17th 2009
Since when is faster necessarily better?

Posted under: jobs, students


"I'm late! I'm late!"

In “Fast Tracking a Ph.D.,” Judy Beth Morris assures us that earning a Ph.D. in three years is possible.  While university presidents and deans of graduate schools everywhere will be thrilled to read her article, I’m not sure why the rest of us should be excited–just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s desirable.  Morris explains how she earned a Ph.D. in Communications in under 3 years:  careful mapping of coursework, a supportive advisor, and above all, a relentless focus on the dissertation:

It’s essential to zero in on a dissertation topic as soon in the process as you can. I figured out pretty quickly what I wanted to do with my dissertation; I had the first chapter by the end of my first semester. The professor of the film history class I took that first semester assured me that it was a worthwhile dissertation topic: the “extended adolescence” of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy films and how and why the films resonated with Depression-era audiences. I knew that I would have fun researching this topic, so getting it done was not going to be a problem. Thus, the “dissertation topic” piece fell into place for me.  (Ed. note:  why the scare quotes around “dissertation topic?”)

Another crucial piece of the puzzle involves working on the dissertation as part of your coursework. I was able finish the bulk of the work while I was taking classes because I chose my classes with the end project in mind: my goal was to use class papers as eventual chapters in the dissertation. This worked much better than I could have hoped; I seemed to choose just the right seminar classes with research paper assignments that would allow me to cover the different facets of my topic. For a cultural studies seminar, I examined how Rooney’s adolescent films illustrate the American dream of upward mobility. In a qualitative research seminar, I interviewed members of the “historical audience,” people in their 70s and 80s, and I later wrote about how their recollections hinted at why the Andy Hardy films were so popular. In a speech-communication seminar on textual analysis, I analyzed the rhetoric of masculinity in the father-son talks in the films.

During my first year of classes, I wrote two and a half chapters (the interviews would have to be expanded and completed later); my second year yielded five papers that became chapters. I was able to complete about four-fifths of the dissertation as papers for seminars.

Also in her favor:  Morris entered her Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree already, and she was 30 when she started–two things that augur well for speedier completion.  I’m sure Morris was popular with her graduate school dean, since Ph.D. programs are being accelerated everywhere.  But let’s be clear about the reasons why graduate deans are under pressure to crank out Ph.D.s in three years:  it’s because the university doesn’t want to fund graduate education adequately, it’s not because the Ph.D. on the other end is necessarily the equivalent of a Ph.D. that took 5 or 7 or 9 years in the making.  (How can it be?)  My department is currently developing a Ph.D. program, and we are under orders to make sure that it will take no more than three years post-Master’s degree (as well as be “revenue neutral.”  Hah!)  I also take issue with Morris’s throwaway claim that “[a] humanities-centric project can more feasibly be completed in three years than one in the sciences”–although that’s perhaps the topic of another post. 

I admire Morris’s singleminded focus on the Andy Hardy oeuvre–but, speaking for myself, I would have gone out of my mind with boredom at having to spend three years on a single decade of American history and one series in one genre of film.  (I fully recognize that my disciplinary bias is showing here–guilty, as charged!)  In a program such as Morris’s, where’s the breadth of training, or the opportunity to take an English or an Anthropology class that might have opened up fascinating insights into her research?  Shouldn’t a Ph.D. indicate that a person has achieved a certain level of erudition and sophistication?  Faster Ph.D.s aren’t better Ph.D.s–they’re just faster.  Moreover, they serve the needs of the granting institution, not the needs of the students or the departments that might consider offering them a faculty position.

Morris’s article reminds me that I’ve heard some graduate student anxiety about not finishing “fast enough,” because they believe for some reason that they’ll be penalized for “taking too long” to get through grad school.  This, as far as I can see, is nonsense.  So long as a student demonstrates that that year of language training in Portugal or the archaeological dig in Wales is something they’ve incorporated into their intellectual agenda broadly speaking–why would we see the extra time spent on an honest intellectual project as “wasteful?”  In evaluating possible future colleagues, my department has seen these sorts of activities as evidence of intellectual seriousness and commitment to writing the best, most informed dissertation possible.  Extra languages and interdisciplinary training are good things that take time.  In a roundtable discussion last weekend, I made the point that speeding up Ph.D. programs in History would have the effect of discouraging archival research in favor of consulting only published or on-line primary sources, because poking around state and local archives takes time.  Writing a complex and well-researched dissertation that makes an original contribution takes time. 

Who decided that time was the enemy to the development of human knowledge, and what do we lose when we accept this vision of intellectual life?  Faculty who earn Ph.D.s in three years are all part of a vision of higher education in which Master’s degree programs are specifically marketed to adults with busy lives and full-time jobs (“Think you don’t have time for a Master’s degree?  Try our on-line M.B.A.!”) and undergraduates think it’s reasonable to work 35 hours a week, party with their friends four nights a week, and earn 18 credits per semester.  You might be able to pull it off, but don’t kid yourself that you’ve earned the equivalent credential to someone else who put the time in the old-fashioned way.


55 Responses to “Since when is faster necessarily better?”

  1. ej on 17 Jun 2009 at 9:55 am #

    It took me 7 years from BA to PhD, and I was one of the fast ones in my cohort. I was also fortunate that the topic assigned to me for my MA thesis related directly to my Dissertation, and that the archives I worked in were very well catalogued. I could do a lot of prep work from the states, making my visits extremely efficient and not terribly lengthy.

    But even so, the addition of the Latin classes, the German classes, and a third field in Ancient history that in way related to my dissertation topic, meant that the program took time. Although the dissertation is the tangible thing we take away from graduate school, I like to think its not the only thing. The time I spent prepared me not only to teach, but gave me the tools necessary for the second, third, and fourth projects as well!

  2. GayProf on 17 Jun 2009 at 10:06 am #

    Big Midwestern U is currently debating “time to completion” for graduate students. Fortunately, nobody seems to have gone to the extreme case of suggesting an ideal of three years (!).

    It’s tricky, no? All sorts of things can interfere with finishing a major research project. I completed my ph.d. “on time,” but the NERPoD lingered longer than expected for all sorts of reasons. So I am sympathetic with the idea that there is no magic timetable for writing a thesis.

    On the other hand, there are students who simply don’t accomplish anything for years and years. They disappear to places like New York or LA for their “research,” but can’t point to anything tangible that they uncovered. When and how is it appropriate to intervene in those situations?

  3. Indyanna on 17 Jun 2009 at 10:37 am #

    Getting a chapter or two out of seminars may make some sense, but compacting and conflating too much between coursework and research is sort of the graduate equivalent of these programs [like mine] where undergraduates declare their majors when they return their high school prom formalwear. Something has to get lost in the shuffle, in terms of the cultivation of curiosity itself, the learning from false starts, and the like. It probably also correlates with a professional career in which project two is Jimmy Stewart/s two years in a B Seventeen cockpit, book three is Ronnie Reagan/s courtship ordeals with Nancy, etc. etc. Rolling out a lot of [not so] different bodies on the same basic intellectual chassis, such as it is.

