PhD Attrition and Success

One of the searches that bring people to my blog, again and again, is anything to do with PhDs and librarians and/or library science. I’ve written before about the pros and cons of getting a PhD and things to think about when considering a PhD program. I’m going to add a few more thoughts into the mix with a blog series on PhDs and librarians. Today, I’m going to talk about attrition rates and what it takes to get through a PhD program. (Note: Most of what I’m saying just as easily applies to an EdD. I’ll be talking a bit about PhDs vs. EdDs in a future post.)

Only 41% of doctoral students successfully complete their degree within 7 years.

Only 57% of doctoral students successfully complete their degree within 10 years. (That’s the typical max time you’re allowed to complete the degree.)

— Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) 2008, PhD Completion Project.

Consider these numbers seriously. Yes, you’ve always been academically successful before, you love to read, you’re a responsible student–guess what? Most doctoral candidates, including those who will remain ABD (“All But Dissertation”) for their lifetimes, are in the same boat. Graduate students, particularly those who have already successfully completed one graduate degree, have been bred to be academically successful. The PhD is a different animal from the master’s, particularly if you’re working full-time while completing it. In most cases it’s an exponential rise in length, rigor, and difficulty. If you embark on that journey, you will be faced with the possibility of defeat at some point. The fear of failure may be the only thing that gets you to not quit (that’s what moved me on more than once). You’ll have to fight and claw your way through it, sometimes. Take the time to absorb that, if that’s something you’re ready to face.

Now. To balance that, I must say that many librarians tend to sell themselves short. As a group, we’re often humble to a fault, don’t always celebrate our accomplishments, and probably don’t shout our value enough. So don’t talk yourself out of a PhD because of a false lack of confidence. Don’t assume you’ll fail, but look realistically at the determination and sacrifices it will take to succeed. Read blog posts and articles by grad students, think about what you want from a doctorate, and most of all talk to someone who’s been through it–preferably someone in a field similar to your interest and preferably someone still in the program (or a recent graduate). Here is a great post to read about what it will take to succeed: A Survival Guide to Starting and Finishing a PhD.

Here’s a bit about my experience.


It took me five years to get my PhD. That’s actually less than the six to seven years I’d anticipated, particularly surprising since I was working full-time for four of those years. Part of my speed is because I was fortunate to have an early idea related to my dissertation topic, and thus was reading for my literature review for four years.* Even then, earning my PhD was incredibly difficult. I’d already been in graduate school for eight consecutive years earning my master’s degrees. Coming home to homework for that many years was an exercise in discipline, delayed gratification, and an inactive social life. I read statistics textbooks at family gatherings. I put off travel. I gave up on art and just-for-fun reading for years. It strained my emotional and mental health to a nearly unsustainable point. (I should write a blog post about grad students and mental health, and how my learning community helped me survive.)

Still, getting through the coursework was the (relatively) easy part. The dissertation was something else again. I was fortunate to be able to work on my dissertation full-time, but even then it was difficult to constantly sustain all that effort. You have to plan, schedule, and execute the research itself while continually running into methodological issues, problems with the research questions, and having intense doubt about your work. All the while keeping up with the literature in that area and writing up what you’re doing. Then, once you actually have some data (hurrah!), crunching all the statistics, questioning your methods, looking up others, and re-crunching them. Then you spend a lot of time looking at that data. The euphoria of having results wears off once you realize you have to interpret it all and find some sort of meaning, and then write about it. And, well of course then there’s the experience of the dissertation defense itself.

But. Despite the battle it was at times, earning my PhD was one of the most intensely rewarding experiences of my life. I truly enjoyed both of my master’s degrees, but due to the nature of the disciplines, those degrees were more about acquiring knowledge than about constructing knowledge or solving problems. My doctoral coursework was full of debate and discussion and “ah-ha” moments that I hadn’t experienced since my undergraduate days. I bonded with classmates over our passion for higher education. There were huge amounts of reading, but it was fascinating. My brain was delighted to work so hard–it felt good, like an endorphin release from a good workout.

So. That was my experience. Talk to others, research graduate programs, and think early on about starting a support group with fellow classmates. Weigh the sacrifice and risk against the rewards. And best of luck, regardless of whether you enter a doctoral program or have enough sense to move on with your life! 🙂

Coming up in this blog post series:

  • Reasons (for academic librarians) to get a doctorate
  • Deciding the degree (PhD/EdD) and the field (Library science or…?)

Related (previous) posts:

*I highly recommend this strategy. Start your doctoral program with a potential topic in mind–it doesn’t have to be a research question, just a particular area of interest. Write each class assignment you can around that topic, keeping up with professional literature in that area. This is the grad student version of a faculty research plan.


One thought on “PhD Attrition and Success

  1. katychuang says:

    Aye, I can relate to what you articulated about the PhD experience: “[It] was an exercise in discipline, delayed gratification, and an inactive social life. I read statistics textbooks at family gatherings. I put off travel. I gave up on art and just-for-fun reading for years. It strained my emotional and mental health to a nearly unsustainable point…”

    It’s hard to express the frustrations to people who don’t push themselves that far, or the neuroticism that eventual develops even if you started off as happy-go-lucky. And I get so jealous seeing others travel and talk about R&R… I’m almost there, can’t wait! 🙂

    I agree you should write more about grad students and mental health. I don’t think people realize how incredibly difficult a PhD is, compared to the other doctoral degrees available because there just aren’t that many people who finish and then talk/write about the experience. Like you pointed out, about half who started complete the PhD. A lot of those who finish have impostor syndrome (or stay in academia) so the word never really gets around far or wide enough.

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