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The Humanities Ph.D.

[ 75 ] May 17, 2012 |

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.

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  1. Linnaeus says:

    The funding part is really important. One reason a humanities Ph.D. takes longer (though it’s by no means the only reason) is that funding is less available, so that when you’re not funded you often have to take other work that reduces the time you can spend on your dissertation.

    Not to mention that the funding you do get often…entails duties that direct your efforts away from dissertation work.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right–this does seem to assume that schools would actually be able to fund people as opposed to hire them to do cheap academic labor. Which is actually a big reason I could see a lot of departments opposing this. Who would teach freshman writing?

    • DrDick says:

      That is certainly the biggest problem in anthropology.

    • Matt_L says:

      Right, I have a cousin who did a PhD in Microbiology and it only took him five years start to finish. But he not only was funded, but could work in his adviser’s lab year round on his dissertation research. Oh, and since he was working in his adviser’s lab, he had a ready made topic for the dissertation with a clear line of inquiry and a group of people he could bounce ideas off of. Oh, and there was no dicking around with an MA before he started his PhD program.

  2. Robert Farley says:

    “On the other hand, as Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association notes in the article, can fully formed dissertations be completed this quickly?”

    I wonder; do they need to be completed this quickly? Any dissertation that leads to a book normally requires substantial revision anyway, and lots of dissertations provide the foundations for 1+ scholarly articles without themselves being all that relevant. Adjusting down the expectations for a dissertation might not be so bad.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      That’s a good point; certainly anyone can create 2-3 decent articles out of an average dissertation. I’m rewriting the entire project for the book so I can very much see this point.

      • Linnaeus says:

        My dissertation’s not yet done, and I’ve already gotten one article out of it.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        At the University of Manchester we do have a seldomly exercised option of 3 journal papers, though I believe it’s for non-PhD holding RAs, lecturers, etc., not for people in the PhD program.

        We still have non-PhD faculty members (I was one!). Sadly, fading away…

        • Warren Terra says:

          Some European countries have a similar rule in the sciences, or so I’ve heard. At least it used to be the case that in Germany if you had three peer-reviewed first-author publications you could staple together the reprints as your thesis, with no Introduction and no other writing to do.

          • Bill Murray says:

            Many schools in the US have that option. They make crappy dissertations because you can never do the background and experimental procedure sufficiently in a paper and those are often more critical to have well written up than the actual research is. But it is an option that can be used.

  3. Nicely done says:

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    1) I don’t think dissertation quality would suffer. Even completed dissertations nowadays are considered works-in-progress, and if summers are focused on dissertation work it’s certainly enough time to finish what might essentially be a book proposal and manuscript. I think students would actually have more time to read deeply during the prospectus stage, so I don’t think they’d rush too quickly into a project

    2) I don’t imagine it would increase the number of phd candidates, in large part because I assume each candidate would receive more funding, thus fewer slots for incoming students. Also, a more intensive process might weed out more marginal candidates, which leads me to…

    3) I think departments already track phd candidates….the ones they feel will be good job candidates get summer funding, internal fellowships, teaching awards etc., the less outstanding students don’t. (This may just be my experience.) You’re absolutely right that departments seem clueless about non-academic careers for doctoral students, and that will have to change (and at least my r1 state u is making furtive steps to do so.)

    Personally, I wonder if two or three article-length projects might be a better exercise for the phd (and it would help begin to end the tyranny of the monograph), but one change at a time I guess…

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      In CS the tracking is often quite explicit. (I remember a conversation with an advisor who explained that this weak thesis of his student would get through the committee because he would promise them that the student would never try to go into academia but was industry bound. Not…good. FWIW, the student produced an excellent thesis.)

      The big problem I see with a shorter program is that some people Just Take Longer. We have a fairly hard cut off, and I can see where a bit of flexibility would really help. (Including the difference between graduating and not.)

      Tricky!

    • Ben says:

      I agree with you, though I’m more concerned about the number of phd candidates increasing. I’m not sure what the assumption that per-student funding will go up is based on.

