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From the News column of the September 2007 Perspectives

New Study Suggests History PhD 10-Year Completion Rates Remain Low

Robert B. Townsend, September 2007

Fewer than half of all history doctoral students will complete their studies within 10 years, according to a new study from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), giving history a lower 10-year completion rate than almost all other disciplines (details are available online at www.phdcompletion.org).

Drawing on information about doctoral students who entered programs in the three academic years, 1992–93 to 1994–95, the CGS PhD Completion Project found that barely a quarter of history doctoral students completed the degree by their seventh year—the official termination point in some universities—and only about 48 percent completed the program by their tenth year.
This completion rate is significantly lower than our own estimates, which are based on data submitted from the history departments annually (see www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2006/0612/0612new3.cfm). In 2006, history PhD programs estimated that an average of 59 percent of the students who matriculated into their program in 1996 had completed the degree. But one of the issues we confronted in our survey was precisely how to determine when a student actually entered the doctoral program, given that some enter as Master’s students or some other form of transitional status. I spent a great deal of time working with departments trying to develop a consistent definition, but suspected we were excluding some people who left at a very preliminary stage.

The report is particularly helpful for providing some comparative perspective for the other disciplines. From the annual surveys of PhD recipients, we know that history PhDs take longer than the average for most fields (around 10 years of post-baccalaureate studies). But that only tells us about students who completed the degree, so we could only speculate about how many students fell by the wayside before they could finish the degree.

According to the CGS, students in the other humanities fields completed their programs at a slightly higher rate than history by their tenth year, though history seemed close to catching up at that point. Among the social sciences, students in anthropology and archaeology, political science, and sociology appeared to complete their degrees at a slightly slower rate than history—just approaching 45 percent by their 10th year. But in other science and social science disciplines, the completion rate was well over 60 percent by the tenth year.

Unfortunately, the report does not offer specific information on attrition from history PhD programs. But for the humanities in general, they report that slightly more than 15 percent of doctoral students gave up by their third year in the program, and more than a third gave up by year 10. Almost 19 percent of humanities doctoral students were still counted on the books as continuing toward the degree in their tenth year. The report also points to modest, but not dramatic, differences in the completion rate based on the size of the program (based on the number of students in each entering class) and whether it was a public or private institution.

We will be keeping a close eye on this as more information from this project becomes available, and reexamining our own surveys to see how we might make them better.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications. This article originally appeared on the AHA’s blog, AHA Today.