In a few questions/answers on here (e.g., here), passing reference has been made to the difficulty of determining a good/acceptable/healthy dropout rate for a PhD program. However, I haven't seen any questions directly asking how this question is or can be addressed. In practice, it seems this question must come up. If a lot of students drop out of a program, the faculty (not to mention the other students) must begin to wonder if something is awry.

The difficulty, of course, is that an ideal dropout rate is probably neither 0% nor 100%. (If no one drops out, the program is likely to be too easy; if everyone drops out, the program is probably too challenging.) How do departments/schools deal with this question in practice? How do they distinguish between "good" dropouts (where the faculty and student agree dropping out is best for all concerned and there is no ill will) and "bad" dropouts (where the dropout is due to burnout, a harsh environment, lack of funding, etc.), and track those outcomes over time? How do they avoid self-protective rationalizations (e.g., "our program can't be too/hard easy" based on review of the program content rather than the dropout rates)? Are there established ways of looking at the dropout pattern and evaluating it?

As a sort of side note, I'd be interested in hard data on dropout rates. Although there are numerous popular-press articles and blogs lamenting the dropout rates, the only concrete data I've been able to find is this slideshow and a few other things that seem to be drawing on the same data. (It's rather surprising that there is so much discussion of the "problem" with so little discussion of how to decide whether it's actually a problem or not. There seem to be many articles saying "the dropout rate is so horribly high!" and very few saying why it's considered high, and what would be considered low or normal.)

Just to clarify: I recognize that the dropout rate is not the only meaningful assessment of a program's health or quality. My question is not "How do you decide everythig about a program based just on the dropout rate?" My question is "How do you decide what the dropout rate is telling you about the health and quality of the program?" You will of course combine that information with other kinds of assessments of the program.

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    Dropout does not depend only on the difficulty of a program but also on student's personal choices and on possible conflicts with the advisor(s). – Massimo Ortolano Aug 26 '15 at 5:12
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    Surely an ideal drop out rate is zero? The aim must be to take on only those students who have both the aptitude and desire to finish the course, and have a clear understanding of what they are getting themselves in for. – user1220 Aug 26 '15 at 8:16
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    Some quantitative information on dropout rates can be found for UK institutions and US. I think the US data is the same source the OP linked. This doesn't give any indication of the cause of dropouts but is a useful starting point. – nivag Aug 26 '15 at 8:40
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    Ideal dropout rate is 0%, no doubt. You want a system well designed to support students that "get lost on the way" and students properly chosen, students that really want to get a PhD and are able to do so. How on earth is good to have a system where people drop out? – Ander Biguri Aug 26 '15 at 13:56
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    My view is that some students will drop out because that is what they want to do, and what is best for them. In such a case, getting them not to drop out would be a disservice. I agree this number should be small, and over some spans of time it might be zero, but if a program went, say, 10 or 15 years without any dropouts, I might be suspicious that degrees were being handed out willy-nilly, or conversely that students were being browbeaten into finishing when it wouldn't benefit or satisfy them in any way. – BrenBarn Aug 26 '15 at 16:13

I don't think there is a "good" dropout rate - without knowing why students drop out, the number is meaningless. But my overall view is that education (on any level) should be measured by the improvement in knowledge/skills/competence/... it provides to students and not by its ability to classify students into those who pass and the rest.

In this view, ideal (but unachievable) drop out rate is zero as you make sure that only students that are a good fit for the program enlist and then you do your best to lead them to maximal achievements they are individually capable of.

In the real world, it is hard to know for both the student and the institution whether the program is a good fit. Also people and their priorities change over time. So I guess there are a few "valid" reasons for dropping out:

  • The student's life situation changes (e.g. has a child)
  • Although the studies proceed well, the student realizes that he/she wants to do something different with his/her life. This should not include the case when the student had incorrect information on what the study program is actually like.
  • Early in the program the student realizes that he/she is unable to fulfill the expectations of the program (that were known to him/her before enlisting)
  • The student behaved in some unacceptable manner and was asked to leave.

