Book examines attrition, completion rates in Ph.D. humanities programs

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Joe Schwartz

Adequate funding, clear department expectations and regular counseling with advisers can go a long way in improving times-to-degree and attrition rates in doctoral programs in the humanities, reports a Cornell higher education expert and first author of a major new study.

And, finishing the degree in six or seven years rather than longer is positively associated with the chances that graduates will get tenure-track jobs and publish their research, says Cornell's Ronald G. Ehrenberg, who has authored a new book with three colleagues on their study that tracked a 10-year effort to improve Ph.D.-level humanities education.

The study and the book, "Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities" (Princeton University, December 2009), also found that single or married women -- with or without children at the time of entry to graduate school -- take no longer than single men to earn such doctorates.

Ehrenberg, Cornell's Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, and his team examined the Graduate Education Initiative of the Mellon Foundation. The foundation spent $85 million from 1991 to 2001 to enable 54 humanities departments at 10 universities -- including Cornell -- to improve the structure, organization and funding of their Ph.D. programs while maintaining or improving the quality of education they offered.

Funds supported planning, student support, endowments, challenge grants and data collection.

Among the findings:

Neither speedy completion (in three to five years) nor unhurried completion (in eight or more years) are as preferable as finishing the degree within the period between the two extremes, Ehrenberg said.

"Perhaps the most heartening lesson learned" from the study, Ehrenberg wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "is that raising awareness of how much attrition there is and how long degrees actually take can stimulate thoughtful review of programs and sensible decisions to change them."

The book was co-authored by Harriet Zuckerman, senior vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and professor emerita of sociology at Columbia University; Jeffrey A. Groen, research economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; and Sharon M. Brucker, project coordinator at the Survey Research Center of Princeton University.

Mary Catt is a staff writer at the ILR School .

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