  4. Bijan Parsia says:

    This is the standard in the UK (actually 3 years, plus a year to write up; though lots of people do a course heavy MSc first; plus, right now we’re looking at an official 4 year program). I was shocked and thought it could just not work (no classes? no breath?), and it is true that by and large students with a longer baseline do better.

    And yet. We turn out PhDs. These PhDs in the long run don’t seem hugely worse than US PhDs coming out of 4 or 5 or 6 or n year program. (I took form 1991 until 2009 to finish my degree…with a lot of interval :)) It’s more typical to have a postdoc (at least in the sciences), which helps with the seasoning and breath. (And they get paid a real wage.)

    It’s like dropping or diminished comprehensive exams…it seems dreadful, but it doesn’t necessarily cause any real problems and, y’know, reduces suffering.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Sure, but there is (on average, obviously) a huge difference in quality between postdoc candidates I see with short European PhDs and longer American PhDs.
      I suspect the career rewards of the longer PhD are slim to none, and certainly not proportionate, but strictly in terms of looking at how much the best new PhDs know, how much they’ve done, and how deeply they’ve delved, the difference is (on average) unmistakable.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        I’ve trouble seeing a strong difference, at least in CS. I’ve not looked at philosophy programs in the UK.

        Plus, I’m not sure how much it matters if the differences level out quickly. In particular, delaying people getting a real job so that you have Super Awesome entry level candidates is really obnoxious.

        • Warren Terra says:

          I’m in Biology, not CS, or philosophy. Doesn’t make my impression accurate, but at least we’re getting different impressions from looking at different things.

          I didn’t say the difference levels out incredibly quickly – but the differences may turn out to be of sorts that in important ways just don’t matter. And even they may level out significantly by a few years into the postdoc.

      • zunguzungu says:

        British undergraduates specialize suring university, and as a result, are particularly primed and ready to go when they go to graduate school. Americans, by contrast, come out of undergraduate having worked in lots of different fields; thank you Charles Eliot for inventing the elective, and whoever it was that invented the general curriculum. But the upshot is that American university students need more time to familiarize themselves with their particular discipline once they’re in grad school. Unless we’re going to also change undergraduate education, that problem isn’t going away and American grad students will always take longer.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          This is not necessarily true. I did my undergrad in the US. Then wrote a couple of books and articles before doing a one year MA and then the PhD in two years in the UK at SOAS. Having done my post-graduate work in the UK I think it is a much better system. Have all the course work done in the MA and then dedicate the PhD entirely to the dissertation. There is no reason for anybody to take longer than four years to do the PhD. Somebody who takes ten years is just five times slower than somebody who takes two years. The big problem is that having gotten a PhD degree from SOAS I could not even get an interview for adjunct positions in the US. Nobody in the US has ever heard of SOAS. But, it helped me a lot in getting my current teaching job in Africa.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          I’m unclear that the effective courseload difference is all that great given that 1) 3 vs. 4 years, 2) courses tend to be shorter, and 3) UK students tend to be underserved in areas where a bit of breath requirement would have helped.

          Plus, most of my colleagues don’t think that the typical student straight out of undergrad is ready for a PhD program. I usually recommend doing a masters, or working for a bit.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            For history in the UK the intensive one year reading MA before starting the PhD covers all the course work. You take one major and two minor including a methods course. For my major course I read about a book a day.

  5. Warren Terra says:

    Given the employment prospects, is the answer really to produce PhDs faster and more comfortably? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take even longer to produce fewer PhDs, with funding that is secure and sufficient but meager enough to dissuade lingering by those less than committed?

    On the other hand, there is merit in giving people the opportunity to really delve deeply into these subjects regardless of future measurable utility in their lives. But that seems like more of an argument for expanded Masters programs, not for streamlined PhDs..

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      The German model!

      If it’s paid too low, really forget it. Plus, unless there’s a big shift in culture, long term PhDom can be really brutal psychologically.

      Grant the PhD quickly. Replace adjunct positions with well funded post-docs with a short and a long term path to permanent employment. You can have tenure and non-tenure if you really really want, or just grant tenure more easily. (I don’t think abolishing tenure a la the UK was wise for the UK and its probably even less so in the US.)

