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The Facts about Doctoral Degree Completion in Political Science

- February 29, 2008


If you enroll in a doctoral program in political science, what are the chances that you’re going to end up with your degree?

It depends, of course, on your background preparation, your determination, your “fit” with the program in which you enroll, and a host of other factors that may be impossible to foresee at the time you enter a program. A new study by the Council of Graduate Schools suggests that it also depends on how much of your life you’re willing to spend pursuing the degree. (Click here for a pre-publication presentation of some of the study’s main findings.)

Let’s begin with some trends for the social sciences in general, and then turn to political science in particular. Here is a chart showing the degree completion rates for doctoral students in various fields at the end of three years, four years, … ten years. What the chart reveals is that:

* After seven years, four out of every ten social science doctoral students (40.9%) had completed their degree work. That placed social science students on the low side — not as low as those in the humanities (29.3%), but well below those in engineering, the life sciences, and math and physical sciences.

* However, whereas the completion rates of students in the latter three fields more or less leveled off in years 8-10, the rates for students in the social sciences and humanities kept rising. The social science students ultimately caught up with the engineers but continued to lag well behind those in the life sciences or math and the physical sciences.

Now, what about political science in particular? The report indicates that:

* At every time point, students in political science, anthropology, and sociology had lower completion rates than their counterparts in psychology, economics, and communications. For example, by the end of Year 7 only about 27% of political science doctoral students had finished up.

* Political science students didn’t just throw in the towel after seven years. In fact, by the end of Year 10, their completion rate had risen to about 45% — still far below the 65 or 66% rate for students in psychology and communications but far above the seven-year cumulative completion rate of 27% in political science.

* On the other side of the coin, the cumulative attrition rate for political science doctoral students by Year 7 was approximately 35%. That was the highest within the social sciences.

* Some simple math establishes that about 38% of the political science doctoral who had entered seven years earlier were still in the program (the other 62% having completed their degree work or dropped out). And almost half of these 38% were still enrolled even after ten years.

These findings suggest some questions about which all of us probably some hunches but lack real evidence. For example, what is it about political science as a field of study that slows our students down relative to the performance of students in some other social science disciplines? (The fact that many of our students do extensive fieldwork obviously enters in, but there must be more to it than that.) What, for that matter, is there about the social sciences that slows our students down relative to the performance of students in most other fields (the obvious exception being the humanities)? And what can political science programs legitimately do to move our students along at a less glacial speed, especially given that most programs provide funding for no more than five or six years?

[Hat tip to Carol Sigelman]