32

Not referring to degree mills here, but genuine PhDs.

This claim comes from this blog post by Cardiff University psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chambers:

A PhD is essentially a test. Don't fool yourself into thinking that you pass this test by passing your PhD. Wrong. The fact is that passing a PhD is like getting a certificate of participation. Why? Because almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one. No, the real test is what happens after your PhD. That's when you’ll know whether you’ve really passed. Do well and it will open the door to a career of unparalleled intellectual freedom.

(emphasis mine)

The claim sounds fantastic to me. Is it true? Are there any statistics that indicate it to be so? Chris Chamber's post links to a source, but unfortunately it appears to no longer be available.

  • 20
    What do you mean by "long enough"? It is axiomatic that anyone who starts a Ph.D. and "sticks around" until they have one will get one! – user247327 Nov 27 '19 at 12:54
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    A simple alternative way of reading it: People don't fail a PhD if they can't do one; they drop out instead – Chris H Nov 27 '19 at 13:35
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    It's uncommon that a person without the skills to complete a PhD is even accepted into the program. The quote shouldn't be taken to mean that anyone can succeed in a PhD program - those who can't will typically not be successful in making an application. The test you need to pass largely happens before you start the PhD, not after. People who start but don't complete a PhD usually have reasons other than a lack of ability for abandoning the pursuit before completion. – J... Nov 27 '19 at 13:44
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    Note that this claim is out of date at Cardiff University and at many other UK universities. Most UK universities (at least in theory) now impose strict time limits on the length of enrollment (at Cardiff, this time limit is 4 years - see section 7 here). If you don't submit within the time limit, you automatically fail. The option to "stick around indefinitely" no longer exists. – Mathmo123 Nov 27 '19 at 14:13
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    @user247327 I'd say it is tautological. Obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/703 – Oliphaunt - reinstate Monica Nov 27 '19 at 21:50
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From what I have seen, this is pretty much the case for PhD programs in Europe. PhD programs in Europe tend to work a bit differently than in the US. It is typically expected that you have already completed a Master's degree before starting a PhD. The PhD program itself tends to have little or no coursework requirements, and no examinations other than the thesis defense at the end.

A lot of filtering that is done in US programs through exams during the program, is instead done at the selection stage. Consequently, landing a PhD position in Europe can be more difficult than in the US. But once you got the position, it is very rare for people not to get their PhD in the end. People on occasion may drop out of the program. Much more rarely, a program may decide to drop a candidate if things are really not working out. If that happens, it typical happens in the first year. But overall in the various locations I have been, at least 80% of people who start PhDs in Europe end up with a PhD.

Some actual data:

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  • 3
    In Sweden (Europe), an advisor cannot really deny a student to continue to work towards completion (but funding might of course run out). I was taught this when taking a course in advising PhD students. So, a student can in theory stick around indefinitely - there is no time limit (only monetary constraints) – Per Alexandersson Nov 27 '19 at 12:59
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    Not to say your answer is wrong, but just to add a caveat: Europe is diverse. When it comes to PhD completion rates, my impression is that there can be noticeable differences across countries and quite some variation within countries, too. – Richard Hardy Nov 27 '19 at 15:15
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    80% is not "almost everybody". A one in five failure rate in a subset of people who already has successfully completed a masters is actually quite high. – Marianne013 Nov 28 '19 at 13:03
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    "The PhD program itself tends to have little or no coursework requirements, and no examinations other than the thesis defense at the end" - this answer makes it sound as if without exams, you just had to wait around until your PhD comes along after some time. That is rather misleading IMHO, given that one has to be actively researching (depending on the field, publishing, or at least writing something down). – O. R. Mapper Nov 28 '19 at 19:03
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    "Little or no coursework requirements" LoL! A PhD thesis is a pretty big coursework requirement. Also, your own figures disprove your point. 20% eventual failure rate is extremely high, particularly given the generally stringent entry requirements. – Bob says reinstate Monica Nov 28 '19 at 22:35
23

But, be careful not to read what he writes out of context. The two points before this statement are:

The first is that, like a career in science, a PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness. Different people have these in different measure, but a successful PhD student has a healthy dose of all.

The second is that a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be hard, not because inflicting pain is necessarily fun, nor because some scientists are ‘dementors’ (see this interesting post by Zuska on that subject), and not because your PhD is expected to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s hard because it is an apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster.

In the context of "a PhD is hard" and having the right mix of "intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness" it is probably true that "almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one". But, sticking around means passing classes, passing qualifiers, and passing numerous other barriers that are put there to ensure that you have the ability to finish your PhD while maintaining the quality standards of the university.

