A.B.D.s and postdocs: lack of good incentives

Today, before lunch, a colleague (S.) and I were glancing at the profile of one of our aerobics instructors.  She had listed her degrees and on that list was
Ph.D Social Studies (A.B.D)
"What is A.B.D?," he asked me.  "All but dissertation," I told him. Since S. and I had both finished our Ph.Ds the same year, we got to talking about self-motivation, the ability to find an original topic and being able to write when there were no hard deadlines.

As luck would have it, this article on why PhDs take so long showed up on my RSS feed while I was eating lunch.  The article quotes a NSF study to claim that:
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

That may all be true, but I would have liked to see a breakdown of these statistics by discipline. I think that including the "soft" sciences exacerbates the problem -- an English PhD who will find it very hard to get a job has little incentive to graduate.  It's quite likely that his student teaching job at the university is more attractive than working at a coffee shop. In science and engineering, where PhDs who graduate can expect to find work doing what they trained to do, the problem is a lot less severe. And  even in science and engineering, a field like theoretical physics (where jobs are scarce) sports extra-long PhDs and an almost-mandatory postdoc.

Now, the prevalence of postdocs in fields where jobs are scarce -- that would be a topic fit for a NSF study.  Postdocs are just cheap labor.  I think that funding for new PhD students should be reduced in fields where graduating PhD have to accept postdoctoral appointments.

This is not rocket science -- the lack of jobs for PhDs in some fields is the reason people take so long to finish.  Add in the incentive of good jobs after graduation, and people will finish their PhDs faster.

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