On Stanford’s 5-Year Ph.D.: A Preliminary Assessment

December 6, 2012, 4:48 pm

Earlier in the week there was a lot of buzz around a story in Inside Higher Ed (12/04/2012) about Stanford University having announced incentives for its humanities doctoral programs to reduce time to degree to five years. As Scott Jaschik writes, Stanford humanities docs currently finish in an average of seven years, and at other schools (where graduate students have to work a lot) time to degree can be much longer. Stanford departments that present a plan for the five year Ph.D. are also expected to prepare graduates for careers beyond academia, and they are expected to track employment.

Jaschik writes, “Departments at Stanford are just starting to plan the approaches they may propose to qualify for the program.” I may have to come back to this topic when I am better informed, but: I contacted several friends in humanities departments at Stanford, in hopes of becoming better educated about this initiative, and they did not actually even know about it. From this small sample, I would deduce that there has not been a whole lot of faculty input at the level of the department. Therefore, it isn’t clear why the authors of this initiative at Stanford believe, as they assert, that “a five-year Ph.D. ‘ought to be achievable.’”

Read the story yourself. The various revisions of doctoral education are sound, although not breathtaking or transformational. It isn’t clear how, say an internship, will give a Ph.D. in history more career options. (An internship in what? At a museum? because there are people trained in museum studies, art history and non-profit management getting in line for those jobs.)

And while Stanford imagines that there might be other things to do with a Ph.D. than teach at — say, Yale, or Swarthmore — it isn’t clear that they know what kind of training a Lit Ph.D. might need to do what. Presumably faculty who have devoted their careers to university teaching are supposed to figure this problem out their own selves.

The proposal says nothing about the role that Stanford, like every other university, has played in cutting tenure-track lines and in sitting on the sidelines while state legislatures and the federal government cut funding to state unis and community colleges. It does, however, wag the finger at its own faculty for not being supportive enough of students who take jobs at institutions less prestigious than Stanford.

In fact, if you look closely, practically everything that is wrong with academia is the fault of the faculty. It is as if no economic contractions have occurred over the past four decade, no budgets cut, and no funds diverted to athletics rather than full- time teaching jobs.

Here’s my other issue with the five-year plan: all of the reforms that are proposed by Stanford should, perhaps, happen anyway. If they did, we might have more robust cohorts of Ph.D.’s fanning out to do wonderful public work and carrying smaller debt burdens. We might not have people at the age of thirty discovering that they have to retrain as tax attorneys. That’s all good.  So why make reform be all about a shorter time in school?

Like most people with a Ph.D (mine clocked in at eight, although I delayed my defense for a year because of the bad job market, so it was really seven), I have a hard time believing that five years is enough time to train as a college teacher, even if the student is working year-round, as the Stanford proposal suggests. I know from experience that students who take the degree early often have a much rougher time converting a dissertation to a book as well, partly because they are less fully immersed in the secondary literature and the archival material. Hence, the dissertation is often shorter and less fully formed.

It is probably worth saying that this isn’t the first time that some version of carrots and sticks have been employed to shorten time to degree. The Mellon Foundation was providing six-year funding packages back in the 1990′s, with mixed and poor results. Graduate students taught almost not at all under this program, which meant that many went on the job market having taught a seminar or two in their field, but not having TA’d the survey.

An even older initiative that you can see documented yourself was the ill-fated Cornell 6-year Ph.D., which lasted from 1966 to 1975. If you go here, there is a marvelous website devoted to the “Phuds,”as they called themselves. Biographical sketches and memories provide a small archive of the experience, complete with PDF’s of reports to the funder, in this case the Ford Foundation.

Designed for “particularly gifted students,” the program was intended “to solve the problems of excessive time and money expended for education by achieving a faster route to graduate degrees.” The program intended to eliminate so-called “waste periods,” such as the summers in which a student transitioned from one degree to another.

The final report from which I am quoting, available on the website, lists a number of problems. Many of these fall into the category of students having less time to mature, and thus being unable to take adequate advantage of being accelerated ahead of their less identifiably brilliant peers. Students did not acquire the comprehensive disciplinary and field knowledge a graduate education normally conveyed, and were unable to commit to specialties. One student, who finished in seven years, believed that he “spent an important part of his graduate years trying to compensate for cursoriness” and that “the time saved cost him a depth of understanding of his major field of study and the normal development of his social maturity.”

Stanford colleagues? Go back and read these reports before you decide to get on board with this plan. In earlier incarnations, forcing a shorter Ph.D. Clock has been a dismal failure, and it isn’t clear why it would be a greater success now — particularly since a portion of those five years would, theoretically, be spent cross-training for a non-academic career.


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