  4. Lilian Nattel on 17 Jun 2009 at 10:41 am #

    There is a similar pressure in the publishing industry and I think it’s misguided. Faster and bigger and more equated with better is one of the social values that has created economic and environmental havoc. Where is the value in learning? In thinking things over? In coming to a sound conclusion based on clear sighted examination of the evidence? In the fruition of the ideas growing in the heart?

  5. Gil Rodman on 17 Jun 2009 at 10:58 am #

    Grumble, grumble, grumble . . .

    That’s not for this blog (which I’ve just discovered, and which strikes me as smart and swell), but for Morris’ story, which is disheartening in its own right for all the reasons you describe above . . .

    . . . but all the more so (at least for me) because it helps to make my own professional and intellectual homes look bad. The mistaken notion that Communication (or Media Studies, or Cultural Studies) is the place you can go for an easy, no-muss, no-fuss degree is already widespread enough without stories like Morris’ floating around out there. *sigh*

  6. squadratomagico on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:07 am #

    My timetable was similar to ej’s: 7 years from beginning postgraduate work to the PhD. However, I do have the advantage of being capable of writing unusually swiftly — at least when I am in the right headspace.

    However, I think GayProf’s question is an impotant one: what to do with folks who disappear into their research and never seem to progress? The tenure track is, after all, time sensitive. While the 3-year PhD is fairly insane, it’s also not a bad idea for grad. students to begin establishing the rhythm of forward progress that they’ll need to maintain, in future years, in order to achieve tenure.

    Like you, however, I worry that these types of degrees simply don’t have the breadth and richness that a longer training gives. Exploring other fields, methodologies, and disciplines just seems to key to me to producing good work!

  7. Janice on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:38 am #

    I took a one year M.A. and then five years on top of that to do the Ph.D. And I was one of the faster to finish in my cohort. It could have been done more quickly had I a research topic approved from the get-go, certainly. And I was fortunate in that my language competencies were far and above the assigned requirements. (All I needed for my degree was French reading competency, but I had taken German, Latin and Italian, as well.)

    I think that a four-year Ph.D. is quite reasonable in such a situation where topic approval gets started early-on and language/access requirements are worked out in advance. Three years? I’d say no to launching that program!

  8. Historiann on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:46 am #

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I agree that the point that GayProf (and after him, Squadratomagico) raises about perpetual dissertators is important, but in the end, who is harmed by a grad student dithering around and never finishing a dissertation? Mostly just that student, I would argue, and I certainly am not suggesting here that providing unlimited funding for students who aren’t producing year after year is a good idea, either. I think it’s reasonable for programs to offer (for example) a guaranteed 5 years of funding, and then go from there as to who might need more time and supplemental funding.

    That said–few grad programs are so generous or well-funded that they can guarantee this level of support, so I’d again say that the risk of taking “longer” to write a dissertation is borne mostly by the student. And, I’m more concerned about the distortions of historical scholarship that would be the result of a 3-year “ideal.” Say goodbye to scholarship on anything other than modern history on Anglophone countries–comparative work, international archival research, language training, interdisciplinary studies, etc.–they don’t fit into a 3-year plan at all. So, brace yourself for a really, really, really dull series of monographs on discrete 4-year presidential administrations! That’s all we’ve got time for, folks–move along, move along.

    Thanks to Gil Rodman for his comments here, too–I’m sorry if my post suggested disrespect for Communications. I’m glad to hear that you’re appalled too. My comments were mostly directed at the meta-implications for 3-year programs in general, especially on my discipline, and not at Morris’s discipline, training, or program in particular.

  9. John S. on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:53 am #

    My take on this is a little idiosyncratic, but here goes. I went to a program that encouraged us to finish in 5 years, because they were worried about the upcoming shortage in professors. (Haha!) I suppose this was a scare of the early 1990s or something. I had a masters degree, and a thesis. I tried to build my coursework around what I thought was my dissertation project–I did three extended research papers on on my area of interest during my coursework. So in many respects I fit the Judy Beth Morris profile. I made it in six years (with some detours along the way).

    Of course, I am sitting writing this today about to mail off the final draft of my book, having taken significantly longer to write a book than I spent in graduate school. And I truly believe that the supposedly laser-like focus I had on getting forward and finished quickly is part of the reason that I took so long to finish. By the time I got my Ph.D., I ended up with a dissertation that I didn’t really like all that much. The project was a little ill-defined, at least in part because some of it had been produced as seminar-research paper chunks.

    Moreover, I had never sat down and thought about what I *really* wanted to write about. I was very committed to moving forward but not necessarily to a great deal of self-reflection. It was progress, I guess, but not very productive. In “revising” my dissertation I ended up dropping 230 pages from the dissertation, adding 220 pages, and generating an entirely new argument.

    I think that the Morris model can have a big upside but a big downside as well. The question is, what’s the real intellectual and professional goal? IMO, the point isn’t to have a dissertation ASAP. The real point is having a dissertation that you like and that you can revise into the book you want to publish in some kind of timely manner (i.e., before tenure). To my mind, the real test of whether or not Morris’ approach works is when she gets tenure.

    Just my two cents.

  10. GayProf on 17 Jun 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    HisoriAnn, I think that you are mostly right that going for a long time through grad school is at the cost of the student and nobody else. Except, for instance, that my current institution decides the number of new admissions a department can make based on the number of graduate students already receiving funding within the department. So, if there are too many students at the end of the pipeline, it will literally deprive a new student of a chance (All students admitted are guaranteed a *very* generous five-year package). Which student is the priority? The one who has been around for eight years and just might finish if given a little extra money? Or the young student who hasn’t even had a chance?

    And, also, I do wonder if there is some dishonesty in allowing a student to flounder for years if ze is clearly not cut out for an academic career. Obviously, in the end, it’s up to the student to decide that. However, to not suggest it at some point seems unethical.

    And there is also an unspoken problem that some universities depend upon grad student labor as TA’s, so allowing them to linger fills a void that serves the department but not the student.

  11. Vellum on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    My only comment here (aside from agreement with the idea that one ought not to try to get -everyone- to finish their PhDs in 3 years) is that the UK has as its *standard* the three-year PhD.

    Now bear in mind that yes, the MA comes before that time starts (as it does in many parts of the world, mine included), but that from the beginning to the end the PhD program itself is generally expected to be 3 years. The difference is in the amount of teaching experience one tends to have at the end. In a US program one tends to a) include either a one- or two-year MA and b) include (at least?) five years of indentured servitude, from which one is expected to learn to actually teach courses.

    Surely the different programs are for achieving different ends. A three-year PhD is for someone who already has an MA and only wants to produce a thesis. A seven-year PhD is for someone who still needs an MA and wants a thesis and teaching experience (and also for current faculty who want to pay very little for knowedgeable staff who’ll do grading and other undesirable work).

    I imagine there’s a place for both in this world. In Canada it’s typical to have a separate MA program of one or two years and a PhD of four or five, including TA experience. The only difference is, I suppose, that having teaching experience tends to make one more desirable as a new hire for universities that need teaching staff.

  12. Anastasia on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:19 pm #

    Students flounder for lots of reasons, not all of which have to do with their ability to handle an academic career. They take a long time to finish for even more reasons than that. It seems like something that should be considered on a case by case basis, without prioritizing the younger, fresher face across the board. Who is to say ze isn’t less capable than the student who has been around for 8 years.

