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Programs Are the chances of getting a PhD generally the same at every school? (U.S.)

  1. Aug 7, 2012 #1
    I'm told that as a PhD candidate, you have about a 60% chance of getting your PhD, which would almost seem like close to half the candidates don't get their PhDs at all and go home with nothing. Is this generally true at every graduate school in the U.S.? Strictly speaking of any given field in Physics, of course.

    What do you do after a failed PhD attempt and you're left with a useless bachelor's? (I guess something not Engineering-related?)
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 7, 2012 #2


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    As far as pieces of paper go, if you've finished enough coursework, you can get a master's degree.

    As far as what you can actually do, that depends on what skills you've developed during your stint as a graduate student. Computer-related work e.g. programming is a common "plan B."
  4. Aug 7, 2012 #3
    Learning and studying is never useless. A PhD is a research degree, which has a focus in producing new information and advancing knowledge in the subject where it's done.

    If you cannot get research funding and accepted to a PhD programme, then the likely reason is that your research topic is not interesting or relevant enough or your research plan is not well prepared to the one assessing it. In this case you can of course modify or change your research topic, enhance the plan and keep applying to elsewhere. You can and obviously should do research on your own as well, if you're really into researching the topic (which doing a PhD should be about). If you fail a PhD programme, then of course you've either not followed your plan and missed the deadlines or you haven't provided the research that you set to do or your dissertation wasn't accepted (i.e. it was likely flawed in some way).
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2012
  5. Aug 7, 2012 #4


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    I'm sure there are considerable fluctuations on the success rate - from school to school and from year to year.

    But this is one of those things where you have to look deeper than just a single statistic. Let's say for argument that your number is true (it seems a little low, but not completely unreasonable based on my non-US experience). How many of those actually FAIL, as in attempt the candidacy/comprehensive/defence and do not pass? And how many chose to pursue other interests?

    It's not uncommon for a PhD candidate to receive a job offer over the 5 year period he or she is working. Some students actively seek these out and jump on them when they come. Others will discover they don't have a passion for research, or perhaps that their passions lie in other fields. Others will pursue professional degrees such as medicine or law. Some will realize that their project has a commercial application and head straight for the patent office. In none of these cases is the subject really considered a "failure."

    In fact, even in the first scenario, often it's similar factors that lead to the result, it's just that unfortunately the system figures it out before the student does.

    In physics, given the competative nature of graduate school placements, the GPAs needed to get in, the PGRE, the reference letters, etc. most students who do get in have a reasonable chance at success. Remember, if the admissions committee doesn't think you'll be successful, they're not going to invite you to the party. In my experience cases where the student has the right background, has earned acceptable marks, has the passion for the field and does the work, but still fails are extremely rare.
  6. Aug 7, 2012 #5
    As phrased, very few. If you insert the word "thesis" in there, the numbers grow considerably.

    As Choppy says, if the admission committee has any doubt about your ability to pass the comprehensive/qualifying exam, you won't be admitted. And I've *never* heard of anyone who wrote a thesis but failed the thesis defense. (Typically, if there is any chance of a failure there, your advisor will make you do more work on it... you won't be allowed to defend until success is guaranteed.)

    The failure point typically comes after completing exams and coursework but before getting too far into a thesis. And while I hate to generalize too much, most of the dropouts that I've known can be attributed more to issues with advisors than to the students' ability. (I've known people who dropped out after their advisor left to go to another university, and others who worked on their advisor's project for years, only to be left without a thesis topic since all they did was implementation work.)
  7. Aug 9, 2012 #6
    I know quite a few people who did not finish their PhDs. Only three of them were asked to leave. One of those three couldn't pass the screening exam after first year. The other two, quite frankly, didn't really do much work and the department lost patience.

    Most people left for a job. It's hard to make Taco Bell wages for five years while your friends have 70k jobs. Simple as that.
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