16

Does it hurt the professor's career in any way if their students drop out? Assume a PhD student gets the professor's funding and publishes an adequate amount of papers. They then decide to quit (maybe with a master's). What benefit is it to the professor for the student to continue working?

Professors seem to be concerned about taking students who might not survive the entire program, but I don't see what the problem is.

For reference, I am particularly interested in the USA within CS.

11
  • 6
  • 5
    Why do you need to know this, i.e. what's your goal here? I'm asking because this consideration should have next to zero bearing on your decision to quit.
    – henning
    Sep 2 at 10:51
  • 1
    Just a warning for future visitors: The answer really depends on the country and the type of PhD position.
    – henning
    Sep 2 at 13:55
  • 2
    @henning Just curious as to the reason why grad admissions cares Sep 2 at 15:18
  • 1
    From the title I expected this question was asking if it is advisable to join the group of a professor who has had many students quit. I would have emphatically said no to this question. For that reason, it is not good for a professor to have many students quit: it would look like they are somehow driving students to quit. Sep 2 at 18:42
28

EDIT: I am in the UK, and therefore my answer is relevant to there. Things may be different in the US, although I'll note that others have stated that student graduation rate is a performance metric there as well

I am a bit hesitant to answer this because I guess the answer might put people off making a decision that is the correct decision for them, but honesty is always best, so the answer is yes, it can hurt a supervisor for their students to leave.

Where I am, the % of students who submit a thesis within time limit is a key metric on which an academic is judged. One reason for this is that government funding for PhD programs requires that submissions within time limit are above a certain threshold. This is also the reason that many universities will not initially register a student for a PhD, but will require the students to undergo a confirmation review after a year - if the student is dismissed at this point, it doesn't count against the department, but after this it does.

An academic will probably not suffer too much from a single student not completing in time (although yes, they will lose the right to say "my graduation rate is perfect" on a promotion case or job application). More than one and questions will definitely be asked, and that PI might start to find it more and more difficult to win the right to recruit students.

However, none of this should affect a student's decision as to whether continuing a PhD is right for them or not, and the damage done to a student staying in a programme when it is not right for them massively out-weighs the damage done to the supervisor if they leave.

20
  • 2
    Good point. I missed that the OP has stated they were in the US. I am not, this is the UK, but I believe it applies to other European countries and Australia as well. I'll edit to make clear. Sep 2 at 11:50
  • 7
    UK academia is a bit too metric-driven, which ignores the reason why the student drops out. A PhD is a good way of finding out whether a career in research is for you. If you find that out early on that it isn't and decide to withdraw, that is a success rather than a failure. Sep 3 at 7:54
  • 3
    @EarlGrey I'm genuinely interested in how advising students to make the decision that is correct for them relies on an "assumption that PhDs should think of their supervisor as the might entities that allowed them the chance to enter academia, putting their career at risk". Sep 3 at 8:43
  • 2
    @EarlGrey You are right on several points: some of the selection metrics as used currently, without context, are fairly nonsensical. There is a lot of academic that hope context would be taken in to account in their applications. However, the unlucky supervisor who's first student was left unable to complete due to an injury might not get the chance to explain their context as they might be skipped over in a shortlisting process in favour of a more lucky colleague who's first student completed in time. And just because there was no intent to do damage, does not mean the damage does not exist.
    – penelope
    Sep 3 at 9:52
  • 4
    " the students make this process so interior to them that then we have answer like yours or from the poster saying that the student damages the career of the supervisor" I specially said that students should look to what is best for them. I was directly trying to convince any students reading this not to blame themsevles for the damage to supervisors. Sep 3 at 12:30
11

That would depend on the reasons that students drop out. Some will do so for health and family reasons. Some leave because they have decided to follow a different path. None of that reflects on the advisor.

But if students (plural) drop out alleging abuse by the advisor, personal or professional, then it certainly should reflect badly, though some get away with bad behavior for a long time.

10
  • 2
    Then why are admissions so worried about whether or not a student will finish the program? Sep 2 at 0:09
  • 12
    The administration is also concerned with effective use of resources. When students drop out the program isn't efficient/effective. Everyone wants students who are highly likely to be successful, but there are no guarantees.
    – Buffy
    Sep 2 at 0:15
  • 4
    @JobHunter69 When there are more candidates than positions, why take people who won't finish when you could take someone who will? Taking on a student is putting your resources toward training someone.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 2 at 0:58
  • 2
    However, the effective use of resources can very well also mean dismissing an ineffective student instead of trying to lead them to graduation by the hand. That depends on the competitivity of the program, some unis are so lucky they can only accept the best of the best from the program so mayassume the problem is only in the advisor.
    – Vladimir F
    Sep 2 at 10:07
  • 6
    @JobHunter69 Academia and industry aren't the same thing. Some cynics here may think that all a professor wants from a student is to work them hard for publications and then abandon them, but I don't find that the norm.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 2 at 12:06
10

In addition to the existing answers: inevitably, PhD students tend to require more input from their supervisor in the first half of their programme, and then gradually become increasingly independent towards the end. Conversely, outputs and impact tend to be low in the first half of a programme, and increase towards the end. A student who leaves half-way through may therefore have consumed considerable amounts of the supervisor's intellectual resources (time, energy, ideas) but not yet delivered the anticipated payoffs (papers, impact). This is undoubtedly a negative from the supervisor's perspective.