  6. Scott P. says:

    Most PhD programs have three years of coursework, then in my field at least about a year or so of research overseas, so it’s hard to see where you squeeze writing time into that. I completed mine in six: two of coursework (I coveered the third when I extended my MA to three years) and then a year overseas, then two to write. The writing went a bit slow because I was working about 30 hours a week in various jobs and TA positions.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I think reducing coursework down to 2 years would be a minimum to any program accomplishing this. Mine was about 2 1/2.

      • Scott P. says:

        One could do the coursework in 2.5 if one was perfectly efficient, but 1) in my field (classical archaeology), you need to be conversant in at least four languages (Latin, Ancient Greek, and two modern), and it’s unlikely you’ve done all that before the PhD, and 2) there were only a limited number of upper-level seminars offered each semester. So most did it in three.

        • Andrew R. says:

          Medievalist here, and yeah, the languages are a big problem. At the minimum we need Latin, French, and German, and most people need a vernacular or two as well to do any scholarship that’s worth it.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          In the UK you are also expected to be able to read the languages you need for research. This is not a problem. You either know them before you start or learn them quickly. The content based course work is all done in the MA.

    • Matt_L says:

      I did my PhD coursework in 2 1/2 years. Its totally doable. I think it should be cut down to one and a half.

      Research took 18 months. And I was lucky to have a generous grant that let me do most of that overseas.

      I really got bogged down in the writing. I remember the best piece of advice I got during the writing stage. “The dissertation is the last paper you will write in your academic career, not your first book.” I think I got hung up on trying to write my first book. Instead I should have concentrated on getting an article done before I finished the diss.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        The writing was the easiest part for me. But then I had spent years as a copywriter and a technical writer before I went back for grad school, so perhaps I had a bit of an advantage there in that I was already accustomed to writing all day long.

        I spent a total of five years in grad school – four semesters on the MA, the balance on the PhD. And both degrees were in different subjects, though they were at least both social sciences with a bit of overlap.

        I’ve actually spent more time on the job market than I did in grad school, but that’s a bitch session for another day …

  7. c u n d gulag says:

    For languages, total immersion in the language, history, and culture, might very well work.

    Maybe the same with History, Literature, and other Social Sciences

    But I, for one, don’t think this will be successful in “hard” sciences or mathematics.

    Too much, too fast, for all but the very brightest, who might only actually need only a few years – if that.

    I’ll be interested to see what others think of that.

    • Bill Murray says:

      In engineering most PhDs are supposed to be done in about 4 years, although a few finish faster and many go longer mainly depending upon how well the research project goes. PhD research is supposed to be a new contribution to the fundamental understanding of a scientific problem so it is often hard to determine in advance how well that will go.

  8. GC says:

    I’m pretty skeptical of the proposed reforms, which seem mostly directed towards establishing “alternative tracks” that will make it easier to blame students for the fact that there are no jobs. My take on this, reported from another site:

    The crucial elements of the plan are:

    * formalize an alt-ac development track that students embark on in year 2
    * reduce time to degree

    The second point fundamentally misunderstands why it is people take so long, which is (1) because it just takes about that long (the average time to degree in history apparently has been 8 years for about a century, regardless of reforms) (2) because people only “finish” when they get a job, and when there are insufficient numbers of jobs people stay longer. A lengthy time to degree is half baked-in, and half a symptom of the jobs crisis rather than one of its causes.

    Focusing on reducing time to degree without dealing with the systemic job crisis is a way of shifting blame to the students, whether one realizes or intends that; it ignores the actual situation and instead locates the “blame” for what’s happening in students who aren’t producing enough / working insufficiently hard. Additionally, because of the economics of academic departments, it will tend to only accelerate the problem: every student out is another open slot for an incoming first-year, so if we’re doing PhDs in half the time we’ll wind up making twice as much.

    The first point is a great idea, but you can’t put the decision point in year 2. The fact is, with plenty of exceptions like miriam’s, most people are entering grad school because they want to be professors, and by year 2 they all still want that. It’s just way too early for students to properly evaluate the situation at hand and make an informed decision about what they want for themselves. The inflection point for alt-ac careers is much later, usually after comps in the write-up phase or even in the job-search phase; that’s when students find themselves in crisis looking for other options. Between year 1 and year 5/6 the training is going to have to be overlapping if this is to be practical.