To me the goal is to have very few dropouts of this "valid" kind and exactly zero dropouts for other reasons. In particular I think that if students fail because they learn midway that your program is too hard for them or because the environment is too harsh or because their ideals of what the study program would look like were shattered, than it is a failure of the institution (although often the student is also at least partially responsible).

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  • Per the first bullet, “unexpectedly” doesn’t seem a necessary qualifier. Even if the change was foreseen, the significance of the change could have been underestimated, leading student and/or institution to believe that the student could or would continue despite the change. Many new parents, for instance, planned on returning to work (of any kind) prior to actually having the baby, but wind up not doing so. – KRyan Aug 26 '15 at 15:14
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    "If students fail because they learn midway that your program is too hard for them ... it is a failure of the institution" I disagree with this insofar as the information can be available and accurate but still have the student not expect the load. To use some made up numbers as an example, say a prospective student is currently working a job with a 40 hour workweek. They are then told by their future supervisor that they will realistically have to spend 50 hours each week for their course of study. The student thinks about this as 125% of their current workload and thinks that it is (1/2) – DTR Aug 26 '15 at 16:44
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    @DTR very manageable, but part-way through the program they realize that the extra 10 hours are much less efficient, much more exhausting, and have a much greater impact on other areas of their life than they were expecting. The university in this case gave full and accurate information, but the student wasn't actually able to use it. tl;dr - There are some things that you cannot really tell until you get into the work itself, and there's not much you can do about that as the student OR the university. – DTR Aug 26 '15 at 16:48
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    @BrenBarn From extremely casual observation (I don’t have, am not pursuing, and have never pursued a PhD, I have only observations of numerous friends and colleagues who fit in one of those categories), I would guess that a lot of the disparity comes from simple failures of communication: the student and/or the institution failed to get a complete and accurate description of themselves through to the other. Considering that students are actively “selling themselves” (and so are many institutions), and also pressured to rationalize away any concerns they have and accept, this is no surprise. – KRyan Aug 26 '15 at 18:57
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    And how much is "very few" for the "valid" dropout rate? 1%? 10%? 50%? This is a difficult question, and I see no progress toward an answer. Consider that in my field (astrophysics), almost no one studies it as an undergrad. If 99+% of people going into astrophysics PhD programs stuck with it, one would begin to suspect there being a population of students for whom the subject really isn't what they want to do with their lives, but who are trapped in the program for one reason or another. "Very few" is not so small it can be rounded to 0. – user4512 Aug 26 '15 at 19:34

As a dropout, this may be an anecdote, but I have observed that myself and almost everyone else who dropped out did so because of personal reasons (health, marriage, children, financial, etc). There was only one person who left the program after multiple failures of the qualifying exam.

The basic assumption was that everyone who has been accepted has met a certain bar so the program should not be too rigorous for them.

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Dropout rate is a metric among others to evaluate a program. A dropout rate of zero would probably be best as only student who can complete the program would enlist. But in real-life, it will most likely not be zero because of many factors. The dropout can be because the program is hard, but also because of various other reasons such as the student changing career path, or anything else. Because of that, I don't think that it would be good to evaluate a program based on a single metric like the dropout rate. The dropout rate itself is influenced by other criteria such as the criteria for selecting students in the program, etc. One needs to see the global picture and consider many factors to evaluate a program.

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  • I agree a program shouldn't be evaluated solely based on dropout rate. My question is how to assess dropout rate, because once we have an idea of how to do that, we can combine it with other assessments of other aspects of the program. – BrenBarn Aug 26 '15 at 16:16

As a freshly minted PhD, I would suggest that the drop-out rate must be combined with more qualitative assessments, such as mentor conflicts, level of committee involvement, administrative entanglements, commitment level, technical difficulty (e.g., statistical background), study complexity, and much more. While a drop-out rate gives you a summary statistic, or the "what", it does not give you the "why". I suggest that most PhD candidates are more interested in why so that they can finish. For example, high or low drop out rates did not figure prominently in my seven year program. Rather, I was more concerned with how I would complete the program, avoiding pitfalls along the way. My mentor was quite instrumental in helping me sidestep many of those pitfalls. For me, my mentor was key reason why I completed, although my commitment level also saw me through several pitfalls.

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