    I’m also not clear on what it means to give students at that stage money. After four years, I was permitted to apply for additional funding–which I won and which funded me for a fifth year. After that, my tuition remission was intact but I didn’t see another dime. It wasn’t even an outside possibility. So I guess in theory I cost the university something in tuition, but it isn’t like money has been much of an issue, nor do I suspect I’m actually keeping someone else out of the program by lingering.

    This isn’t what I wanted to say at all, I just wanted to respond to those comments because I think it’s entirely too easy for faculty to write off students who’ve taken a long time as not good enough or otherwise past their shelf-life. I think that’s probably the case now and then, but in other instances, it clearly isn’t the case. In my case, my department’s failings have everything to do with why I’ve taken so long.

    What I was going to say is how, in three years of a PhD, do you have time to both develop a sufficiently grounded specialization and cultivate the breadth of knowledge necessary for teaching? You don’t get to teach your dissertation over and over. I don’t see any way to acquire that breadth if all or even most of your seminars pertain to directly and solely to your dissertation. I did a lot of things in coursework that had nothing to do with what I ended up writing about, but which have positioned me to teach broadly, which is what is going to make me a strong candidate for teaching positions. It already has, especially for a small department where the broader one’s teaching competence the better.

    Makes no sense to me how finishing in three years is anything but shooting yourself in the foot.

  13. Gil Rodman on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:26 pm #

    Quick apology/reassurance/followup of my own:

    I took no offense whatsoever at your comments. Honest. My apologies for not making that clear enough. :)

    To be fair, I don’t know Morris or her work. So maybe she’s a wunderkind who can churn out absolutely brilliant scholarship at a pace that puts the rest of us to shame. Maybe.

    But I’m still bothered by how proud she is to have lived down to the low expectations that many people already have of my field. No matter how much good, smart, critical scholarship on popular culture winds up out in the world, there’s still a pretty widespread belief that there can’t possibly be any intellectual merit in studying the mass media.

    So while I’d be appalled at her story regardless of her disciplinary affiliation, I’m doubly appalled because of how easily it feeds into the all-too-common stereotype of media studies as a “fluffy” form of scholarship that students can breeze in and out of — even at the graduate level — without ever having to break a sweat.

  14. thefrogprincess on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:37 pm #

    Historiann makes a great point about how such a rush might in fact weaken the role archival research plays in the discipline of history. I’m in a program that emphasizes finishing quickly, although nothing close to this three-year nonsense; more like 5-7 years. And while that might not seem unusually quick, I think the implicit expectation that you should be winding down in year 5 does have an effect on the kind of research that gets done. Certainly there are some fields where extensive archival research is still expected (African history, Soviet Union, China/Japan) and accordingly nobody expects those students to be done quickly. But I know a lot of grad students who downplay the importance of archival research and their objections aren’t about money.

    I keep hearing the phrase “you can write a dissertation on six weeks’ worth of research.” Well, maybe. But what I’ve found in the time that I’ve been here is that my research gets better by thinking about the materials I’m gathering as I gather them. For example, I’m working on a chapter now where the main event happens in one year and administrative reports about that event don’t show up in the archival record for another three or four years. I wouldn’t have known that had I not been reading the sources for the chapter I’m writing while I’m here. So instead of needing to make another trip or skipping that information all together, I just head on down to the archives. Having the time to do thorough research, to follow up leads, or to pursue more interesting directions is more important than popping into the archives for a month or two and going home.

  15. Dr. Crazy on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Wow. I came into my PhD program with an MA, and I can tell you that I didn’t settle on a dissertation topic (broad) until I’d completed my PhD coursework. This wasn’t because I lacked motivation – it’s because I needed time to think and to process and to grow as a scholar. (And in my experience, people finish PhDs in non-humanities disciplines more quickly, then to spend time in post-docs becoming seasoned; in the humanities, at least historically we’ve gotten seasoned during grad school, which is important since for most of us, the book is the primary form of scholarship, and if you don’t have a close-to-book-quality diss, you’re a goner.)

    It’s not great to have a hugely long time to degree, but I’m less concerned about people who take a longer time to degree, ultimately, than I am about people who think a PhD is something you just have to knock out as quickly as possible. All of the people I know who took a longer time had major personal upheaval – new families, end of long-term partnerships, deaths of immediate family, alcoholism, moving to different cities, etc. – and I don’t think that it says a thing about their likelihood of success as scholars that those things interrupted their progress toward degree. In contrast, I do think that doing the bulk of your dissertation in coursework might indicate that you’re a one-trick pony who isn’t terribly intellectually curious, nor terribly well-equipped to do independent scholarship that is not directly being supervised by mentoring professors.

  16. Mark K. on 17 Jun 2009 at 2:05 pm #

    “the university doesn’t want to fund graduate education adequately”

    This…but also, as you note, age and previous education play a part. Or to put it more broadly, amount of life experience plays a part.

    I have considered pursuing a PhD, when I finish my current master’s program. Which is a subject master’s, to go along with my library master’s. I currently work full-time because, y’know, food, mortgage, health insurance, feeling productive, all that. I could maybe, maybe consider doing a 3-year PhD program. Five to seven years? At that opportunity cost, at this point in my life? Impossible.

    The thing is, I don’t need socializing into academia: I’ve been an academic library director coming up on 3 years now. I don’t need that broad a grounding in my area of interest (knowledge creation, dissemination and preservation in religious communities): along with the subject master’s, I previously spent 3 years as a subject specialist librarian doing collection development, running study series and discussion groups, and organizing practitioner conferences. What I need is to fill in some gaps, take qualifying exams, and write a dissertation.

    This is, admittedly, not the approach to a PhD program that would produce the best results in someone fresh out of undergrad, most likely. But I think that myself after a 3-year formal program *would* be the equivalent of some people who took longer. After all, I’ve got 6 years of directly relevant professional and intellectual labor already under my belt.

  17. Karen on 17 Jun 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    I want to weigh in a teeny bit with this caveat: I have only a MS in Earth Sciences. So, not related to history or the arts, and I don’t have first-hand PhD experience. However, in my department during my master’s work the powers-that-be decreed that it should take 2 years for everyone to get their MS. And, as usual, almost no one could do it. But they cut off all departmental funding and stopped paying tuition. This created a very bad environment full of third or fourth year students being generally pissed off as their advisers left them behind for shiny new students. I just heard word of a girl in my old lab that came in with her MS going to work on a PhD that has to get done in 3 years – she is an international student in a weird situation. I think in the sciences it is similar to history, from what I’ve read here. If you have a topic picked out already and basically get to plug and chug, you can finish in 3 years. But you won’t be well-rounded at all.

  18. Sisyphus on 17 Jun 2009 at 2:45 pm #

    Well, I’m Slowy McSlow-Slow, so take my arguments with a grain or two of salt (2 years on a master’s then came here and did an MA/PhD in 8), but I think there is real value for letting grad students progress slowly through their programs.

    The more interdisciplinary your work, for example, the more time you need to spend taking classes in other departments and reading around in their “canons” and assimilating their methodologies.

