Our feature, “The PhD is in need of revision” (the cover story for the March 2013 print edition of University Affairs and published online Feb. 6), has garnered much attention, quickly becoming the most read article of the past week and receiving loads of comments.
What was not immediately obvious about the story is that the article contains exclusive data not publicly available elsewhere on the completion rates and times to completion of PhD students in Canada. The data are not comprehensive – they’re from only eight of the 15 most research-intensive universities for which there are comparable data, and none of the institutions were identified. Nevertheless, it’s a start.
The data show that the proportion of students who successfully completed their PhDs within nine years ranged from a high of 78.3 percent in the health sciences to a low of 55.8 percent in the humanities (see graph below). Mean times-to-completion ranged from a low of just under 15 terms – or five years, based on three terms per year – in the physical sciences and engineering, to a high of 18.25 terms, or just over six years, in the humanities.
The data were provided by the group known as the U-15, whose executive director is Suzanne Corbeil. We first requested the information about a year ago and there was quite a bit of back-and-forth with the group before they agreed to share it with us, for which we are grateful. If we hadn’t gotten the data, we were planning to use 10-year-old data which we had published, also exclusively, back in February 2003.
I point this all out because it demonstrates well the difficulty of getting good data about Canada’s universities and the university sector in general, which I think hinders good policy development and analysis. I don’t blame the U-15; they politely reminded us that they are not primarily a data-gathering organization and that their data is usually collected for sharing internally. Statistics Canada is the obvious organization where one would expect to get this type of information, but they have actually cut back on some of their data gathering, most notably their discontinuation in May 2012 of the University and College Academic Staff System, the most complete and reliable source of information in Canada on university faculty.
On a more positive note, I’m pleased to point out the “PhD is in need of revision” story as an example of some of the excellent reporting we’ve had recently in University Affairs. The article’s author, Rosanna Tamburri, is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to University Affairs whom we rely on greatly and hold in high regard. She’s also the author of “All about MOOCs,” which has quickly risen after just three months of publication to the third-most-read article of all time on our website.
I’d also point to our “Sessionals, up close” article by Moira MacDonald as another example of University Affairs setting the agenda. And, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the great insight and commentary from my fellow bloggers: Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction, Jo VanEvery and Liz Koblyk at Careers Café, David Kent and Jonathan Thon at The Black Hole, and Margo Fryer at Taking the Plunge.