The latest data on completion rates and times
The proportion of PhD students who successfully
complete their degrees within nine years has risen
across all disciplines, but completion times remain
long and in some fields have even increased,
according to new data collected by the group of 15
research-intensive Canadian universities known as
The figures are the most up-to-date on PhD
graduation rates and completion times for Canada and
are based on data collected from eight of the 15
institutions for which there is comparable data. None
of the institutions was identified.
The percentage of students who entered PhD
studies in 2001 and successfully completed within nine
years averaged 70.6 percent across disciplines; this
compares to 62. 5 percent of students who started in
1992 and successfully completed. Among the 2001
cohort, completion rates ranged from a high of 78.3
percent in the health sciences to a low of 55. 8 percent
in the humanities; graduation rates averaged 75.4
percent for students in the physical sciences
and engineering, and 65.1 percent for those in the
Mean completion times also varied by discipline.
Among the 2001 cohort, mean times-to-completion
ranged from a low of just under 15 terms – or five
years, based on three terms per year – in the physical
sciences and engineering, to a high of 18. 25 terms, or
just over six years, in the humanities. The mean time-to-completion was 15. 4 terms in the health sciences
and almost 17 terms in the social sciences.
Completion times rose in all disciplines except the
47. 1 70.3 56. 4 62. 5 01.00
47. 4 68.1 54. 3 61. 2 99.00
53. 8 71.8 51. 1 63.0 03.00
45. 6 67.1 52. 6 59. 7 92.00
49. 7 69.9 58. 9 65.0 91.00
48. 2 68.6 60. 5 63. 7 13.00
51. 4 74.9 58. 6 66.7 20.00
54. 7 71.0 62. 8 67.1 90.00
58. 8 74.6 63. 7 69.6 89.00
55. 8 75.4 65.1 70.6 80.00
Graduation Rate by Discipline Group
(Doctoral cohorts after 9 years)
Percent of graduates
0% 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Physical sciences & engineering
those who are at the thesis-writing stage but whose funding has expired.
“We are trying to use a mixture of the carrot and the stick,” says Graham Carr, Concordia’s vice-president, research and graduate studies, and
president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Along with offering financial incentives, Concordia plans to limit
time extensions and is closely monitoring annual progress reports filed
by supervisors and students.
In the U.S., Stanford University recently announced it will provide
incentives to humanities departments that retool their programs to allow
students to complete in five years, via extra financial assistance to students in those departments. The American Chemical Society has called
for sweeping changes to graduate education in chemistry, including limiting the completion time for a PhD to less than five years.
The Modern Language Association has forcefully called for reform
of humanities doctoral programs. In an address to the 2012 Congress of
the Humanities and Social Sciences in Waterloo, Ontario, former MLA
president Sidonie Smith said the dissertation is one of the major impediments responsible for high attrition rates and long completion times in
the humanities. “We cannot afford to lose our students and the funding
we have invested in them,” she said.
As president of CFHSS, Dr. Carr has echoed the call to reform the
dissertation here in Canada. “The default position has always been that
the dissertation should resemble a manuscript that will become a book. Is
that the only appropriate vehicle?” he asks. Or are there more innovative
forms that would capture the knowledge and expertise that PhD students
acquire equally as well and would have more practical applications to
careers outside of academia?
There’s no single reason to account for the high attrition rates and
long completion times that have long plagued doctoral education. Studies have pointed to various reasons, including inadequate funding, lack
of preparation among students, academic isolation and poor supervision.
But choice of discipline is undoubtedly near the top. A 2006 study prepared for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (and
confirmed by the most recent data from the U15 group of universities)
found that students in the humanities and social sciences take about a
year longer to complete their degrees and are more likely to abandon
their studies than their counterparts in sciences and engineering. Equally
worrisome, these students are more likely to devote several years working towards a degree before abandoning it.
Cultural norms and traditions in these disciplines play a role. Students in the social sciences and humanities more often work alone while