    Learning how to teach well, picking up tricks as you go along, is also valuable (though I guess you could argue that we could do this on an assistant professor’s salary rather than a TA’s) as well is being able to teach a wide variety of courses, which come up in the department at varying times and with you at varying levels of senority (ie the first time Cool Survey comes along you are on the bottom of the pile and all the advanced grads teach it; later when that prof teaches it again you are one of those advanced grads.)

    Furthermore, has she published anything? Does she know how to publish? Been to conferences? Know the ropes of how to share and promote her research? I might have picked up on all this a bit faster if I had been mentored in it instead of just been told “Goooo! Quick quick quick publish something totally on your own!!!,” but I think it’s better to flail around and figure out the unwritten rules of academia on a grad school timeline rather than the tenure track.

    And will she get a job? Are people not going to hire her because they are worried she will only be able to “teach her dissertation”? Does she have an impressive CV after only 3 years? (Is the American field of communications as glutted as English and history? Because if she looks like a sped-up, weak candidate, who can’t bring to the table any of the “global studies” emphasis that is so popular right now, I would think search committees would pass her over.)

    I would also argue that grad students need time to fail, to flail around, to fuck up and grow up. If this fast-track PhD becomes the model we will narrow our demographics in academia even _more_ than they are right now: nobody with writing blocks, slow writing styles, anxiety, people who change their mind or topic a lot, or even just those who need to flub and revise the first few tries at everything (my personal trouble) would make it through the speedup system, not to mention those with any gaps in their training or ability. And people with each of these problems can still become great researchers and professors once they have taken the time to work on them.

    I think this model would select even more heavily than now for wealthy graduates of tiny elite liberal arts colleges (and then elite prep schools before that). Working-class students, people from larger or less prestigious undergrads, people who did other majors as undergrads, maybe even people of color who are having trouble adjusting to being in a predominantly white (potentially clueless or hostile) environment —- all of these people could potentially suffer under a fast-track PhD, even if they were getting adequate mentoring and support. And speaking of support, while a commitment of only 3 years would be helpful for women who wanted to wait to become mothers, if would really hurt anyone who came in with children or got pregnant while on the track.

    I say we take a page from the labor movement and declare, “No speedups!” For a while grads in my department were pushing back against time-to-degree tightening with the argument that for every additional expectation they had of us before we hit the job market we should get an _extension_ of the recommended time to degree. I notice that as our population shifted from moms getting PhDs to men whose wives quit their jobs when they became pregnant and just stayed home as support staff, those calls for extended time have slackened.

  19. Susan on 17 Jun 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    I used to teach in a program for adults. We assumed a masters, and our students were all professionals and usually very familiar with their fields. Our minimum time to degree was 3 years; some people did it, but they managed to incorporate their studies into their work so that things moved along. By and large though, it takes longer to THINK.

    I was 6 years from BA to Ph.D., but I didn’t need any languages, and got my masters along the way. I had a year in the archives, and I can’t imagine much less time than that. Of course, I was more or less creating a subfield, so there wasn’t much guidance. I even got a fellowship for my last year so I wasn’t teaching. While the ideal inthe UK is 3 years, most people don’t make it, and if they do, part of the reason they do is that they don’t have fields — my UK colleagues were much narrower in their intellectual training than I was. (I.e. early modern British historians hadn’t read any early modern European history.)

    There are always tradeoffs about time (within reason — the guy I know who was more than 20 years did not grow much during the last 14 or so..) but it really comes down to this: is the Ph.D. your union card (in which case it doesn’t matter what you’ve learned) or is it a Doctor of Philosophy, in which case it represents not just mechanical knowledge, but greater reflection and intellectual depth and breadth.

  20. thefrogprincess on 17 Jun 2009 at 3:35 pm #

    “I think this model would select even more heavily than now for wealthy graduates of tiny elite liberal arts colleges (and then elite prep schools before that). Working-class students, people from larger or less prestigious undergrads, people who did other majors as undergrads, maybe even people of color who are having trouble adjusting to being in a predominantly white (potentially clueless or hostile) environment —- all of these people could potentially suffer under a fast-track PhD, even if they were getting adequate mentoring and support.”

    Absolutely, right on, Sisyphus. Morris’s system assumes that those first few years of coursework are smooth sailing. They often are a period of dramatic adjustment for the kinds of students you’ve mentioned. Not to mention, if faculty members who teach in one’s fields of interest are on leave during any portion of that time, that person is likely to take a few classes that aren’t related to their dissertation topic and the papers for which can’t be turned into dissertation chapters.

  21. Mark K. on 17 Jun 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    Sisyphus, thefrogprincess:

    Interesting. The less privileged and more marginalized people I know personally–disclaimers about sample size and the plural of anecdote not being data, etc.–mostly talk about length of study as a barrier to graduate education for them, not an accommodation. Because money gets tighter with more years, and oppression/hostility/cluelessness gets more wearing with more years.

    I don’t know that I would advocate for any one ideal timeframe for completing a PhD, whether shorter or longer. People have different backgrounds and goals and temperaments and abilities and circumstances. I wish there were flexibility, is all. Of course, administrative reality is that flexibility is a pain, so probably it does turn into a discussion of “since we have to pick a model, which is the best one for the largest number of people?” Sigh.

  22. roger on 17 Jun 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    A three-year PhD sounds like what they do in Education programs like Ed Leadership, College Student Personal Admin, etc. And many distance learning PhD programs also only take 3 years. I have a hard time equating a 3-year program with a 6-year program. My wife had a year of research and 14 months of serious writing after completing all the course work to finish her dissertation. It just seems that something is going to get missed.

  23. Kathie on 17 Jun 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    I am glad that a couple of people above mentioned African history and family issues as factors in the time spent in a Ph.D. program. I earned an interdisciplinary master’s, and then entered a Ph.D. program in history, took more classes for two years and then passed my orals. THEN I had a daughter, went to Africa for two years (and not for archival research, the women I researched were not in any archives, so my findings were primarily based on collecting oral testimonies), returned to the US, gave birth to my son, worked as a part time research assistant and lecturer… you see how real life can get in the way. I was constantly making progress in my studies, but by the time I finished my dissertation, I had been in the Ph.D. history program for eleven years, and in graduate school for thirteen. Not that I recommend taking that long, but I concur with those who said that each student needs to be assessed on a case by case basis.

  24. Brett on 17 Jun 2009 at 5:49 pm #

    I can’t say whether its easier to finish in three years in the sciences or humanities, but Morris’s strategy for finishing quickly definitely wouldn’t work in science. She turned the major papers from her classes into segments of her thesis, and you just can’t do this while pursuing a science degree. I had one friend who wrote a ten or fifteen page review of a subject area as part of one of his second-year graduate physics classes. He like the topic so much, he spent another four years working on it as his dissertation. But that’s about as close to Morris’ strategy as one could come. Assignments in graduate science courses are usually either to review an existing topic area or to solve a difficult but already understood problem. Neither involves the kind of research that can contribute directly to a thesis.

