General Education

How Many People Actually Finish Grad School?

How Many People Actually Finish Grad School?
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD September 8, 2014

Getting a PhD or master's will change your life in many ways. Find out how long you can expect to stay in a program, and what you can do afterwards.

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If you’re planning on going to graduate school, it’s important to know that only about half of all students complete their degree, and it often takes close to a decade to move through the program.

The PhD Completion project examined the graduate attrition rates in various disciplines. Their findings might surprise you. Though many programs claim a loose five to seven year schedule, most programs take much longer. Seven years is often seen as a standard number of years for completion, though the research shows that ten years is much more realistic.

Here are the seven-year completion rates for the following disciplines:

  • Engineering 57%
  • Life Sciences 54%
  • Math & Physical Sciences 48%
  • Social Sciences 41%
  • Humanities 29%

All disciplines show an uptick in completions by the tenth year, but even in the best case scenario, no one wants to take that long to complete a doctorate.

A similar study for master’s programs, The Master’s Completion Project, looked at degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and MBA programs.

Here are the four year completion rates for the following master’s disciplines:

  • STEM subjects 66%
  • MBA programs 86%

Attrition rates in these master’s programs are significantly better than for doctorate programs. Keep in mind though, that they signal completion rates at the four-year mark although the average MA program is supposed to be of a two- to three-year duration.

What can you expect after you complete your graduate degree?

Though graduating with a master’s degree or PhD is a huge accomplishment, it doesn’t guarantee success on the job market or a fast-tracked career. It might be the beginning of another kind of struggle. Current data suggest that the job market for STEM PhDs is stagnant, and has been for some time. This trend goes against the popular idea that PhDs in the sciences have much better job prospects than do humanities graduate students.

Across the humanities, evidence suggests that university positions are shrinking, especially along the tenure track. Humanities graduate programs purport to be training grounds for university teaching, but those jobs are scarce. Data suggest this trend continues university-wide, across the disciplines. For most major institutions, a significant amount of teaching, nearly 76 percent, comes from visiting, adjunct, or part-time faculty, many who hold doctorates in their field. These jobs usually come without benefits or security, and on average, the pay is abysmal.

Pursuing and completing a doctorate creates an astounding skill set that carries well beyond the expertise of a specific discipline. PhDs are used to doing rigorous work. They are sharp, careful, and critical thinkers. Their intellectual gifts are usually shaped by creating nuanced and original work in their fields. PhDs are skilled experts who are also able to work tirelessly, meticulously, and creatively.

The data suggest, however, that the job market and economy can’t support the current and incoming generation of PhDs. These studies are important to keep in mind if you’re seriously considering graduate school.


Cassuto, L. (2013, July 1). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lewin, T. (2013, April 7). Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the New York Times.

Master’s Completion Project | Council of Graduate Schools. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2014.

Pannapacker, W. (2013, June 17). Just Look at the Data, if You Can Find Any. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

PhD Completion Project Information. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2014.

Weissmann, J. (2014, July 10). The Stagnating Job Market for Young Scientists. Retrieved September 3, 2014 from Slate.

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