I understand that the overall success rate among doctoral candidates in the United States (across all disciplines) is very low for students who find themselves ABD (all but dissertation). I have seen figures as low as one in seven and as high as four in ten. Never have I seen a figure where a majority of thus-placed students, across the United States, successfully complete their dissertations and secure their degrees.
My success rate among the large numbers of students that I supervise is dramatically higher: in the range 96 to 98 percent across my career. How do I account for this huge differential? In part, no doubt , it is due to the high quality of the graduate students who attend a program that has been graced by two Nobel Prize Winners in Economic Sciences. But that has not always been true, clearly not during my early career. Moreover, I have supervised my share of the most clever and of the less clever within the entry cohort of any program, top-knotch, or otherwise. So this is not the entire story by any means.
There are three reasons for my success. The first is a brutal requirement for productive hard-work that I place upon each and every student under my mentorship. Many are the students whom I have broken down into tears during the early phase of their dissertation, when they come to meetings with me bearing little or no incremental contribution. Like young, untamed colts, once they are broken in this manner, their expectations of a successful, well-disciplined career improve by several orders of magnitude.
The second reason for my success is that I place the same burden upon myself that I require from my students. I meet with each one for at least one hour every week of the year (with rare exceptions for vacations) until they have completed their dissertations. I read what they have written, provide detailed comments and suggestions, and expect that the better of those comments will be dealt with by the following meeting. By now, that has become the rational expectation for any student who seeks me out as a mentor and supervisor.
The third reason for my success is the dissertation proposal, upon which I place an enormous importance. Like building a fine house, work on the foundations is the basis of success. If the foundations are weak, any edifice, however magnificent it may appear to be, ultimately will collapse. Ideas and structure are no less important than good concrete in this regard. To my mind, the Proposal is a contract that is written between the student and his committee, and that, once signed, is inviolate with respect to the bond that it creates between the two parties.
For the Proposal to represent a contract, it must be well-developed and clearly defined with respect to all its aspects, including a thorough review of all the relevant literature.
If the dissertation embraces a normative position, is that normative position well-defined and internally coherent? How does it set against plausible alternatives?
If it contains positive analysis (as all my dissertations do) are the relevant models clearly articulated and developed, how do they compare with relevant extant models, and where does any element of originality lie?
If institutions are involved (as is the case with almost all my dissertations) how have those institutions evolved, what are their key characteristics, and (sometimes) how do they compare with other institutions in other locations, across both time and space?
If empirical analysis is required (as is the case with most of my dissertations) how well does the specification of the empirical model reflect the theoretical model that has been developed, what are the testable predictions of that model, and how is the model to be refuted or not by empirical testing?
Finally, what data is required for such testing, does it exist or must it be compiled, and if so, from what sources and by what means?
Only when this foundational work has been completed will I allow a candidate to defend his Proposal before the committee. For only then is there a valid basis for a binding contract. Each committee member, in signing off on such a proposal effectively confirms (1) that the dissertation is worth while, and (2) that it is feasible. Thereafter, the successful candidate can move forward with confidence to the completion of his dissertation.
Now, of course, the contract may be adjusted as the candidate discovers new insights or finds a better route to travel to his ultimate destination. However, whenever such an adjustment is proposed, all committee members are consulted, and their comments are taken seriously to make sure that they remain on board for the journey.
In a nutshell, those are the lessons that I have learned from a lifetime of experience. Not every supervisor and not every student will choose to follow that path. For me, however, it is the path to success, in some 96 to 98 percent of the cases that I have ever worked.