    The time scale of most science PhD’s is set by external factors, particularly, whether a student’s experiment is producing good data. Once you have an experiment really working, you can generally finish pretty quickly, if you want to. However, there is also a strong incentive not to finish quickly, even if you can. If you move somewhere else, you will need to set up (or at least learn to use) a whole new experimental apparatus, which can mean a year or more of down time. Staying as a student, using the apparatus you know, is a more efficient way to produce publishable results. (You also get more time to learn about the field, but at this stage, most students seem to be little interested in expanding the breadth of their understanding.)

    Myself, I had to finish in four years or I would lose funding. My thesis work was theoretical and computational, which produced a situation more similar to the humanities. I had no experiment to hold me back; when I finished was based on how many fleshed out ideas I could produce. But again, class work was of no direct use. In fact, taking too many classes was an impediment, taking up time I could have been using for research. My thesis was by no means outstanding, compared with what my peers produced, but I probably took fifty percent more classes than the anyone else. In the long run, this breadth of learning really helped me, and I think it might have been nice if I could have stayed in graduate school longer and studied even more topics—although, at the time, I remember really wanting to finish and get out of there.

  25. thefrogprincess on 17 Jun 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    @Mark K.: I think you may be right about minority/less privileged/more marginalized/international students who want to avoid spending too much time in graduate school. That’s my reading as well but only with regard to the possibility of spending 7-10 years in graduate school. I don’t know anybody in history who thinks it’s possible to complete a PhD program in 3 or 4 years like Morris suggests. In my department, that’s not feasible. Even if you have a masters’ degree coming in, you have to do the two years of coursework and I suspect it’s like that in many history departments. The “rock stars” finish in 5 and there’s about one of those a year, sometimes none.

  26. Lucky Jane on 17 Jun 2009 at 6:38 pm #

    This story horrifies me, and not because I took more than twice as long as Dr Morris to the degree. (In my defense, I did not have an MA, and twice I almost died while writing my dissertation. Lack of funding was a far more serious impediment.) Rather, Morris reminds me of so many undergrads who view their degrees as a ticket to a job interview, when actually the degree is just a symbol of how their educations have changed them.

    In deciding whether or not even to pursue grad school, I researched how-to guides for PhD programs. These weren’t as common in the mid-late 1990s as they are now, but one I thought I found useful then was Robert Peters’s Getting What You Came For, which gives the same advice that Morris is now touting.

    One of the “success” stories featured in Peters’s guide was a recent English Ph.D. who had completed a fairly prestigious program in four years. Her testimonial is prominently featured on the back cover. I just looked her up on the MLA Bibliography, which lists her only publication as her 1995 dissertation. The title does not indicate an absurdly narrow, shallow dissertation, and MLA can be slow to index, but I can only assume—and not be surprised—that academia didn’t work out as she (four-year) planned. As for Peters’s book, I won’t be passing it along to any of my undergrads aspiring to the glamorous life. Heh.

  27. truffula on 17 Jun 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    …so getting it done was not going to be a problem…

    …I chose my classes with the end project in mind…

    I’m not sure I can articulate properly but I find these sentiments almost anti-intellectual. They are product-oriented, not learning-oriented. Anything that the student evaluates as extra (which I might evaluate as adding either breadth or depth) has been cleaved off.

    Some of the best classes I took as a student had nothing obvious to connect them with my dissertation topic. I took them because I recognized opportunities to learn from preeminent scholars in particular areas of specialization or from people with very different perspectives or applications. The specialization work was great too, of course, but I’m glad I took the time to learn something unexpected. As was pointed out above, exposure to diverse material has been useful in my teaching as well.

  28. Metanerd on 17 Jun 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    Here at seriously overpriced private U the admin is trying to set five as the goal. I finished in five, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Like the person above, I took longer to write my book than I did to finish grad school, and I think finishing that fast had something to do with it. Also, for historians like me who work in foreign archives, there is no way to finish in less than five. It just cannot be done. Then there are the people who have to learn extra languages. Basically, the idea that there should or even could be a one-size-fits-all standard just strikes me as silly. But it does fit in with the total quality management rhetoric that administrators love so much.

  29. Dr. Crazy on 17 Jun 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    @ Lucky Jane -
    There was a person who got their PhD from my program (English) round about the mid-90s in 4 years, who was the Urban Myth That Actually Was True held up to those of us in the program in the late 90s when they were making a big push for people to get out in 5 years. This person did end up in academia – but in administration, at a regional university if I recall. This, apparently, was the person’s goal from the outset, and I think the person was happy with her career path. That said, I don’t think the person has ever published a thing (though i can’t actually remember the person’s name, so who knows). At any rate, I think it’s fair to say that perhaps if getting out quickly is the PRIMARY goal of a person, that person may not necessarily have ambitions to enter the professoriate, although the person may wish to have a career in the academy.

    Also, as for shorter time to degree being an impediment for grad students who did not receive their undergrad degrees from elite institutions (often working-class or first generation to go to college), I would say that this is true, at least for English. Coming from such a background myself, and knowing many others from similar backgrounds, and advising students from similar backgrounds at a mediocre (at best) regional institution, coursework for those students is generally a time when one fills in a great many gaps and makes huge intellectual leaps. You have to go through a great deal of personal, intellectual, and professional adjustment. If there were a 3-year time limit on my PhD program – and remember, I went in with an MA – I would not have been able to finish. it took me a year and a half to complete coursework (with my MA courses transferring in), another year to prepare for and take my qualifying exam to become ABD. That right there put me at 3 and a half years. I could probably have finished in 5 if the house was on fire and I just had to get out (although there were 3 months of severe writer’s block very early in my process where I couldn’t write a thing, so who knows), but my adviser insisted that I take that final year to polish the dissertation, which is the only reason I was able to publish a book before tenure with a 4/4 load, and probably the only reason I was able to get a t-t job while ABD. So yes, I can imagine that for students from less privileged backgrounds who are *thinking* about graduate school that time to degree may seem like an impediment. I know I had thought I’d have to (and want to) get out as quickly as possible when I was in the application phase of things. In my experience, though, and in the experience of most people I know who actually enrolled in PhD programs in English who had similar backgrounds to mine, they found once they were enrolled that they needed more time than they at first anticipated they “should” need. And no, anecdotes aren’t data, but I don’t do data: I’m in English, for jeebus’ sake! I do narratives (personal or otherwise) :)

  30. Judith on 17 Jun 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    I agree, in that I think that the reason people do school quickly is often monetary, and it would be fabulous if funding were available for full programs. I went to both undergrad and law school on full scholarships and am considering starting a PhD program in a few years. The few years part is due to the fact that, though I would be happy to start now if someone were to offer me an entirely free ride for five years, I wouldn’t accept another chunk of graduate education where I’m constantly worried about money, working all the time, etc. There’s a big difference between what “full scholarship” means for undergrad and for law school. I gather for PhDs that a fellowship really is a full ride, but that most people TA and it’s more like my law experience.