3
  • 2
    True point, but it might be limited to the case of PhD students who develop their skills and independence in an at-least average way. For a low-performing PhD student that keeps on taking supervision resources without showing much pay-off, it can be a relief to cut your losses and move on. Sep 2 at 11:01
  • @lighthousekeeper Fair point!
    – avid
    Sep 2 at 17:52
  • Wish I could upvote it more than once. At least in here, the main quoted (and very much perceivable) reason is that you put a lot of resources in and then they quit academia and go chase money in the industry. End result - more resources are spent doing the work as compared to just doing it yourself and no other positive outcome (more human resources for future work) is observed.
    – Lodinn
    Sep 3 at 19:58
8

I think the answer is yes, it will hurt a bit. This is mostly because it is good for a professor to have a record of graduating a high proportion of graduate students they take on, and anyone who leaves without their degree reduces this proportion to some extent.

It is true that the reasons for the student leaving matter, particularly in terms of the evaluation of the professor by their existing department. However, if a professor applies for an external role, one of the things they are going to do is to give information on their experience supervising graduate students, and the proportion of students who make it to successful completion is going to be a rough proxy measure for outside universities to evaluate their success. In an academic job application, it is much better to be able to say "95%+ of my graduate research students have successfully completed their programs" than to only be able to say "20% of my graduate research students have successfully completed their programs, but here are the reasons this wasn't my fault".

In regard to this issue, you should bear in mind that successful graduation of graduate research students is one metric that universities use to evaluate the success of their higher-degree programs. In some countries (e.g., Australia) it is also a metric that directly affects government funding of the university, and so the university has a financial reason to care about this. Since it is important to the universities, there is always some pressure on professors to do a good job in this regard, and a student drop-out will usually have some negative effect even if it occurs for reasons beyond the professor's control.

2
  • 1
    "successful graduation of graduate research students is one metric that universities..." is a raw sum, and not a percentage in my experience.
    – user140367
    Sep 2 at 14:12
  • 1
    @user140367 yes, but the resources the university spends on these students is also roughly proportional to their total number. So, taking in 1000 extra students to get funding from graduating 2 more is certainly a net loss. Percentage is a reasonable metric.
    – Lodinn
    Sep 3 at 20:03
5

It should but it doesn't.

High drop-out rates, high past the time limit (normally 3 years in UK/IRL) and not infrequent way-past-time-limit (a PhD put in 5 - 11 years after commencement) seem to have no effect on research council, university or private grant absorption. This is provided the HoD and/or PI are "connected" and shameless enough to maintain a healthy application rate, "timely" (i.e. inside knowledge from colleagues on national or EURAM research boards) applications plus a certain skill at phrasing technological concepts in colloquial language and flattering presentation hosts.

Of course, there are practical and financial reasons to avoid a student who is felt to be unsure in character if not in commitment: additional RA support enlisted to help in that side of the work remain on the university payroll, allocation of expensive instrument time and/or consumable materials plus disappointment at failing industry supporters are all good reasons in themselves for supervisor diffidence. Supervisors don't want wasted effort investment of their own in not fully committed PhDs, as well as a human desire to avoid any association with failure.

When a death of a PhD or particularly a fellow occurs, it's a scramble around the research group to find someone capable and willing to finish off the project committed to. No doubt it puts the PI under a compliment to that fellow/staff-member also.

If you are gauging your professor's caution towards taking on any applicant by attitudes, airs and gestures, please also make allowance for some academics capacity to dramatize.

6
  • I've typed in "it should but it doesn't", then decided that it is not constructive as an answer. Then found your answer. Thanks! Sep 2 at 18:30
  • 1
    This is factulally wrong, at least in the case of research council funding in the UK. Departments are barred from hosting UKRI funded students if their on-time completion rate (of all students, not just UKRI ones) is below 75%. Also, your answer assumes that the only reason for a student it leave is poor supervision, or death(!). There are plenty of other reasons for a student to decide that a PhD is not the correct path for them. Sep 3 at 8:57
  • @Ian Sudbery I was making the, I think fair, point of academic inconvenience when a PhD leaves as a reason for caution during selection. Only 2 scenarios were cited. As you say, others like sports injury, marriage, job offers, etc, etc are possible and equally relevant. My not citing all these does not per se equate to an assumption that they are not pertinent here. Your point on research council bars on departments - are you basing this one stated guidelines by the RCs ? Or on actual barrings done to depts with known late submission rates > 25% ?
    – Trunk
    Sep 3 at 10:30
  • @Ian Sudbery I suppose it would be more to the point to ask you if the barring process you refer to is invariant to any other consideration than the statistic you quote - or if somehow certain departments or individuals are observed to evade barring although in excess of the late submission limit ?
    – Trunk
    Sep 3 at 10:45
  • I can't say whether there are departments that have avoided sanction because I guess I won't have heard unless I was in that department, and perhaps not even then. But I do know of departments and academics being sanctioned, including the head of institute I was at. Sep 3 at 12:42
4

If a student drops out (or is forced to leave!), and the student's work is in such shape that there is no recovering it for publication, and the next student cannot simply pick up where that student left off, than the mentor has sunk time into wasted effort. This is true regardless of the reason the student left. You do this too often, and it will hinder a career.

