One in four PhD students drop out


One in four Durham PhD students leave study without achieving their target doctorate degree. The data, acquired through a Palatinate Freedom of Information request, reveals performance is particularly poor in certain departments, with Computer Science, Education, and History performing amongst the worst in their respective faculties.

Palatinate received data from 10 UK universities counting the number of PhD students who left study between the 2015/16 and 2019/20 academic years and how many of those students received a doctoral degree. The figures include some medical students and other doctoral awards, while a small minority of students leave study due to transferring to another university.

At Durham, only 74% of doctoral students, who left study over the five-year period, received doctorates. This figure compares poorly with rival institutions such as Glasgow and Imperial where figures are 93% and 91%. Only two of the 10 institutions surveyed had poorer PhD success rates based on the raw data. These were Strathclyde (68%) and Liverpool (65%).

In response to the article, Durham University disputed Palatinate’s findings and said the true success rate was closer to 81%, after taking into account students transferring between institutions. It further claimed that it was not accurate to compare its data with other UK universities.

In the Faculty of Science, a number of Durham departments are very successful at ensuring their PhD students graduate with doctoral degrees. Over 90% of Physics, Mathematics and Earth Sciences PhD students graduate with doctorates.

By comparison, only 73% of Engineering and 69% of Computer Science students leave with doctorates. These rates are 10 to 20 percentage points behind comparable departments at Glasgow, Imperial, York and Leeds.

A Durham Physics PhD student told Palatinate that their department had a “very strong sense of community and provided many activities, both academic and social. This really helps students to feel less isolated, which I think can be a problem in other departments.”

“Only 55% of Durham’s Education PhD students graduate with doctorates”

In the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health, less than two-thirds of Durham PhD students within the Sociology Department, School of Government and International Relations and the School of Education graduate with doctorates.

Only 55% of Durham’s Education PhD students graduate with doctorates compared with 86% at the University of Leeds and 81% at the University of Glasgow. This equated to 51 Durham Education PhD students leaving with non-doctoral degrees (such as Research Masters) and 36 leaving with no degree over the past five years.

Within Arts and Humanities, the success of PhD students studying within the Theology & Religion, History and Classics and Ancient History departments was less than 73%.

In their response to the article, Durham University provided some explanation of why some departments’ PhD students may be struggling to achieve doctoral degrees.

“A number of our disciplines (Education, Theology and Religion and Business/Economics/Management) have a significant proportion of mature students returning to higher education… financial and life challenges and changes for these students tend to contribute to withdrawals.

“Science research is often conducted in teams whereas, in other disciplines, postgraduate researchers tend to work alone on their individual research topic. Differences in the proportion of part-time, mature, international and self-funded students between disciplines also contribute to differing outcomes.

“The University, through its Research Degrees Committee, analyses thesis submission and withdrawal data annually. Where a department has a submission rate that is lower… departments are required to review the data and report on their action plans.

“Recently departments have addressed this issue through a number of measures across the student journey that have shown positive results in improving submission rates. In particular, departments have reviewed and enhanced their recruitment practices and processes to support students through annual progress reviews and training.”

“It makes me concerned that the department really does not value its postgraduate researchers”

Not all students are satisfied that sufficient progress is being made to support PhD students during their programmes. Upon learning of Palatinate’s findings, a Durham Engineering PhD student provided this comment:

“It was disappointing to hear that only 73% of Engineering PhD students receive a doctorate. It makes me concerned that the department really does not value its postgraduate researchers, especially after very little support has been provided during virtual working since the start of the pandemic.

“Many PhD colleagues in Engineering haven’t had any additional support or check-ins from supervisors – if anything, it has subsided. It makes me wonder if the general lack of any community amongst Engineering PhD students and staff contributes to the higher drop-out rates.

“I envy other departments which have reading groups, specialised research communities and department organised socials. This lack of support has made me feel lonely, frustrated and underappreciated for the research and teaching contributions my PhD colleagues and I make.”

Image: Michal Jarmoluk via Pixabay