    When I got a full scholarship in undergrad, that was four years of tuition, room and board fully paid for. No paying for utilities, for internet, etc. I worked part time to fund trips home and a coffee habit, but that was it. I could have finished in 2.5 years, but dragged it out to 3.5 because I could (the extra semester off was intended so that I could work for six months and save up for law school living expenses, which failed when the only job I could get was 20 hours/week at Panera Bread). On the other hand, a law full scholarship means tuition only, and an obligation on top of that to do a part time research appointment (you do get a stipend but it’s minimum wage). The only benefit is a health insurance subsidy, which is cut off at any point where you aren’t doing the research work, meaning that if you depend on it like me, you’re forced to stay in town during the summer rather than take a (more rewarding career-wise) internship out of town. I worked my way through law school in two years, not three, going every summer and intersession. I did not celebrate holidays or see my family during this time. I held two jobs through most of school, working the maximum allowed by the ABA (and technically breaking an internal school rule that says no working first year). That’s how I paid my living expenses. After this backbreaking and emotionally draining experience, I’d say that it was worth it, but that there should be more funding. Law students, and PhD candidates, and anyone else, should be able to take the “normal” amount of time to complete agree without feeling the immense pressure of “but if I do it quickly I’ll save money!” Sort of analogous to your examples about the benefits of learning languages or bolstering academic skills in other ways, I lost out immensely by not taking any sort of internship. This is a given in law, and even though I’m looking at non-profit, non-legal work now, that lack of experience means that I’m going to graduate top 10% in my class and in all likelihood be begging for a job in data entry.

    So excuse the personal rant, but basically, I just wanted to say thanks for spreading the word :-D

  31. Flavia on 17 Jun 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    I’m with Lucky Jane and Truffula–what bothers me about Morris’s column is how anti-intellectual (and self-congratulatory) it sounds.

    Morris must be doing fine professionally, as her bio indicates that she’s now on at least her second job. Good for her for knowing what she wanted and being able to get it–but let’s call it what it is: getting one’s ticket punched.

    I knew a guy in grad school who wrote his dissertation quite quickly, by cobbling it together from seminar papers as Morris advises. BUT: a) he was phenomenally smart, and b) he did it because he was also a fiction writer, and he wanted his dissertation fellowship year to write his novel rather than his diss. He did, and went on the market as both a novelist and a literature PhD, and got a job right away. His novel was very highly praised–and he already has a second out. I’m not sure he’s published any academic work, but like Morris he got the ticket he wanted punched.

    I admire both him and Morris, after a fashion (for gaming the system)–but neither took a path I’d recommend or that I’d characterize as scholarly.

  32. Validation and Invalidation « Professor Zero on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:18 pm #

    [...] why I turned down both of the full scholarships I was offered to law schools in the 1990s. Judith explains: [A] law full scholarship means tuition only, and an obligation on top of that to do a part time [...]

  33. Flavia on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:19 pm #

    Well I’ll be damned: just Googled novelist-dude, and, though he published only one article from his disseration, just this year (which is six or eight years post-degree) he published a monograph on an entirely unrelated topic.

    So gaming the system really did work for him. Still, John S’s point seems (re)proven: getting through quickly means producing a diss that isn’t mature scholarship, and that its author may not be invested or interested enough in to pursue after the degree is awareded.

  34. ADM on 17 Jun 2009 at 11:54 pm #

    Also Super-slow here. 4 years to MA (they changed the program my second year, and I ended up with an extra semester of coursework; the person I was supposed to work with didn’t work out and I had to dramatically change sub-fields, which necessitated learning German at a much deeper level than just passing the exams; trip to Germany to see if the project was feasible; virtually all research for the prospectus in German and Latin) — I did pass comps on time; 9 more for the PhD.

    But years 5 and 6, I taught a 2-2 load (full lecture courses) and worked part time. From year 7, I was in Germany, and that year I only did research; year 8-13, I got married, acquired a teenager, taught full-time, moved halfway across the world, worked in full-time non-academic positions, and still finished.

    Two more years working outside academia, 1 year as a freeway flyer, three as a visiting faculty person, the last three in a T-T job (now with tenure and promotion). One article in press, three more in various stages of progress, and a book contract that isn’t for my diss.

    The people at each full-time job I’ve had mentioned that the time to finishing was not as important as what I’d done after coming back to academia, and that the time away working in the ‘real world’ gave me advantages when working with this generation of students. It also made me credible when I said that I could produce while carrying full teaching (4-3) and service loads.

    And I produce, but slowly, because I have no library facilities at SLAC, and can only afford about a month of concentrated research time abroad a year. I’m incredibly lucky, and I wouldn’t advise doing it this way, but there are some advantages, including being at home in one’s academic skin and being able to really handle the transition from grad student to faculty without the culture shock many people experience, especially when they come from a well-funded R1 program with little teaching to the heavier loads most working faculty carry.

  35. Z on 18 Jun 2009 at 12:39 am #

    Strong recommendation = 7 if you’re working steadily as a TA, maybe 6 if you have a fellowship or something that lets you speed up.

    Less than that and it’s a terrible, stressful rush and you come out thin. More and you get tired, and put into graduate school some energy and effort you would be better off putting into an assistant professorship.

    Average time to degree in my program was 10. Many of those who finished in 10 or more were so exhausted and jaded by the end that they were more ready for retirement than for the tenure track.

    I took 9 but that was because of a long fellowship abroad where I took additional courses, plus dealt with entry/exit time and a new language. Otherwise it would have been 8. It was that long because they required so many courses. I was a fast dissertator (too fast for my own good, but after all that coursework it really felt like time to finish).

    Their actual goal for us was 7 and only a few people made it in that time; they were all able to because of a combination of practicality, lack of undermining from other quarters, and major work ethic. Those were also the people who have done the best and I am sure part of it is because of the same characteristics which enabled them to finish in 7 years. Part of it also is that in 7 years they had time to become competitive, but not enough time to get tired from the long windiness of the road.

    Conclusion: if the program had required a few fewer courses, more would have finished in 7 years. Now, of course, they have reduced requirements some, and funding more.

    Coda: you really do need time to think things over. Our focus was on production. I produced paper after perfect paper but did not get to seriously think. The PhD exam was hard, interesting, and educational, and the dissertation felt like a step back to 6th grade or something. I finished, and then published a flurry of things containing the cool ideas I’d had in the margins of it — my best work, actually — and then became a slow publisher in part because I was desperate to just read around and think for once. With the academic model being what it is, time to think needs to be built into graduate school, in my view, but this may be a minority position since most people I know think that what graduate students need to learn is discipline and production. It may be true but those were the things that had gotten me *into* graduate school, and I can’t be the only one.

  36. Z on 18 Jun 2009 at 12:51 am #

    P.S. I did have a student who started working on his dissertation surreptitiously every summer from the beginning. He had most of a draft ready by the time he took his exams, and it was pretty good, so yes, he finished FAST. And it wasn’t cobbled from seminar papers, it was its own thing and not thin. And he got a job and now has a contract for the book, and a lot of momentum. So it can work. But the thing is, he had taken time off and worked between the M.A. and the Ph.D., so he had had time to really think about what he wanted to do and to make some informed plans.

    There was a guy in graduate school who somehow parlayed his first seminar paper into an M.A. thesis, took the PhD exam in his second semester, and wrote a dissertation over the summer. Ph.D exam in the third semester, file the dissertation in the fourth, and there he was, finished in 2 years. And they allowed it, I don’t remember exactly how but he was registered for TONS of courses all the time and turned in versions of the same paper for most of them. (This was in the days of Theory.) So somehow he racked up enough credits. But didn’t get a job although this may have been because he was so odd in other ways, seemed unstable.

