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Which doctoral candidates are most likely to finish their degrees? New research from the Council of Graduate Schools' PhD Completion Project finds that the rate varies significantly by gender, race and ethnicity, and citizenship status. An analysis of 19,000 students at 24 universities in the United States and Canada found that:

  • Women lag slightly behind men. After 10 years, cumulative PhD completion rates for men were 58 percent compared with 55 percent for women. In psychology and other social science disciplines, however, women finished at a higher rate than men—57 percent compared with 53 percent. Women also had higher completion rates in the humanities.

  • On average, ethnic minorities don't graduate at the same rate. White students from the United States had a completion rate of 55 percent after 10 years, compared with 51 percent for Hispanics, 50 percent for Asian-Americans and 47 percent for African-Americans. In the social sciences, white students had a 57 percent rate, Hispanics 55 percent, African-Americans 47 percent and Asians 44 percent.

  • International students finish strong. They had a 10-year completion rate of 67 percent compared with 54 percent for domestic students. International students in the social sciences had a 63 percent rate versus 56 percent for domestic students.

The universities aren't just collecting information for their own sake, says project director Robert Sowell, PhD. The project's ultimate goal is to improve the numbers, and that means making changes that will help doctoral candidates stay on track.

Several practices already seem to have promising results, says Sowell. One is dissertation "boot camps" that bring stalled-out students together with writing and subject-area experts. Another is preadmission visits, in which departments encourage students to come to campus so that both applicants and departments can assess whether there's a good fit.

"As the project winds down in 2010, we will have a publication that ties the interventions to completion rates," says Sowell.

—R.A. Clay