    How is this “directed” towards blaming students? Well, call me cynical, but I’ve just finished a PhD in the humanities and seen how the faculty-student relationship works at many different institutions. If a plan like this is widely adopted, I am certain that the primary result will be a great many students finding themselves at the end of unsuccessful job searches being told “Well, we gave you this other option! You should have made a better decision in year 2!” Faculty by-and-large are desperate about the job crisis and will cling like a liferaft to the idea that the student, rather than the system, brought them to this point.

    Funded summers would be nice, though.

  9. Emma in Sydney says:

    In Australia humanities PhDs have no coursework because that’s meant to be done in your Honours year of your BA or in a Masters degree. Official finishing time is four years, and it is all dissertation research and writing time. We seem to manage. Supervision could be better, with more straight up project management and less bullshit about how your thesis is the summation of your human worth, in my view, but that’s because the supervisor who finally got me through was a pragmatist to whom I shall be forever grateful.

    • steelpenny says:

      My ex-wife was in the English program at Adelaide and they were telling people they had 3 years. A big difference though is that in the U.S. many lower level undergrad classes are taught by PhD students; at Adelaide, even my tutorials were done by professors (except one). If U.S. PhD students weren’t basically full time teachers in addition to trying to work on their dissertations, 3-4 years might be reasonable.

      • Furious Jorge says:

        This might be why I spent just a shade over 3 years in the Ph.D. program – my funding came from outside the department, so I didn’t have to teach several classes per semester. On the flip side, that made teaching opportunities a bit harder to come by, but since my advisor was also the department chair, I managed to get a couple.

  10. avoidswork says:

    The world is changing and it may ask more of students in terms of them thinking about what they want from their degree. The problem is more people have PhDs, so the playing field has changed, the competition for jobs, internships, etc., has increased.

    Whether a student wants to hear it or not, their advisors may be completely out of touch with regards to non-academia options as they have been tenured long, long, ago. Be a mercernary if you have to and figure out how to navigate the graduate and post-graduate field. But as research money becomes less and less available, it will only get worse at institutions. Who wants to have to fund themselves via TAing whiny entitled undergrads b/c their PI has no money? Modern undergrads are so entitled/enabled, it’s shameful.

    In the end, maybe a “second-class” PhD isn’t that big of a deal. Would people/peers know? Would it really matter to teh student’s future career, especially if not entering academia? (It’s different in the hard sciences as peers tend to know which places have bona fide MS programs vs those students that drop out of PhD and get an MS). At minimum, they can get a job faster and start putting money into a retirement account. They will need it.

  11. This is great: just dive in and start writing! Who needs all those fussy foreign languages with their archaic variants and challenging orthography? Who needs to visit distant archives or build relationships? It’s all in English and online, right!

    • Erik Loomis says:

      These are all legitimate issues. I don’t think my wife could possibly do her PhD in 4 years since she has to go to indigenous communities in Mexico, build relationships, etc.

    • djw says:

      Yes; as someone who took the meandering, drifting route myself, I can appreciate and endorse a variety of measures to tighten up and reduce time to degree, especially stuff like summer funding! But I remain leery of a strong effort to standardize time to degree, for fear that it would have effect of discourage projects that involve significant time and energy investments in acquiring new skills, competencies, languages and so on. Given the pressures of publishing on the tenure track, it’s unlikely many will have the opportunity to take a year or two to develop these skills after the PhD in most cases (those lucky enough to be at research departments with generous sabbatical policies probably will have a better chance than most, but they’ll also be under more pressure to publish regularly). It’s difficult to envision a firm timeline akin to, say, a JD in many fields, surely including history.

      There’s also the dilemma of people who could, if forced, have finished in 5 years but produced a lousy dissertation (but have the potential to do better work with more time). This would have been me; I drifted in adjunct-land far, far too long, but had I finished in five or six years my dissertation would not, I suspect, have been very good. Maybe that would have been a trade work making, but I’m glad I eventually produced something I think is actually pretty good.

