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Margin Notes

PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada

Elusive data from the U-15 published exclusively by University Affairs.


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.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. AT / February 16, 2013 at 05:39

    Just another reason for government funding to be tied to (gasp!) results. Maybe then there would be more accountability for 20% and upwards failing to complete within 9 years! Universities would either get their students through or not take them on so liberally.

    • Villia Jefremovas / March 27, 2013 at 11:34

      Government funding and accountability are not the only issue. It took me 10 years to get my degree. Because funding ended, after 4 years, and because I am not independently wealthy, i had to get a job, gasp! I also had a child, gasp!
      Finishing a PhD, on a part time basis takes time.
      No i could not finish in 4 years. Funding rules require an Ontario student to spend the first 2 years on campus. I was doing a field research degree, in which the research was conducted outside of Canada. Once in the field, I needed to learn a non-European language to conduct the field work. No there were no lessons to be had in canada in this language. It was in the 5th year that I began to write and to work.

      Grad students do not sit in the ivory tower, they are often working full time, raising a family and working on the thesis. I finished because my family left me to work on weekends and holidays and, for the final 6 months took on debt and was willing to forego income and my time to allow me to finish. Many students don’t have that luxury.

  2. Dr. Shehla Burney / April 6, 2013 at 20:38

    I completed my PhD at OISE/UT (1989) in 3.5 years and actually wrote my thesis in three months and twenty days. I received my degree during this period of 3.5 years.
    I also received an award for the thesis. Indeed, it is possible to complete a thesis in four years if one focuses on it thoroughly. One needs to come mentally prepared with a wide knowledge base, previous background in the specific field, and be a good writer.

    Life is short and time has become accelerated in the twenty-first century. There is no reason to take ten years to complete unless there are serious extenuating circumstances.

  3. Dr doctor / April 16, 2013 at 08:40

    Yes, but Shehla, education PhDs are notorious for being shorter and less rigorous than other PhDs.

  4. JC / April 21, 2018 at 16:40

    A good Ph.d takes about 6 to 7 years to complete. Most schools will have two years of rigorous course work, one year of comps, one year to write and defend your proposal, one year to collect data and one year to write and defend (two is data collection goes bad). This is what a good Ph.d is otherwise we run the risk of going the U.K. adn Australian 3 year water down Ph.D.

  5. dave smith / May 23, 2020 at 16:49

    can you take as much time as you need to complete a Phd? like over 12 years?