In a nutshell: nationwide, attrition rates for Ph.D. programs hover at about 50%. In some humanities programs, that number is edging toward 70%. The article notes that between the long time-to-degree of Ph.D. programs (usually 6-7 years, often longer) and the slim job prospects in many disciplines, an attrition rate that is higher than that found in medical or law schools is to be expected. But it also raises the perennial questions: Can attrition rates as high as these be responsibly understood as anything other than a scandal? And why are so many people still enrolling in Ph.D. programs when the odds of finishing, not to mention the odds of finding decent employment afterward, are so minuscule?Dr. O'Connor goes on to discuss the problem and solicits stories from (ex-)grad students (Dorothea's makes sobering reading).
Research suggests that the natural selection argument so often invoked to justify the status quo is utter hogwash. The snobbish argument that graduate school "separates the wheat from the chaff" (or the men from the boys), that it "allows the cream to rise to the top," that it is a "sink or swim" environment in which only the most talented survive, just doesn't hold. Speaking in terms of populations, there is no demonstrable difference in intellect between those who leave graduate school and those who stay to the (often bitter) end--grades and scores are largely the same for both groups.
I'm a very atypical grad student, and not in the humanities -- nevertheless, I expect attrition in engineering schools is at least as high. I'm atypical in the sense that I work at a full-time job while simultaneously being a full-time student. Yes, it's not easy, but it keeps me out of the academic bog of teaching-assistants and slave-labor-researchers. I got my BS in 1999, my MS in 2001, and I expect to get my PhD in 2004, if everything goes according to plan. There's no way I could have maintained that schedule if I had been tied down to a professor as an assistant or researcher. (My advisor is really excellent, and I get the impression that most wouldn't allow their students to take full-time jobs.)
I'll say this: getting my MS was the easiest thing ever; getting my PhD may be the hardest. Anyone who can graduate with a BS can earn an MS, it's just not that hard. I don't say that to denigrate the degree, because you will learn a lot of specialized knowledge in the process of getting the MS, but the journey isn't that difficult. However, getting a PhD is like being admitted to an exclusive club, and there are a ton of hoops to jump through before you finish. I expect most attrition is due to these hoops more than anything else -- the procedure itself can be discouraging, confusing, and often painful. If graduate school were the focus of my life (as it would be were I a TA or RA), I think I'd go insane.
As it is, I've finished everything except the final lap of the race: handing in my dissertation. My research is going well, I'm getting good (surprising) results, and it's largely going to be a mechanical matter of writing and assembling the chapters of my book. Fortunately, I'm a decent writer, and it's a topic I'm interested in.
More than anything, a PhD represents a higher level of the same thing a BS stands for: not intelligence, knowledge, talent, or luck -- tenacity. In the end, a PhD in computer science probably won't drastically increase my earning potential (or even get me chicks), but that's not what it's really about (except the chicks part).