    • Andrew R. says:

      This, this, a thousand times this.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      In the UK the intensive reading is done in the MA. I think I read about a book a day for my major class at SOAS. I don’t think they admit people otherwise. You need to have the reading ability in the necessary foreign languages when you start the PhD. You certainly have to cite non-English language sources in your doctorate at SOAS. The three year PhD there includes nine months to one year for overseas research. If you do it in two like I did there is still nine months to a year overseas. But, I can see why with your attitude towards fast PhDs that I never got any interviews in the US.

  12. stickler says:

    Well, the idea of a “second-class Ph.D.” is indeed troubling, but let’s be honest: there already is a de facto “second-class professoriate,” in that people who teach at liberal arts colleges and CC’s are not, by and large, *ever* going to jump up to an R1 position, unless they’re freaks of nature or insanely lucky.

    Ph.D. programs that produce useful (i.e., employable) doctorands are all staffed by professors who only considered R1 positions, and obviously, got them. So that’s the emphasis, as far as they’re concerned. Getting a job at Presbyterian College of Upper Quomquot, or even Reed College, is essentially seen as “failing” in the job market by R1 professors.

    • Linnaeus says:

      Not to mention if you get a job outside of academia entirely, though my advisor is not one who thinks that way, and attitudes are changing.

    • Thers says:

      people who teach at liberal arts colleges and CC’s are not, by and large, *ever* going to jump up to an R1 position, unless they’re freaks of nature or insanely lucky.

      I’d frame that as “extremely unlucky,” thankyouverymuch.

      Of course this cuts both ways. I just got done serving on a CC English search committee. We had *lots* of R1 grads & ABDs applying, who had nifty CVs, but couldn’t provide evidence that they could teach worth a damn.

      • Dirk Gently says:

        You open up here something that’s fairly glaring: to what extent do Ph.D’s who got in it for the teaching need to produce dissertation research? Why not articles to “prove” they can do it, and load have THEM do all the teaching? Why not have the people who want nothing to do with teaching, if they can help it, snatch up the bulk of RA assignments and be forced to produce something of greater heft?

        I was bemused in applying for jobs this year how little scholarly publication was required in the small, teaching-oriented schools to which I applied; and as we all know, this is very much the opposite at R1′s. Why not stream doctoral candidates on their intended path anyway, so half the job market isn’t miserable and/or attempting insane things so as to bolster their CV as broadly as possible? Why force people to publish like mofo’s AND desperately grasp at online teaching and adjunct work, all before even landing a tenure track job, just to be competitive anywhere/everywhere?

  13. Thers says:

    4 years? Doesn’t it take longer than that to finish a sentence in German?

    (Try the veal, etc.)

  14. Well, I did 7+ years of grad school (in music)– 5+ after earning a master’s — and quit before beginning a dissertation because I was looking at 2-3 more years (a little coursework, a few more exams, writing) before finishing. I don’t understand, really, how that happened. I might be better off with 3 Bachelor’s degrees. (But then no one would have made me read critical theory (in music classes))! So there’s that.

    I figured 3ish years after an MM, plus maybe a little remedial work (I got a BA in Liberal Arts, not in music school, so conceivably I was “behind” which I was ok with), maybe 1 more for a dissertation?

    After 5+ years and some extenuating circumstances I couldn’t see (or really afford) my way to spending another 3ish years to get a piece of paper that would buy me a lottery ticket into the non-Ivy-Leage-degree-holding academic music theorist job market.

    I don’t think non-research fields should necessarily require research degrees. That’s stupid. If most of my job is to design and teach undergraduate theory, who cares?

    I don’t think that if my area of research (in music, or whatever) is, say, American composers (it was/is(?)) that I should have to do as much foreign language competency as someone who specializes in French or German or Japanese music. All of my sources were in English – literally, all of them.

    There’s more, but that’s plenty.

  15. Dirk Gently says:

    I think the fixation on duration for the streamlining is going about it all wrong, because sometimes it just takes as long as it takes. That said, I’m not sure how you go about fixing the problem without fixing some fairly fundamental things about how university systems work, and the other ideas are good ones.

