Kaustuv Basu discusses an effort at Stanford to reduce the time it takes students to receive a Ph.D. in German Studies to 4 years. Spearheaded by former MLA President Russell Berman, a member of the department, the initiative seeks to shorten the time it takes for students to complete a humanities Ph.D. Essentially arguing that decade-long Ph.D. adventures are no longer competitive or realistic in the modern university marketplace, these ideas would move students onto one of two tracks–prepare for an academic or a non-academic job.
How would this be accomplished? First, departments would fund students throughout the year, including in the summer, when research often is impossible for lack of money. Second, it would demand professors work more closely with their Ph.D. students to keep them on track and not let people drift for years, as happens to so many Ph.D. students (including myself for awhile). Many other changes to the structure of graduate programs would be needed as well.
A few specifics:
“In anthropological terms, academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture: you may feel some private guilt at letting a chapter go unread for two or three months, but a much stronger force would be the public shame you’d feel at coming unprepared to a meeting with two of your colleagues,” he said. “It’s also ultimately a labor-saving device for the faculty as well as the student, as the dissertation can proceed sooner to completion and with less wasted effort for all concerned….” With frequent meetings, the students doesn’t lose time on “unproductive lines of inquiry” or “tangential suggestions tossed out by a single adviser,” Damrosch said.
A two-hour oral exam, meetings each semester with “dissertation-stage” students and their committee members, and clearer feedback for students are part of the graduate program in the comparative literature department now. “We also introduced a monthly forum for students to share and discuss their own work; and an ambitious series of professional development talks, on everything from article submission to dissertation planning to alternative careers,” Damrosch said.
The University of Colorado, University of Minnesota, and Harvard are also considering changes, with Colorado already beginning to implement a short Ph.D. in German.
I find all of these ideas interesting, thought I can see good arguments both for and against. I do like the idea of Ph.D. programs shepherding their students more effectively, reducing unnecessary obstacles, and thinking harder about careers. On the other hand, as Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association notes in the article, can fully formed dissertations be completed this quickly? That’s a good question; in history at least, I do feel the overall quality of dissertations would suffer, largely because students would have to commit too quickly to a specific track rather than explore the sources and literature and see where they lead you. Others in various tweets and Facebook posts noted that this might only increase the already high number of humanities PhDs since a 4 year commitment will appeal to a lot more people. Also, would splitting students into multiple tracks create a second-class PhD? Plus, it’s not like most departments are very savvy on non-academic careers for their students to begin with; after all, everyone in those departments succeeded in achieving an academic job. How well will they steer students into employment?
Obviously there’s a lot of questions that need answering. But it’s hard not to welcome the rethinking of the humanities PhD. I’d certainly be interested to see what people have to say in comments here, given backgrounds, experience, etc.