Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

The 5-year PhD

A friend recently pointed me toward this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since that publication (I believe) does not allow unsubscribed readers to view articles after a month or so, here are the highlights if the original is no longer available:

  • Stanford University is moving toward a 5-year PhD model. Specifically, they have requested that all humanities departments come up with proposals for ways to cut down the time it takes to complete the PhD, including providing year-round (instead of semester-only) funding for grad students and more preparation for careers inside AND outside of academia. Clear, measurable proposals will be rewarded with financial support from the university.
  • Many see the Stanford initiative as the first concrete attempt to reform the humanities PhD, despite several years of calls for fundamental changes in how humanities graduate programs are run.
  • A spokesperson for Stanford cited the seven-year Stanford average degree time (it’s as much as nine years at other universities) as a major roadblock: “Extended time to degree can represent a significant drain on institutional resources as well as major costs to students, both in the form of indebtedness and postponed entry onto a career path. We ask programs to examine the current structure of degree requirements in order to determine what reforms might expedite degree completion. The answer will likely vary across fields but might involve topics such as restructuring curricular offerings, revising course requirements, modifying examinations, improving the quality of mentoring, the clearer benchmarking of graduate student progress, and revising dissertation expectations.”
  • In addition to cutting time to degree, Stanford is seeking proposals on how to better prepare grad students for careers outside academia.
  • MLA president Russell A. Berman has said that changes could also include restructuring the qualifying exam–in particular, tightening the relationship between PhD coursework and quals preparation, so that the majority of quals prep doesn’t take place “off the books.”
  • Berman also called for tighter structure and stricter deadlines when it comes to the dissertation writing stage of the PhD.

Responses to the article have been mixed. Professor Claire Potter of The New School for Public Engagement was skeptical of the plan for a lot of good reasons, one being that it appeared to have been drafted with limited (or no) faculty involvement. Comments in the original article’s discussion section were a mix of negative and positive, with people mostly divided into “it’s about time” and “I don’t trust it” camps.

Maybe I’m naive–or maybe my 6+ months away from an academic environment has changed my perspective a bit–but I was really on board with almost everything that this article discussed. I completely agree that you can’t expect to “standardize” humanities PhD’s, given the incredible variance in the nature of PhD work, so five years probably isn’t the perfect number for everyone. I’m also wary of anything that wasn’t created with faculty input or faculty support. And I think that some of what university administrations see as “wasted time” is in fact time well spent (doing research, traveling, rethinking an idea).

But here’s what I really like about this proposal:

1. It says that humanities grad programs need more structure, clearer organization, and more deadlines. Yes, yes, yes. Too much freedom can be a bad thing. I can only speak from my own experience, but I was so often baffled by the fuzzy nature of course organization, qualifying exam reading lists, exam dates, and dissertation-related deadlines (if there even were any deadlines) during my time as a grad student. Deadlines are a good thing. In my case, at least, I always produced much better work when a deadline was looming. I think the only reason that I was able to finish my dissertation so quickly was that I had a self-imposed deadline (the date after which I’d have to start paying for grad school out of pocket). I’ve seen far too many people drag out their grad school experiences for far too long because they simply floundered through the dissertation stage with no real threat of due dates. Of course deadlines and structures should be created with both faculty and student input and may vary from discipline to discipline. But when done right, deadlines and structure aren’t a hindrance, they’re a help.

In so many cases, ten years is TOO LONG. Maybe five is too short. But nine should not be the average, especially when so much of that time is often spent in courses that have little or no relation to your subject area (this was definitely true for me). Graduate students need time to grow, mature, and acquire a solid base of knowledge, but they also need to face a little more pressure to finish–pressure that, again, can be a motivator to produce good work under the right circumstances. (These days a lot of humanities grad students are actually advised by their departments to stay IN school longer, simply because there are few jobs available).