If students periodically end up leaving a mentors group, then that mentor may develop a reputation for not being able to get his students through their research programs, and that will not help in future recruitment efforts.

3
  • . . . that mentor may develop a reputation for not being able to get his students through their research programs . . . But all universities keep schtum about their hopeless academics - who continue to offer PhD programmes. And both colleagues and current PhDs aware of Prof QA Hopeless' shortcomings say nothing about it to prospective PhDs till after they arrive and discover it for themselves. So the whole cycle of failure is repeated. Punishing a dept for Prof QAH's failings is unfair on honest colleagues even if it is 100% fair to the HoD.
    – Trunk
    Sep 4 at 11:17
  • My experience is that graduate students in a tight knit community make this info apparent to incoming peers. Sep 4 at 16:15
  • 1
    My experience is that graduate students - whatever they were beforehand - become more and more selfish as the programme wears on. Of course, it's one thing to have an independent perspective on one's own research - that is healthy and good. But stepping away from pretty standard human obligations to warn people off an unhappy situation - that's just plain mean.
    – Trunk
    Sep 4 at 16:21
2

I'd like to add to the main point in Ben's and Ian Sudbery's: yes, for the reasons they both discuss, it can hurt an academic, and especially an academic at the start of their career.

It takes a while for a new academic to be able to say "I have supervised a PhD student to completion" -- a year or more to obtain funding, several months to hire a good candidate, and then 3-5 years (depending on the country; I know you asked about the US but most of my experience is in Europe and the UK) until completion.

And while I'm not sure this is a formal requirement for a promotion/career advancement in the US, certainly some European systems will explicitly require that an academic has supervised a number of PhD students to completion, so I would assume it is an important factor in the US.

Early career researchers (and in general, academics in more postdoc-oriented systems such as the UK) will rarely have PhD students "lined up" one after the other. So if the first or second PhD student of a supervisor drops out of the programme, it might add a couple of years before the academic will be able to claim they supervised a PhD student to completion (which is often needed for career advancement, as well as grants certain advisory/supervisory independence to the academic).

1

A student dropping out or the professor categorically failing that student will absolutely not hurt the professor, as there is no mechanism for that to happen. Of course, this will give the department something to spread rumors about, but there are no consequences. There are no written policies to punish professors for not ensuring success.

There is only one universal truth: funding.

A PhD student dropping from a program will not have any affect whatsoever on that professor's ability to gain funding, and as a result, there are absolutely no negative consequences. That professor is infinitely more valuable and visible to that department than is the student. The 'last man standing' is the professor, and the student will get flushed down the drain. The professor can then say or do anything to justify why that student wasnt able to perform. God forbid they take any responsibility, because that would inevitably involve a failure on behalf of the entire department. That is not realistic. The student is at fault. period.

Success is rewarded. Failure is externalized.

5
  • 4
    It depends. If the prof is the PI of a grant-funded research project, and the grant funds a PhD student who is in charge of a work-package of this project, then the prof has a problem if the PhD student drops out. Replacements take time to find and transitioning between the quitting and incoming PhD student isn't easy. As a result, the project's success is endangered, which hurts the prof's chances of obtaining grants from the same agency in the future.
    – henning
    Sep 2 at 13:52
  • 3
    That assumes professors get grants competitively and not from corrupt cronyism. My project was funded from the latter.
    – user140367
    Sep 2 at 13:57
  • Yes, it does.⠀ ⠀ ⠀
    – henning
    Sep 2 at 13:59
  • Yet - and I agree with so much of user140367 has said - there may still be bursary funded PhD programmes which are reserved for say students from a distant country, e.g. China, India or S. Africa. It often happens that the other (local) PhDs tend to patronize foreign students to the point of bullywork. If a PhD quits in such circumstances, they will usually have a bursary trustee to complain to and it's very unlikely that the dept or supervisor in question will ever enjoy another of those bursaries. Such bursaries are naturally very few.
    – Trunk
    Sep 2 at 15:32
  • Some of this may be true in the US and other countries. It is emphatically not true in the UK, where all PhDs are externally funded and the department/supervisor is answerable to the funding body. But a bigger problem with this answer is that it assume that a student leaving a program is always a failure. As @Dikran Marsupial points out in response to my answer, a student leaving a program can be seen as a success if it enables them to discover what they do and don't like, and realise they can get the things they want without a PhD. Sep 3 at 9:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.