  37. Z on 18 Jun 2009 at 12:58 am #

    Gosh, I do go on. It is my favorite subject: when is it good to be slow or fast? Truffula:

    “…so getting it done was not going to be a problem…

    “…I chose my classes with the end project in mind…

    “I’m not sure I can articulate properly but I find these sentiments almost anti-intellectual. They are product-oriented, not learning-oriented. Anything that the student evaluates as extra (which I might evaluate as adding either breadth or depth) has been cleaved off.”

    YES. It was how I was trained to study by the quarter system, basically, from freshman year on. You had to do it if you were going to get one of those top GPAs. And with all these graduate students and assistant professors around, desperately getting out papers, it seemed practically natural although I would sit back and notice the counterproductivity of it in an intellectual sense. But the get-it-out get-it-done imperative was, well, Emperor. I’ve been rebelling since, which is not ultimately good, and I wouldn’t impose the model on anyone else.

  38. life_of_a_fool on 18 Jun 2009 at 6:33 am #

    I agree with Dr. Crazy on the working class/first generation cost issue. I took a looooong time to get through grad school, and I think the two primary reasons were that I was working full time or teaching 2-3 classes at a time for most of the years, which slowed me down (but which was good experience) and that I began grad school straight from undergrad and was entirely clueless. I had no idea what I was doing and it took me awhile to figure it out (and so working also helped me with this). If I had thought I’d be spending that length of time in school, I most likely wouldn’t have done it. But, that I was as clueless as I was (as a fresh-from-undergrad 1st gen college student) and because I was wary to go too far into debt, it took me awhile. (that said, my time wasn’t unusual for my dept., especially at that time).

    In general, I agree with most people’s concerns about the unlikelihood of finishing and finishing in a good professional position this quickly. Some people should finish faster than others, but some put that extra time to necessary and good use. But GayProf and others do raise good points about those who linger for ever for no real reason (though there are lots of reasons people are legitimately slowed down). I have heard colleagues question why an applicant took as long as he/she did (and every other possible detail in the file), but I don’t think it was a deciding factor.

  39. ADM on 18 Jun 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Heh — it was in part the cost/working class thing that killed me. The need to make sure I was paying bills and not racking up too much debt meant I worked even on top of the fellowship, which seemed fine for the students who had parental help (one’s parents had actually bought him a place to live) or a working spouse, but was not enough for a single person. So I always worked.

  40. The Rebel Lettriste on 18 Jun 2009 at 11:38 am #

    I had a slightly different experience–maybe I am like Flavia’s friend and like Morris, in that I aimed to get my “ticket punched.” But I think that I did so because I was terrified of being broke, and being a grad student was keeping my ass broke.

    I entered my program with an MFA, which I had finished in two years. I finished the PhD in 5 years, and took out no further loans. (My BA and MFA about wrecked me.) I took Latin, AngloSaxon, lots of ME poetry, history, and pedagogy courses, and wrote almost exclusively on ME texts.

    I taught pretty much the entire time of the PhD, to pay my bills. Usually, that meant I did a 3/3 with 2 summer classes, and later that became a 2/2 with an additional 15 hours a week tutoring writing, and 2 summer classes. Then I got a 2 yr fellowship, which helped, but which I still worked for. I taught 2 classes over the summer during each of those years. The last year that I was really dissertating, I taught a 3/3. Keep in mind, also, that this was at multiple campuses. I subway flew.

    Like Morris, my dissertation also utilized prior work. But crucially, I hadn’t set out with my topic in mind. I grew into my topic based on earlier obsessions. Three of my four chapters were based on earlier writing. And I did it this way to be economical, but also because I think that’s how I make poems. I start with what I’ve got and then keep going.

    I wrote a pretty good diss. It won the “best of the year” bullshit when I graduated.

    Oh yeah, I was also exhausted and sick the whole time.

  41. The Rebel Lettriste on 18 Jun 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    ME = Middle English. (I’m a medievalist.)

  42. Sisyphus on 18 Jun 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    Ooh, (coming back obsessively again) grad school is also about taking the time to dip into various great opportunities — I have a friend who went and took a special summer class on paleography, someone else who spent a year doing grunt work for the history of the book people but learned *fabulous* and *interesting* stuff, others who did (paid, and also unpaid) internships at academic presses or ran the department’s journal, and others organized local or national conferences or got involved in various lit societies — all of which made them look like well-rounded, interesting, marketable scholars and provided lots of great intellectual development. Again, with the tenure clock everything is about hitting those benchmarks, while if you’re making decent progress but going a little slow because you are doing such cool side projects, our department always tries to scrape together another year of teaching for you.

    Mark:The less privileged and more marginalized people I know personally–disclaimers about sample size and the plural of anecdote not being data, etc.–mostly talk about length of study as a barrier to graduate education for them, not an accommodation.

    Yes, but. If we’re talking about a three-year PhD and your entire first year of courses is a wash and a very rocky start (something my few friends of color here complained about) you are Totally Screwed. Letting 8 years stretch on to 10 or even letting 5 years stretch on until 7 is a totally different beast from this three-year business; that’s totally do or die.

  43. Historiann on 18 Jun 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Thanks for all of your comments. Reading about everyone’s experiences suggests that there’s no one *right* path through grad school–so programs like the 3-year wonder are not just unrealistic but threaten to become an oppressive ideal if they gain currency.

    I guess what I always look for in a job candidate is, “does this person’s career make sense?” as in, does each step in this person’s career look logical and build on the previous steps, or does this person flit here and there, showing little progress or dedication to building a professional reputation? And when I ask this question, it’s with a sensibility that acknowledges that taking advantage of extra-disciplinary courses, study, or workshops, or working on that journal for a few years, or learning that fourth language, etc. is all a part of professional development.

    My sense is that a 3-year Ph.D. won’t compare well to someone who’s (for example) got real training in other languages, public history, archaeology, or who has studied at a university abroad. Ze will get points for zeal and dedication, but ze won’t necessarily have the richness of training that makes for a better scholar and a more interesting teacher and colleague. (Then again, my department has kind of specialized in hiring advanced Assistant Profs fleeing a 3-3 or a 4-4 load, so we have unrealistically inflated notions of what we deem to be a worthy colleague. So, take my comments FWIW–we don’t tend to go for the wunderkinds anyway.)

    And, full disclosure: I write this as someone who went to grad school at age 22 and whose goal was to have a Ph.D. in hand at age 26. I missed that deadline by 18 months. My problem wasn’t that I took too little time in grad school or too much time–it’s that I probably should have waited 3-4 years so that I was developmentally capable of taking full advantage of my education. (But that’s an issue that’s more personal to me, not a policy prescription for everyone.)

  44. Cassandra on 18 Jun 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m not sure how many people realize that the desire for economically disadvantaged students to complete the degree quickly has less to do with the length of time than it does to the deplorable state of funding for most doctoral programs.

