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What Predicts Success in Graduate Programs? Passing Comps versus Finishing the Dissertation

- January 16, 2008

As I think back to my first year in graduate school, it occurs to me that there was no correlation (or, if anything, a negative one) between having what were considered the best credentials coming in to the program and ultimately completing it. (Perhaps that’s a self-serving attribution, given my own horrible credentials and the resulting mystery of how I ever got admitted in the first place.)

In any event, the issue of who is likely to succeed in a doctoral program and who isn’t is of great interest to applicants and admissions committees alike — the former because they’re contemplating devoting several years of their life to the pursuit of a Ph.D. and the latter because they’re trying to invest a limited number of graduate fellowships wisely. A new study by a team of economists (abstract here) suggests an answer that is more complex — and more interesting — than I would have guessed.

Working from their database on former doctoral students in economics at Syracuse University, Wayne Grove, Donald Dutkowsky, and Andrew Grodner test models of success in doctoral studies, as indicated by two different measures: passing comprehensive exams and completing the dissertation. What’s interesting about this study is that different constellations of factors predict the two types of success.

As far as passing comps is concerned, the usual suspects dominate the analysis: GRE scores, having an M.A. degree, and having majored in economics. So far, nothing to write home about. Things get more interesting when attention shifts to actually completing the doctoral program. There the standard predictors fall by the wayside, and what come to the fore are the strength of a student’s preparation in mathematics and, more notably, the strength of his or her research motivation, as gleaned from the personal statements they had submitted as part of the application process.

As Grove, Dutkowsky, and Grodner put it, “…students need different skills at various stages. Along with the necessary talent and acquired tools that enable them to survive the comprehensive exams, interest in doing economics research plays a significant role for them to thrive in completing the dissertation.” With that in mind, they report a remark by an outstanding applicant to the effect that admissions directors at several doctoral programs had said that “Nobody reads the personal statements.” Perhaps, Grove and his associates conclude, they should.