gregbo (gregbo) wrote,

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grad school attrition

39orangestreet hipped me to an article in the
Chronicle for Higher Education
about the growing rate of attrition of people in PhD programs.
Thinking back on my own experiences (I got an MS and left) and those
of some other students, a primary concern was money. UCLA CS was not
the best funded program, and it was common for students to get jobs in
order to remain in school. This tended to lengthen people's time in
the program considerably; there are people I know of who've been there
for almost 20 years.

Another point raised in the article was how some students become
traumatized in grad school because this is the first time they've ever
failed at something (e.g. failed orals or failed to complete the PhD
as soon as they'd hoped). Having some personal experience with this
(as an undergrad), I would say that this is something that should not
be underestimated; it can be very traumatic to fail when you have
succeeded (in academics) for most of your life, especially if you
worked very hard and didn't understand why you failed.

For example, I was reading some old email about a math PhD student I
knew who failed her orals for the second time and was asked to leave
the program. In the days leading up to the oral, she was very
enthusiastic and seemed very confident that she would pass. She
seemed confident that her committee thought so as well. But she
panicked during the oral and couldn't answer any questions. Her
committee was very unkind (imho), saying that they didn't think she
had any kind of future as a mathematician. Having panicked during an
(in class) exam, and seen other good (prepared) students do similarly,
it seemed odd to me that her committee just wrote her off so
completely. She wound up giving up on math altogether (at least at
the time -- I don't know if she ever went back to it).

There was something else mentioned in the article about how some
professors didn't have a problem with attrition saying that it was
good that "the weak perish" and so forth. I think this is
cruel, but I have heard some professors and grad students
justify this on the grounds that it is difficult to pull a student
through a PhD program, so they need to make very sure that the
student is going to make it through. I have heard of some cases where
a student was failed by their oral committee simply because they
wanted to be sure of the student's commitment.

Anyway, it's highly unlikely given mine and others' grad school
experiences that I'll be pursuing any PhD studies. Perhaps if I
thought I could get something like my friend
Miriam, who has a PhD in
mechanical engineering and designs satellites for NASA, I'd consider
it, but it's not likely.

A side effect of looking at the old email was finding something from
jonsinger, who I used to see at kabuki-west back in the
day when you could get from the peninsula to Berkeley on a weekday in
under an hour. I friended him; hope he enjoys what he sees here if he
has a chance to read it.


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