    Let’s start with this Catch-22: How do you get teaching experience without being assigned as a TA and/or instructor of record? How do you complete your work fast if you’re teaching?

    The focus, I think, needs to be on two things:

    (1) Year-round funding, so that there is a minimum of three months somewhere in a calendar year where someone can just be a monk and read, or do some writing, or do “pure” research.

    (2) Professional development which enables the PhD student to find work inside OR outside academia: those infamous “transferrable skills” which almost no tenure track professors know anything about. Whether this is located within departments or (more likely) through the university career center, that’s the missing piece.

    There aren’t too many PhD’s. There are too few tenure track jobs and too many low-wage, unstable, part time teaching gigs. Having a PhD is only a liability if tenure track work is all one is trained for.

    I would add that coursework is generally over-emphasized in the U.S. system, as is the nature of most comprehensive exams (still necessary I think, but in need of restructuring). But that starts to get into the weeds a bit.

    • “(1) Year-round funding, so that there is a minimum of three months somewhere in a calendar year where someone can just be a monk and read, or do some writing, or do “pure” research. ”

      WTF is this “funding” of which you speak?

      • Dirk Gently says:

        Heh. Indeed. Like I said, fundamental changes.

      • Dirk Gently says:

        But to clarify: modest stipend to live on while one throws oneself into the research/writing. Depending on the research, additional funds can be applied for out of the usual departmental budget. Unless and until the research requires anthropological field work or similar, most of what is required for a humanities Ph.D. can be done in a library.

        • Emma in Sydney says:

          This is how it works in my country. Modest postgrad scholarship, no fees for research degrees, sometimes 3 or 4 hours teaching a week, during semester, paid extra, and three to four years of full time research and writing. If you need languages, you have them already (or you wouldn’t get the place).

  16. oldmunni says:

    [q]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. [/q]

    It has always struck me as a particular oddness of the US system that your PhDs take so damn long. Most everywhere else does them in 3-4 years. As some upthread have said, that is in main because PhD candidates in the US get to (have to) do much more teaching than similarly placed candidates in NZ, Australia, the UK, etc.

    However, I don’t see any quality distinction between US and Australian graduates in Philosophy (indeed, anecdoatlly, people coming out of the good programs in Australia seem to do pretty well in the intl job market).

    Something like anthropology might be a bit trickier, but again, if the rest of the world can do this, the US should be able to at least try.

    • Dirk Gently says:

      You’re also overlooking the coursework. In NZ, Aus., UK there is no coursework, whereas in the U.S. there will be around two years’ worth.

  17. BW says:

    I think Louis Menand’s piece is also good fodder for discussion: http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/11/professionalization-in-academy

    For me the fundamental question seems to be: what’s the purpose of a Ph.D? From the discussion here it seems like the purpose is to make a meaningful contribution to the academic project and publish something new. (If the purpose is “so you can get a job as a professor”, the humanities Ph.D is a rather inefficient means to that end since the number of jobs is so tiny compared to the number of grad students.) But if we grant that, why is there such huge variance between disciplines? Does it really take English grad students twice as long to produce a meaningful dissertation compared to physics grad students, or is grad school just soaking up otherwise unemployable English Ph.Ds because they can’t get jobs like the physicists can, so they might as well live for a bunch more years in indentured servitude?

  18. Marc says:

    There are different causes for a long time to degree. I’m in the sciences, and the time to degree in astronomy varies widely from school to school. To be blunt, universities with a long time to degree seem to be ones where students (and advisors!) are not properly supervised. You need someone besides the advisor checking in that there is adequate progress to degree; a long time to degree is rarely a good sign for future progress. Frequently it’s an unengaged advisor and a student who is stuck. So there is an element of reducing time to degree that simply involves better management of graduate education, and it’s hard to see a downside to this.

    Three years is what it typically takes to write a dissertation – so 2 years of classes would add to a total of about 5 years. There are programs with a 4 year fuse, but they tend to churn out people with a very narrow focus.

