US: Foreign students better at completing PhDs

US: Foreign students better at completing PhDs

International students in the US finish their PhDs at a higher rate than domestic students, according to the Council of Graduate Schools which has released results from the largest analysis to date of data on doctoral students.

The report, part of The PhD Completion Project, looked at completion and attrition rates from data submitted by 24 mostly US universities. The project analysed results from the study of 19,000 students who entered PhD programmes in 1992-93 through 2003-04.

It found that not only do international students complete at a higher rate than domestic students, but also do it across the board in five broad fields of study. Overall, the completion rate for international students, a cumulative 10-year rate, is 67%, compared with 54% for domestic students.

That difference becomes even more pronounced for international students in mathematics and physical sciences, where 68% complete their PhDs compared with 51% of domestic students.

The project also tracks completion rates by race and gender. Overall, whites score highest in completion rates at 55%, compared with 51% for Hispanic Americans, 50% for Asian Americans and 47% for African Americans.

However, it found that while African Americans have a completion rate of 60% in life sciences, the same as whites, they score much lower completion rates in mathematics and physical sciences at 37%. They also complete at a slightly higher rate than whites in humanities (52% and 51%, respectively). Slightly more Asian and Hispanic students finish their PhDs (53%) than whites (52%) in mathematics and physical sciences.

In terms of gender, the completion rate for men is three percentage points higher than women at 58% and 55% respectively. The difference becomes more pronounced in engineering, where there is an 11% difference in completion rates. However, women score highest in the social sciences, with a 57% completion rate compared to 53% for men.

"This analysis gives us a baseline that we can use to measure the impact of new policies and practices designed to increase PhD completion rates, particularly for women and minorities," said Debra W. Stewart, CGS President.

Jake Young, a PhD student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who publishes Pure Pedantry, a blog on academic and scientific culture, says completion rates are not the issue. "I am much more concerned with the fact that about a third of students are not finishing their PhDs.Why is that? It may be that students are being lured into doing a PhD before they fully understand what they are getting into."

The PhD Completion Project plans further analyses, with a future issue that will report on what institutions are doing to raise rates of PhD completion.

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Writer: Philip Fine
Date: 21 September 2008

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