• October 24, 2014

Time to Degree Revisited: Back to the Future

Don’t punish job candidates who have earned 
their Ph.D.’s quickly without amassing publications

Pursuing PhD Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Once upon a time, there was an influential foundation whose new leadership believed that graduate students were taking too long to complete their Ph.D.’s in the humanities and social sciences. "How might we help these students?" the foundation’s leaders wondered.

A major study had recently called for extra financial support aimed at finishing the doctorate. The research supporting that conclusion was thorough and respected. The foundation followed the study’s broad recommendations.

So was born a major new program to shorten time spent earning a Ph.D. The foundation would provide money sufficient to cover multiple years of generous stipends. Universities would be given the flexibility to award the money as they saw fit. The cash would free graduate students of financial burdens. Relieved of the need to teach (or shelve books, or scoop ice cream) in order to make ends meet, the students would then motor through their dissertations.

The foundation made arrangements with 10 top universities to award this money to their best doctoral students. Eight more institutions were added a year later. Then the foundation leaders stepped back, rubbed their hands together, and awaited the results.

That’s a good story, right? It looked like a happy ending in the making.

The year was 1967. The foundation was the Ford Foundation, newly led by McGeorge Bundy, a veteran of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The foundation adapted a recommendation made in 1960 by Bernard Berelson (in the Carnegie-financed study Graduate Education in the United States) that students should receive additional financial support at the end stages of their doctoral studies.

The Ford Foundation Graduate Program lasted seven years, and it failed utterly. According to historian Roger Geiger, from whose 1993 account in Research and Relevant Knowledge (Oxford) I am borrowing here, the program yielded an outcome precisely the opposite of what was intended.

In other words, the added money drove time to degree up rather than down.

Let’s consider the background for that unexpected finding. The Ford program began at a time when professorial jobs were in abundance, but paradise did not exactly reign on academic earth. For one thing, the fountain of tenure-track employment dried up a few years after the fountain of money started flowing. As Geiger points out, federal support for research also began to decline. The Selective Service was trolling for young men to send to Vietnam, and graduate school provided an official refuge from the draft.

Even so, says Geiger, professional options proved the ultimate
determinants of time to degree. The students chose to use their extra money not to get out of graduate school faster, but rather to stay longer and do more while they were there. They chose "completion with distinction" over completion with alacrity.

This little excursion down memory lane is occasioned by a similar effort now under way involving Brandeis University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its goal? To reduce time to degree by awarding generous one-year fellowships to late-stage graduate students in order to help them complete their dissertations. The program is now in its fifth year, and the stipend has been raised to a remarkable $35,000.

If that effort sounds familiar, there is a salient difference from the Ford Foundation’s program of more than 40 years ago: Brandeis and Mellon require a written commitment from the Ph.D. candidates and their advisers that the students will indeed finish in the prescribed year.

They do, mostly. The numbers show that the added money and the signed commitment have evidently enabled students to complete their degrees faster. As reported in The Chronicle last summer, more than two-thirds of the fellowship recipients over the past four years have finished within the fellowship term. (Job-placement data for this group are not yet available.)

The behavior of Ford Foundation-aided graduate students in the 1960s and early 70s suggested, says Geiger, that "given a shortage of academic jobs, it seemed better to acquire stronger qualifications than to acquire them sooner."

Indeed, there’s a body of economic scholarship, dating from the 1960s, that argues against the idea that giving students extra grant money makes them finish faster. Economists like David W. Breneman, author of The Ph.D. Production Function, showed years ago that while a number of factors (such as clarity of personal goals) affect graduate students’ time to the Ph.D., increases in their student income make little difference. It appears that the Ford Foundation leaders didn’t do all of the reading, or else they didn’t believe what it was saying.

Has the situation changed? Not in any way that matters. If anything, the incentives to stay in graduate school and amass credentials are even greater now. Students at top research universities, like Brandeis, understand that if they want tenure-track jobs, they’ll have to publish. They need to go on the market with first-rate dissertations, yes, but also with major publications that meet the standards of their fields.

It follows that the Mellon completion fellowships have a serious possible side effect: The finish-in-a-year provision can drive students out into the job market before their CVs are market-ready.

That seems an unjust result, but it’s already happened. Not to everyone, certainly, but to enough students to constitute a genuine risk attached to taking the money. Jason M. Gaines, a Brandeis Ph.D. in near Eastern and Judaic studies, finished his degree this past spring with the aid of a Mellon fellowship grant. It took him just six years, well below the national average. "My adviser told me I was as strong a candidate that they could produce," he says, but potential employers didn’t see it that way. He had no success on the academic job market last year.

The problem, Gaines says, was his "time line." Because he didn’t have his Ph.D. in hand at the time of the autumn job season, he believes that his applications may not have received full consideration. Nor had he published. "I was encouraged to focus on my dissertation," he says, and to "publish after I had established my credentials." Besides, he adds, if he had taken the time to publish, "I wouldn’t have a degree right now."

Gaines’s adviser reached out to contacts and helped him secure a part-time teaching job for this year. He’s been working on articles and revising his dissertation into a book manuscript. "This year is the correct year for me to be on the job market," he says. He has not secured a tenure-track position as of this writing.

Early finishers like Jason Gaines have credentials that do not necessarily sell themselves. The Brandeis-Mellon program creates an unusual supply of quickly minted Ph.D.’s whose talents have been endorsed by their universities. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in economics to understand that supply does not create demand. If Brandeis and Mellon are going to generate a group of candidates who possess unusual credentials, then they must also stimulate demand for those candidates in every way possible. For example, Mellon-sponsored early finishers need special institutional support that will identify them to potential employers.

The rest of us, too, have a responsibility to support this effort, because everything about the Mellon fellowship program—from its generous payments to its well-intentioned goal of reducing time to degree—deserves our encouragement and help. We presumably want projects like Mellon’s to grow and proliferate. So what can we do?

If we truly support the cause of reducing time to degree, then hiring talented early finishers is the only decisive way to confer that support. To hire early completers says, in effect, that we respect their achievements. It also says that we respect what their decision to accept the fellowship represents: that they have agreed to enter the job market early rather than hang back and amass further publications. They will publish, surely, but under the banner of the colleges and universities that hire them. And isn’t that a good thing?

Time to degree is too high in many fields, but it’s a travesty and a disgrace in the humanities, where it hovers above nine years. It’s easy for us on the inside to denounce that, but if we really want to do something about it, we have to reward the exceptional graduate students who are trying to lower the average. If we don’t, we’re just talking the talk.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, 
and stories at lcassuto@erols.com.

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