  19. Matt_L says:

    Language training took up several summers during my PhD, plus I took German in night school before I even started the MA. Language training in the US is piss poor. It starts too late in the education system. Language departments are cash strapped and abused by the funding schemes and whipsawed by the general education requirements.

    Most of my undergraduate students do not take two years of a foreign language in college. I rarely have students who want to go onto grad school in history, but then ask about it, I tell them that they need two years, minimum, of a major language (our school offers: Spanish, French, German, Japanese or Chinese). Even if you do this, its not really adequate for doing primary source research or reading the relevant scholarly literature in grad school. I know from personal experience that it takes several years to get your chops up. So this adds to the time to completion in grad school.

    Just to echo what has been said above, If you want to shorten the time to completion for grad school, you have to change the undergrad curriculum in several ways. I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon.

  20. dave says:

    In the UK you can get 3 degrees, bachelor’s, master’s, PhD, in 7 years, from what is still generally acknowledged to be the second-best HE system in the world, current short-term funding issues notwithstanding.

    Maybe it takes more than twice as long for US institutions to turn out people to make sure they are still the first-best, but maybe they’re just whining from their own position of incredibly entrenched geopolitical privilege?

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      It is not even apparent that the US is the best overall in HE. I know that most Americans think that a PhD from UNM is better than one from SOAS, but I don’t think anybody in Africa would agree.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        I love Otto’s shot at my PhD granting institution. But then I’m just another leftist academic who doesn’t understand how Ghana is paradise on earth.

        • Hogan says:

          And you never will, because you’re such a stone cold racist.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          To get off the potshotting, UScentricity in academia is quite a strong phenomenon, afaict:

          At the same time, the most recent survey sponsored by the Carnegie Founda tion for the Advancement of Teaching notes that among scholars from fourteen countries the American professoriate is the least committed to internationalism.3 Only half of American faculty feel that connections with scholars in other countries are very impor tant, and while more than 90 percent of faculty in thirteen coun tries believe that a scholar must read books and journals published abroad to keep up with scholarly developments, only 62 percent of Americans are of this opinion.

          Based on a survey from 1997, so it would be really interesting to see how that’s changed in the intervening years.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            I suspect it has gotten worse.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Yes, but you’re hardly, shall we say, an obviously reliable observer, n’est pas?

              I would say that this is quite not the case in computer science. From what I can tell it was way more UScentric in the 70s and 80s, and much less so in the 2000s. “International” conferences (major ones) often feel the need to rotate between regions (e.g., ISWC rotates between EU, US, and “Asia”, not quite global).

              Distance matters. The Description Logic community is heavily US centric, so moving its main workshop to Australia for one year was really annoying because it was just infeasible for lots of people (time and funding). If it boosted the local community then, great. I think we have South Africa in the near future. As the North American community dried up a bit, we starting locating DL more often in EU.

              One hopes telepresence will smooth a bunch of this out.

            • Bill Murray says:

              Not in my field. But then most types of engineering have been heavily populated with non-US grad students for at least the last 25 years, and many students maintain strong ties with their research advisor. I have developed two mixed-country degree programs with my former students.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Otto is in Ghana? I never knew that.

      • Linnaeus says:

        I suppose that it depends on the program.

  21. Rosemary says:

    Until there’s a tangible, career enhancing advantage to faculty in the humanities spending more energy advising Ph.D. students, it’s not gonna happen. At this point there’s little real incentive for faculty to do this, unless they already consider it important. While it’s true that it’s important for doctoral students to learn how to work mostly independently, this can become an excuse for faculty to let students drift while they themselves focus on what brings them more prestige.

    • Emma in Sydney says:

      That incentive has already happened in Australia, where I believe that the funding for PhD students is to some extent dependent on them finishing and submitting — that is to say, the department’s staff budget trails completion of post grad degrees. So a supervisor with a lot of drifting students is not pulling their weight and likely to come in for quite a lot of pressure, where the supervisor whose students finish on time is contributing to department funding. Certainly, humanities departments don’t tolerate the 10 year PhD any more like they used to.

  22. J. Otto Pohl says:

    In the UK funding is cut for programs that have too many people that take longer than four years to complete as well.

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