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Only 48 per cent of students graduate from PhD programs at U of O

Photo courtesy of Clark Gregor, CC.

A member of the Board of Governors (BOG) says the University of Ottawa will have to boost its doctoral graduation rate if the university wants to achieve one of its top strategic goals by 2020.

In a 2013 report, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that Ontario universities have nearly doubled enrolment in their doctoral programs, from 10,182 students in 1999 to just more than 19,000 in 2009.

The increase was spurred by government policies seeking to fill a market need for highly skilled workers, and to keep pace with the United States and other industrialized countries, according to University Affairs magazine.

However, less than half of doctoral students are graduating.

Monica Gattinger, a professor of public administration and BOG member, pointed to the “alarming” 48 per cent completion rate of U of O doctoral students in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.

The university pledged to raise that figure to 65 per cent by 2020.

U of O president Allan Rock said an increased research output is one of the university’s top priorities. But according to Gattinger, increased research capacity can’t be achieved without first boosting doctoral graduation rates.

The U of O’s numbers are in normal among Canadian universities, according to Christian Detellier, vice-president academic and provost. The 65 per cent goal would set the university above the national average.

“The graduation rate compares to other universities,” Detellier wrote in an email.

He said the administration is concerned about the “slightly decreasing” trend among PhD students, which suggests that full-time students are taking longer to complete their degrees. “This is a topic which has been identified as a top priority for the administration this coming year,” he said.

Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, external commissioner at the Graduate Students Association (GSAÉD), said graduate students often cite finances as a major obstacle.

“High tuition fees, low income from less than sufficient funding packages, and the need to support dependants stand out,” she wrote in an email to the Fulcrum.

Students often have to work at other jobs to make ends meet, she said, while also working as teaching assistants, attending class, and writing dissertations.

She said a lack of academic support systems for language, writing, and understanding regulations also discourages students from finishing their degree.

“These contexts create unhealthy working environments and increase stressors,” she said, adding that it has an adverse effect on mental health.

Timothy Stanley, interim dean of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, said it’s a combination of personal and structural factors that decrease the graduation rate.

He said the issues that PhD candidates face at the U of O are common.

“One of the problems for PhD students is that life happens, and that time management and actually sitting down to write can be difficult,” said Stanley.

PhD students in Ontario are, however, doing better than in other parts of Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario saw the second-highest number of doctoral graduates in 2011 with 91 students earning a diploma, beating the Canadian average of 88. Quebec came first with 102 graduates.

Ross-Marquette suggested that reduced post-residency fees, better funding packages, paid training, and increased support for thesis supervisors would benefit graduate students by relieving financial pressure and stress.

Stanley said the university supports students by ensuring access to thesis supervisors, providing software to check project timelines, and conducting program evaluations every eight years.

“We’re working on it,” he said, “but it’s not an easy thing, because the problem is a combination of many factors.”