduate School population, which totals about 1,800. The students who are not on the path to a Ph.D. are either enrolled in Masters-only programs or working toward Masters degrees in Ph.D. programs.

Science and Engineering are the most popular divisions of study at The Graduate School, with 61 percent of incoming Ph.D. students choosing to enter one of the two areas. About 25 percent of Enrollments in each field are based on the number of faculty in each department and on available funding, which is “sort of a limiter,” Akai said.

“Most Ph.D. students in good schools are supported by the institution in some way, either by assistantships, internal and external fellowships or research grants advisors have,” he said.

Doctoral students are guaranteed varying degrees of funding for at least four years if they remain in good academic standing. Usually students receive funding for five years, and, depending on resources, can receive funding in their sixth year, Akai said.

“For most students, they can count on four to six years of financial support from the University, depending on the discipline,” he said.

More than 85 percent of Notre Dame graduate students received stipends during the 2006-7 academic year.

The base stipend for a new graduate student is $16,000 for nine months. For those students who are on prestigious national fellowships or who are in competitive programs, that stipend can be as much as $30,000 for 12 months.

“Our stipend is not out of line for our location,” Akai said. “But I’m sure a graduate student would want to see more.”

Most students receive between $1,700-2,500 a month in a stipend to cover living expenses, in addition to tuition scholarships, Akai said.

The Graduate School’s Web site says that graduate students “generally receive full-tuition scholarships for the duration of their graduate studies.”

According to The Graduate School, approximately 37 percent of stipends were from external sources, such as grants, and about 15 percent were from endowments.

“In terms of relative value, it depends on how people see things,” Akai said. “At Ivy League schools, the stipend is a little bit higher, but their cost of living is very high. … We’re in a relatively cheap part of the U.S.”

The National Science Foundation report said about 50 percent of doctoral candidates drop out of their programs.

The attrition rate at Notre Dame is slightly less than 40 percent, Akai said. Students drop out of their Ph.D. programs, which are open-ended research degrees, for various reasons.

“Some students come into the Ph.D. without a clear reason for doing so,” he said. “At some point along the Ph.D. path, students run out of coursework and have to start generating their own new work.”

Though some programs include research and coursework simultaneously from the beginning, many doctoral students must complete about two to three years of coursework before starting their individual research, which includes proposing a dissertation subject and having it approved by the department.

The unstructured research phase of the doctoral path is where many students fall off course, Akai said.

“Some people spend one or two years literally doing nothing,” he said. “Here, what we’ve done, is try to put some policies in place that promotes people going through the system.”

In order to keep students on track, different departments have different policies about advisor-student meetings and departmental annual reviews, Akai said.

“Some departments have rather substantial annual reviews of graduate students, others do not,” he said. “… Some advisors will push students, some will not, it depends on the personal style of the advisor.”

He cited non-academic reasons like general life issues, relationship issues, jobs and disengagement from research topics as others contributing to student attrition.

“I would say more people drop out of Ph.D. programs for non-academic reasons,” he said.

In some disciplines, like engineering, there is a lucrative job market for applicants with Masters degrees, he said.

With about half of doctoral students dropping out and others taking many years to complete their degrees, it raises the question, Akai said, of whether or not schools are wasting money.

“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “If students go out and get jobs that reflect well on the University anyway, perhaps not. Also, some of those leaving without the Ph.D. may have contributed to the research program before leaving.”

Some schools have suggested shortening or limiting doctoral students’ assistantships to help them devote more time to their degrees.

That, Akai said, is a simplistic solution.

“Most Ph.D. [candidates] that go into the academic world will go to small universities or colleges where teaching is important,” he said. “To cut them off from teaching takes away valuable job experience.”

At Notre Dame, doctoral students’ teaching load is limited, Akai said. Most teaching assistants work less than 15 hours a week. A Graduate School policy limits teaching assistant work to 17 1/2 hours a week.

The National Science Foundation reported the average age for a doctoral graduate is 33. At Notre Dame, most students enter the graduate school right after receiving their Bachelor’s degree.

The exception is theology, a department where students cannot enter a Ph.D. program without a solid Masters first, Akai said.

On average, the Notre Dame doctoral graduate is between 29 and 30.

“Obviously, this is the prime time of life for relationships,” Akai said. “It’s part of the package that leads to some of the attrition.”

The University awarded 161 doctorates during the 2006-7 academic year and admitted 282 new doctoral students.

Women, who were accepted to The Graduate School before the University itself became co-educational, make up 42 percent of the incoming graduate students. Nearly 30 percent of graduate students are international. Of the American students at The Graduate School, 15 percent are racial minorities.

Graduate programs began at the University in 1918, Akai said, but The Graduate School as its own entity was instituted in 1944. It was not until 1990 that The Graduate School received its own dean.