2. It wants universities to stop looking at careers outside of academia as a “plan B” or as a lesser choice, and start seeing them as a viable option for PhDs. This one’s been a long time coming. Granted, in some fields your non-academic options are pretty limited. But given the bleak job statistics for humanities PhD’s, grad schools need to face up to the fact that the majority of their PhD’s will not land tenure-track teaching jobs, and some of them may not want to work indefinitely as adjuncts. And if faculty don’t know anything about jobs for PhD’s outside of academia, they need to bring in people who do. It’s time to start acknowledging that grad students need help applying for non-university jobs, and that those jobs are just as valid as university ones.

3. It says that grad programs need to structure their course offerings more carefully. Oh God please yes. And let me be clear here–when it comes to haphazard course organization, I do NOT blame faculty. Faculty, especially junior faculty, have a shit ton of responsibilities, and organizing a grad course with three or four students is probably a bit low on the list. But the disorganized nature of coursework–the confusing designations of which courses will count toward a particular requirement and which ones won’t, the huge variance in workload, the uncertain nature of many course themes and reading lists, the fact that course subjects and the focus of one’s research are often galaxies apart–needs to change.

I took two courses that never had actual syllabi and with themes so broad that no one seemed to quite know what the course focus was. I’ve had reading lists change on a weekly basis. I’ve seen professors shoehorned into teaching grad courses they clearly didn’t want to / didn’t know how to teach. At times it felt like the selection of grad courses for each semester was decided at the last minute by whoever was unlucky enough to be thrown the task.

Of course I’ve also taken wonderful courses in grad school, with wonderful professors who guided me toward my dissertation topic. But overall, the organization of the course curriculum always felt random and thrown together. And given that so many professors and administrators were overtaxed in their duties, and that the real focus has always been on undergrad courses (the real moneymakers for the university), it’s hardly surprising. But the mess needs to get cleaned up, and grad course curricula need to be organized at least as carefully as the course requirements for undergraduate majors and minors.

It remains to be seen whether Stanford’s initiative will create lasting change within academia, and whether that change will be good for faculty and students. But I feel like it’s a big step in the right direction.


3 comments on “The 5-year PhD

  1. Kathryn
    December 19, 2012

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania has had a very strong push to get grad students out in five years ever since 2007/8. The initiatives they’ve implemented to help departments achieve this goal include making sure that students are fully funded during their five years (this includes summer funding, which makes a huge difference) and allowing any course in any of the university’s schools to count for degree credit (which means that students are free to design their own curriculum instead of having to take “extra” classes).

    There has been a lot of positive feedback concerning the university’s push to give students better support and put them through less bureaucracy, but I personally feel extremely alienated by the intense pressure to finish in five years. What a five-year plan does not take into account are the students who need advanced language training and/or need to travel to do research. Someone studying a country like Japan, then, is put at a huge disadvantage by the drive to make PhDs finish in five years.

    Even in a best-case scenario, what a five-year program doesn’t take into account is that being on the job market is itself a full-time job. Even if a student has completed her coursework and teaching training in three years and only needs a summer and a semester to study for and take her exams, that leaves her with only thirteen months (since she’ll need to defend at least two months prior to graduation) to write a dissertation proposal, research her dissertation, and write her dissertation while preparing for and entering the job market, whatever that job market that may be. The end result of this mad rush is that not only will the student be unable to write more than the bare minimum of her dissertation, but she’ll also only have the bare minimum of qualifications and preparation for the job market.

    It feels like a conveyor belt system pumping out larger numbers of PhDs standardized to meet minimum requirements, which is bizarre, because the last thing the world needs is more PhDs faster.

    I am all for giving graduate students better support and direction, but a firm “five year” directive is more than a little upsetting.

  2. gradland
    December 19, 2012

    Kathryn, completely agree that an arbitrary time-to-completion for ALL humanities PhD’s is a bad idea. And the time-consuming nature of being on the job market in your final year is something I definitely didn’t take into account–I probably would have needed at least another year to finish if I’d been job hunting as well as dissertating. I wish there was some way that humanities departments could move toward more organized schedules without pushing an inflexible five-year deadline on everyone. Ideally time-to-degree for each discipline would be decided with significant input from faculty and grad students / former grad students, with a bit of flexibility depending on the nature of the grad student’s research.

  3. Pingback: Friday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion | Clarissa's Blog

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