If aspiring econ Ph.D.s are going to read one article about their prospects for academic success, Stock, Siegfried, and Finegan’s “Completion Rates and Time-to-Degree in Economics PhD Programs” (American Economic Review, 2011) is probably the single best piece to read.  Their survey included 586 Ph.D. students from the 2002 classes of 27 programs, and tracked them for a full eight years.  The raw results:

[Larger-print version of the table here]

Key observations: Completion rates vary heavily by school rank.  In top-6 programs, 33% finish in five years, and 75% finish in 8.  In programs ranked 7-15, rates are almost as high: 32% in five years, 71% in eight.  Outside of the top-15, rates crash.  Much but not all of the completion gap appears in the first two years of the program.

Of course, if you’re contemplating a Ph.D. in economics, you won’t be satisfied with simple bivariate results.  What happens if you regress completion probabilities on a wide range of traits?  The results are extremely messy.  There are so many independent variables and sufficiently few observations that almost nothing has statistically significant effects on completion – including school ranking. 

At least in my view, however, Stock et al. controlled for so many program characteristics – including “program-level two-year attrition rare”! – that it’s hard to interpret this result.  I would have rather seen regressions that controlled for program tier (or precise rank), student characteristics, and that’s it. 

In the absence of such regressions, here’s how I’d interpret the results: If you’re good enough to get into a top program, but choose a lower program, your odds of completion probably remain high.  But if, like most Ph.D. students, you plan to attend the best program that accepts you, Table 1 provides good estimates of your prospects.  Caveat emptor.