Undergraduates might complain about a heavy workload and tough classes, but their chances of getting a degree are far better than those of doctorate students. Only half of all Ph.D. candidates entering the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 1998 had earned a Ph.D. eight years later.
Of those that did not, 5 percent were still working toward the degree, 25 percent left doctorate programs without even completing the preliminary one- to two-year master’s degree and 30 percent left after completing their master’s degree, according to data from a National Research Council survey of doctoral programs. The statistics were provided by Joachim Knop, director of GW’s Office of Institutional Research.
Conversely, the six-year retention rate of GW undergraduates has consistently stayed at or above 75 percent for the past five years.
A doctoral degree is the highest of all academic credentials, signifying an expertise derived from almost a decade of intensive research. But to achieve this crowning distinction, students must first be accepted to a program and persevere through a challenging curriculum.
An ongoing study from the National Research Council on doctoral programs confirms that gaining admission is no simple feat. Since 1998, only 15 percent of doctoral applicants to the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences were admitted, making it 20 percent more selective than GW undergraduate admissions.
Gaining admission, though, is only the beginning.
Jeff Williams, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in public policy and public administration, spent several years in the workforce to gain practical experience and also obtained a master’s degree prior to his acceptance.
“I had great training to jump into the workforce, but not as much skill regarding getting at answers to some of the larger, underlying questions,” Williams said.
This quest for answers has brought many students, such as English Ph.D. candidate John Figura, into doctoral programs despite the lack of any previous graduate credentials or work experience. Figura said he made the leap immediately following his undergraduate degree because of his decidedly clear career goals.
“I knew coming out of undergraduate school that I had a passion for literature and that my ultimate goal was to be a professor of English, and the only way to do that was to get a Ph.D,” Figura said.
While this experience gap initially put Figura at a disadvantage, he said he soon caught up because he was “a quick study.”
To help pay their way through this long process, students like Peter Nemes, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, often take advantage of research and teaching assistantship opportunities offered by professors of current doctoral candidates.
“You have the option of doing an assistantship so if you don’t have the necessary funds you can get help,” he said.
But these assistantships will not cover all of tuition, so doctoral students must rely on other sources of funding. The loans, scholarships and research grants that aid most other Ph.D. work contain limited funding windows, restricting the number of semesters that doctoral candidates can receive assistance.
Bill Adams, a public policy and administration professor, emphasized an additional constraint facing doctoral candidates. He said students’ success, more so than in other levels of schooling, depends on their chemistry with faculty.
“Because doctoral students – especially doing dissertations – work so closely with individual faculty members, it’s crucial to have professors that you connect with both personally and intellectually,” Adams said. “A lot of that is chance, because you cannot always know when you apply to a program exactly what professors will be around when you start your dissertation.”
Adams said Ph.D. candidates must exhibit a certain uniqueness to persevere through these obstacles.
“Academically, they need to enjoy critically evaluating research and conducting original research,” he said. “Personally, they need to be willing to commit to a fairly long process and see it through the ups and downs.”