Leaving the Ivory Tower

Barbara Lovitts dropped out of two Ph.D. programs. On her third try, she completed a dissertation in sociology – studying people who drop out of Ph.D. programs. Then she turned her dissertation into a book.

Some of her results are suitable for framing and mounting above the mantel in the ΦΔϘ* chapter house: When they arrive on campus, Ph.D. completers and non-completers are virtually indistinguishable. They have the same undergraduate grades, the same test scores, even undergraduate involvement in their discipline (conference presentations, etc.) is not a predictive factor for successful completion of the degree. The only factor that does show up as a significant difference is the amount of knowledge completers and noncompleters have about their programs, and about grad school in general, before they enter.

The basic identifiable difference between completers and non-completers, though, is their integration into the departmental community. Community integration is helped by forcing people to be on campus and interact – group offices and TAships especially seem to be good for students. If you’re detached from your department community (or your department doesn’t have much in the way of community to be detached from), you miss out not only on the bonding and fuzzysnuggles, but the networks of informal knowledge and aid. Since most graduate programs leave an awful lot of important knowledge out of their official communications (e.g., what does it mean for a grad student to get a B?) these networks are essential. Lovitts doesn’t really focus her study on gender, race, class, or sexual orientation, but she briefly invokes community integration as a mechanism by which this kind of discrimination can occur.

Leaving the Ivory Tower is a very dry read. Skimming the first few chapters might be mildly cathartic if you’re trying to make sense of your own grad school experience, but I really don’t recommend plowing all the way through unless you’re intimately involved in reforming graduate education. If you’ve got some kind of reality-based policy argument on your hands, though, it’s a useful look at the structure of graduate education and the people it fails to serve.

*Phi Delta Qoppa is a made-up honorary society open to any Ph.D. dropout – whether you slink away in the dead of night empty-handed (or with your hands full of stolen lab supplies), or graduate honorably with a master’s degree. The first two letters should be obvious; qoppa is a dropout from the Greek alphabet.


  1. j wrote:

    I found this interesting and somewhat original/insightful, and a bit depressing:

    The basic identifiable difference between completers and non-completers, though, is their integration into the departmental community.

    …seeing as I actively dislike my department community.

  2. yami wrote:

    [opinions on my own department redacted]

    J, you have my sympathies. I hope you can find an amiable sub-community, at least.

  3. j wrote:

    Fortunately(?), and not entirely unrelated, academic expectations around here are low enough that I get by — coursework consisted mostly of things I had already seen.

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