    In light of that (and apologies if any find this not quite in line with the wonderful discussion here at Historiann), here’s my response to the original piece cross-posted from over at IHE:

    At the college’s grad student orientation, we were told that the funding for Ph.D. students had recently been cut in order to admit more students: instead of a four-year teaching assistantship, we were assured three years. Our grad school dean admitted that a degree could be finished in three years, but it was rarely done. But never fear, the college always needed (exploited?) grad students to teach full time while they finished their dissertations.

    He cautioned us about losing our way; Ph.D. students took an average time of six years at the college to finish their degree. He acknowledged this was not a good trend. It wasn’t that students couldn’t finish earlier, they seemed to want to stay here because they had “set up housekeeping,” so to speak. In the most memorable line of the orientation, he advised us to learn from “the corpses along the road”: grad students who had stalled in their quest to finish and were content as “ABDs.” “Don’t become a corpse,” he warned.

    Funding cut from 4 years to 3 even though most people take longer (about double)?

    Funding cut to allow MORE people to be admitted?

    An open admission that administration used grad student labor as instructors INSTEAD of providing them proper assistantship funding?

    Students who ran out of money and failed to finish were openly described AS CORPSES?

    No explanation of WHY SO MANY STUDENTS BECOME CORPSES, yet they need to admit so many MORE students to replace them?

    Not one comment about any of this?

    Here it is…in writing. What so many of us have heard about, seen happen to friends, and experienced first-hand.


    And where’s the outcry about retention in these situations? Oh, that’s right…higher ed needs to retain all those willfully ignorant, illiterate morons festering in the dark corners of their institutions, but not one person (other than the usual adjunct advocates) ever talks about how the truly best and brightest at the schools get tossed aside like garbage.

    I am heartened by the comments noting the flaws in the strategy the OP used so effectively. But let’s be quite clear: THIS STRATEGY WILL NOT WORK FOR THE VAST MAJORITY OF GRAD STUDENTS…no matter the discipline, the school, or the previous training. Loony admins see one person at an institution complete the Ph.D. so efficiently and then generalize that plan to every other student, usually ignoring all the other factors working against them. N=1 is NOT a pattern!

    I attended a similar school for a doctoral program that “suggested” everyone finish in 4 years after receiving 3 years of “guaranteed funding” (which was not really guaranteed). Those 3 years of funding entailed massive grading respnsibilities, dealing with troubled professors and students, and otherwise exhaustive coursework wherein I managed to excel despite the the low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Once the assistantship gravy train goes away, those already-poverty-level wages got cut by half for adjunct work with MORE responsibility and ZERO administrative support (Gotta retain the undergrads!).

    In my (former) program, guess who finished most often and most efficiently? The people who didn’t take ANY departmental funding. Their part-time coursework paid for by their other jobs allowed them to finish without dealing with the University B***S*** we funded students did.

    Let’s not talk about that.

  45. Z on 18 Jun 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    Cassandra’s point about the funding issue being why economically disadvantaged students want to move fast is important. Also the point about the people funded by “real” jobs. Working spouses are also truly great and I think we should all get one.

    But remember, it’s not about nurturing the best and the brightest, it’s about getting rid of those and feeding the machine. The dean Cassandra quotes is just being candid, and ze did not create the situation nor does ze control it. Also remember, ze may not be in a position to speak more critically. See http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/on_the_children_of_garcetti/

    Historiann, I wouldn’t worry. This 3 year PhD discussion comes up every once in a while. The plan won’t stick unless they completely redefine everything.

  46. Indyanna on 18 Jun 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    I coincidentally saw a c.v. today, not kidding, wherein someone wrote about hir Ph.D program in English lit:

    Program Started: Spring 2009
    Anticipated Completion Date: Spring 20l0

    It did not seem to be a typo, though it did seem to be a pretty creative to maybe even a flaky self presentation. It was not actionable, in that I was not seeing it in any role or function as a decision maker. But my first thought was, not surprisingly: whoah, this one has got to go straight to Historiann.com!

  47. Rad Readr on 18 Jun 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    One of the big discussions this year at large research u. (among chairs and administrative types) has been how to move grad students along. The problem, of course, is money, which means a decline in the number of TAs available. Yes, this is academic shrinkage. Our college had many discussions about graduate time-to-degree (enforcing it, pushing it, threatening with it) — and the big administration was threatening to fine departments that gave TAs to people who had been in their programs for too long (I think it was more than three years after qualifying). Already this has affected our graduate programs.

    Morris may be the poster child of the budget crunch — at once the administration’s beloved and the scholar’s scourge. I would hope that we can find a middle ground between 3 and 10.

  48. Z on 18 Jun 2009 at 10:55 pm #


  49. Cassandra on 18 Jun 2009 at 11:23 pm #

    Z said, “Historiann, I wouldn’t worry. This 3 year PhD discussion comes up every once in a while. The plan won’t stick unless they completely redefine everything.”

    Not sticking?

    It’s already in place in some programs at some schools. And the movement appears to be spreading…

    Those in TT positions need to prepare themselves to stem the tide when their administration first introduces this wonderful new idea at a faculty meeting.

  50. Rad Readr on 19 Jun 2009 at 8:31 am #

    Cassandra is correct. Z may be catching some zzzzs. But it’s good at math.

  51. Z on 19 Jun 2009 at 10:36 pm #

    It, Rad Readr? And, BA to PhD, while TAing? In the US? In the humanities? I’m aware of lots of 3 year programs but they presuppose the M.A. Maybe I’m getting field-o-centric (to my field).

    But perhaps one could think of these 3 year BA to PhD programs like the old fashioned M.A.’s with theses, which were really solid back in my grandmother’s day. The upside would be fewer ramen eating years in graduate school.

  52. servetus on 21 Jun 2009 at 5:27 am #

    I think one thing we are increasingly seeing at my campus is non-admission of students whose interests in the research side of the PhD would take longer than 5 years to realize. E.g., they want to study something that requires three languages and they can only show one of them, and people on the admissions committee say that they are unprepared to study the topic and an otherwise strong candidate gets turned down, the explicit reason being “unprepared” but the implicit one being “we aren’t prepared to support that language study on our clock and our budget.” This problem will probably kill medieval history on our campus over the mid-range. There is a certain irony to all of this happening just as the big push in the profession is for transnational and comparative projects.

  53. Historiann on 21 Jun 2009 at 9:31 am #

    Servetus–I agree entirely with your assessment, and it’s extremely troubling to me. I’m afraid that this push for speed (and typical U.S. carelessness about languages) is going to further privilege modern and U.S. History. And precisely as you say–it’s an incredibly imperialist maneuver to try to do “comparative” or “transnational” history in only English!

  54. Tuesday 23 June 2009 « what i discovered today on 23 Jun 2009 at 9:00 am #

    [...] Links into an article on http://www.historiann.com about how quickly people should complete theses… their opinion is that long drawn out ones are good, but the commenters apparently don’t understand financial constraints?  Then again, they are also not in the British system, so that might have something to do with it. [...]

  55. Tati Tuesdays: Week of June 16-June 22 « A Lesbian and a Scholar on 23 Jun 2009 at 9:53 am #

    [...] at Historiann, an interesting discussion on the drawbacks of complete-it-quick PhD [...]

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