Anecdotally I know of very few people who stuck and around didn't get their PhD in the end. But, I do know of exceptions - people who stuck around and tried to get their PhD but failed.

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2013 claims that only 50% of students finish their PhD, and gives an anecdote that only 10% of one class finished.

So, in the context of what Chris Chambers writes it's more or less true, but in the broader context of people doing PhD's it's probably not.

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    Hmm, this sounds like the No True Scotsman argument though - it implies if someone sticks around long enough and doesn't get a PhD then he/she doesn't have the right mix of intelligence, discipline, creativity, etc. – Allure Nov 27 '19 at 5:28
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    @Allure Very true - but I think that falls more on Chris Chambers' argument than my explanation of his argument. Under all this there is also likely some argument being made about Imposters Syndrome - and perhaps he is encouraging PhD student to keep at it in this context. – Nathan S. Nov 27 '19 at 5:49
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    @Allure I read the argument more as saying that not every candidate is able to 'stick around' for long enough. Doing that already requires a lot of the skills needed for getting a PhD, so people who are able to do that will usually get a PhD eventually. – quarague Nov 27 '19 at 8:09
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    In my (albeit) humble experience - stick-to-it-iveness is probably the most critical skill. Those I know who did not finish their PhDs, quit rather willingly, because something else came along - and the arduous task of assembling the work itself no longer had any motivating factors at all. Those who all "stuck with it" (and i know some 9-10 years PhDs) all got there in the end, with more or less assistance from peers and professors... I have not heard of anyone getting tossed out for any other reason than direct malpractice or behaviour. (Both descriptions taken from the one example I have...) – Stian Yttervik Nov 27 '19 at 13:09
19

This is a case of inverse causation. They don't eventually get PhDs because they hang around, but rather that they hang around because they are likely to eventually get their PhDs.

Those who really have no chance to graduate (which may turn out to be the case - admissions processes have imperfect prediction) will eventually be cut off funding and (need to) go elsewhere without PhDs. Those will continue to receive funding to hang around do so because they do sufficiently good work to make eventual graduation look likely.

Then again, it really depends on the country, the university's rules and even on on the research groups themselves.

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9

NO.

It definitely depends on the location, at least in the U.S. And it hasn't been true anywhere I've gone.

I was in a PhD program at a Medical College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the majority of students did not make it beyond their second year, much less get a PhD. I knew it starting the program, as did all of us. That was ten years ago.

Before that, getting my Masters Degree in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State University, we also all knew that not everyone would make it. And many did not even finish their Master's degrees. Many who stuck around for years never got PhDs.

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5

This may vary a lot depending on the field, university, and advisor you end up with, but I'll answer according to what I've seen (in Applied Math, in the U.S.).

No, this is not at all true. Even once you get accepted to a PhD program, you usually have qualifying/preliminary exams you need to pass within your first few years (with a limited number of attempts). If you don't pass these, you are gone from the program (though you are often allowed to leave with a Master's; I would say that is often a consolation prize).

Once you pass the qualifying exams, you have to find an advisor willing to work with you, a research topic, and pass some sort of comprehensive exam that is related to your topic. Some advisors are picky about who they work with, so it is possible to not find an advisor. It is also possible to fail the comprehensive exam (you usually do not get a second attempt).

Once you have completed those hurdles, you have to actually write a thesis, and have your advisor basically approve it as being ready to defend. And then you have to defend it. I have seen people who, despite years of work, never get their thesis to a point where their advisor approves them to defend. I think there is typically some sort of time limit on your thesis from when you start the program, but this is according to university regulations. I have also seen unsuccessful thesis defenses; these are rare (since usually you just will not be allowed to defend if the thesis is bad), but if it happens you are gone without a PhD.

I suppose that being persistent could include applying to a different PhD program after being kicked out of a first (or a second). Maybe if it is a low enough ranked program they will give out a PhD to anyone who sticks it out, but I don't really know about this.

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  • 2
    You cannot do the defense a second time.in yoir country? – user115896 Nov 27 '19 at 7:08
  • @Heutl I don't know if there are universities that allow this, but my university did not allow a second attempt. If you fail your defense you are out of the program immediately. – Morgan Rodgers Nov 27 '19 at 7:10
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    If you need to pass quals it is not a PhD program, but a pre-PhD program. (Your qualification exam is what gives you entry to the PhD program proper.) – mmeent Nov 27 '19 at 7:35
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    @mmeent: Terminology varies, I suppose. But in my US-based graduate program, students were definitely considered to be in the PhD program as soon as they entered, and took exams that were officially called "qualifying exams" in their first and second year. After passing these exams and completing some other requirements (e.g. selection of a dissertation topic), they were said to have "advanced to candidacy". But there was no change as to which program they were in. – Nate Eldredge Nov 27 '19 at 15:28
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    @mmeent That is not the terminology that is used at most US universities that I am familiar with. As Nate says, you enter the PhD program (with or without holding a Master's), pass exams and advance to candidacy, then defend your thesis. – Morgan Rodgers Nov 27 '19 at 17:37
5

Just being there is not enough. I usually tell my students when they are worried about their progress: "If and because you work hard, you will definitely obtain enough high quality results to write an excellent thesis afterwards." And my experience has confirmed this most of the time.

The trouble with research is that you do not necessarily have to reach a specific goal formulated in the beginning of a PhD work to end up with a good thesis. Sometimes little to no progress is made with the specific hypotheses from the beginning, but new hypotheses are found and answered during the work. PhD students themselves sometimes fail to understand this transition and then also come to the (false) conclusion that they only stuck around and finally got their degree. This might help to explain why this impression is out there. But I would call it a myth.

Statistics would be interesting. However, reliable data might be difficult to get. At my university for instance each faculty has their own ways to handle a PhD student and in many cases where students drop out they never were PhD students officially, just an ordinary university employee.

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  • "never were PhD students officially" ? – Tejas Shetty Nov 28 '19 at 13:47
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    @TejasShetty it’s common to not apply for the program officially before you started work on the thesis. (So the work ks only payed as research helper not doctoral candidate) – eckes Nov 28 '19 at 15:07
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    @Tejas Shetty: Yes, indeed. I am talking about Germany. Often PhD work is not paid directly but PhD students are employed and paid for teaching and research on third party funded projects. If it is well organized there is a big overlap between project work and PhD work, but it is not a necessity. Working on your PhD is in this sense your hobby. Of course usually there is an agreement between advisor and student that obtaining a PhD degree is the goal. But this is often made official by applying to the faculty only shortly before the thesis is handed in. – Snijderfrey Nov 28 '19 at 19:39
2

From my experience in Poland it looks like that:

  1. Get Masters degree done
  2. Apply for PHD, this includes exam
  3. Now we arrive to a fork, you can quit, you can be kicked out by not passing an exam/lecture, you can have helpful professor that will get you through no matter what, you can have a terrible professor but be smart enough to pull PHD off basically on your own or you can have a terrible professor and fail, and be forced to leave.
  4. After you published enough, wrote your work, there is PHD exam you have to pass.

So, if you are lucky, have a good professor/advisor it might seem like a breeze, for average person it is honest tough work and always some percent will quit/fail for various reasons.

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    Maybe you could be more specific than "in Europe"? I also did a PhD in Europe (Germany, more specifically) and this isn't remotely similar to how mine went. Step 1 is the only part that was the same, and I know at least one person who didn't even do that (went straight to PhD programme from a bachelors degree). – Chris H Nov 28 '19 at 8:35
  • Edited to add the info, I am from Poland and I don't think I have ever seen anyone starting PhD at the University without masters. – internetofmine Nov 28 '19 at 8:48
  • @internetofmine it is quite common in the UK where you can apply for a PhD straight after your Bsc and, may be accepted or not. But there is no requirement for a Masters. I got my PhD in Spain, after getting a Bsc in the UK, and went straight from my Bsc to my PhD with no Masters. But, in Spain, the first year or two of your PhD are spent getting what they call a "DEA" which is the equivalent of a Masters. I believe it's the same in France too. – terdon Nov 28 '19 at 9:53
  • I checked my old Universities PhD recruitation - it is official requirement to have masters or equivalent, my guess always was that 3-year long Bsc is no equivalent to 5yo Masters – internetofmine Nov 28 '19 at 11:20
  • What kind of exams you need to pass in a PhD program in Poland? – eckes Nov 28 '19 at 15:03
0

That's probably true, but it might not be "worth it."

When I was in my mid-20s, I started a PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University. Now in my early 60s, I finally "get" the real analysis and other math that I needed for the program. So perhaps I could perhaps get my PhD after four decades. No reasonable person would suggest working that long to get a PhD. I once knew of someone who took 16 years to get a PhD.

The issue is not whether or not someone can get a PhD, but whether or not they can do so within a reasonable period of time. Four years is standard, as for undergraduates, five or six is ok, allowing for time "overruns," but very few people would accept 16 years or 40.

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  • If we define PhD along the lines of learning how to do research, I don't think it matters the length of the road as long as you get there successfully. – Daniel Nov 29 '19 at 20:22

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