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News Flash: Yale Cares!

It's hard not to approach this story from today's IHE, Finishing the PhD, with bemused snarkiness. The story is about Yale's current attempt to streamline its doctoral programs:

Currently, Yale does better than most institutions, with humanities doctorates (which in national comparisons tend to take longer than other disciplines) finishing in just under seven years on average, but Butler said he would like to see that figure closer to six.

Reading accounts like this are like watching from afar the inbreeding of European royal families or reality television celebrity for me. It's so distant from my own experience as a grad student at two different schools and a professor at another two. At these schools, 3 of which have doctoral programs, 6 years would have been considered a borderline problem, not an average to work towards. In some ways, this speaks, I suppose, to the implicitly classed nature of the field I'm in, but stories like this, where the Ivies stumble upon stuff that we out here in the sticks have been doing for years, makes me smirk.

Let's see:

  • Students finishing in less than six years (Check)
  • "good adviser-advisee relationships are established in the first two years" (Check)
  • "early on, students...plan an intellectual agenda" (Check)
  • "focus on preparing students for the job market" (Check)
  • "integrate students into professional life sooner" (Check)

And I could go on with all sorts of features that aren't in the article itself, like the ethics of allowing program size to be determined by departmental labor needs or faculty-student ratio, for instance. By no means is our own program perfect, but articles like these, about programs like these, makes me sympathetic to those students who attend institutions like Yale expecting graduate education and receiving instead an education in the corruption of graduate school.

While I'm not a big fan of discussions of accountability, which are too often initiated by people whose motives are less than pure, it's hard not to look at situations like these and to believe that what they need are some standards for program performance and corresponding incentives, both positive and negative, for meeting them.

That is all.


This is interesting. My own graduate program (public institution, not an Ivy) was excellent at everything on your list BUT getting people done in six years or less. Though they have cracked down on this and apparently people are finishing much more quickly these days, six years would be right on time (in theory one could finish my program in 5 years; I only knew one person who ever did. Six years is great. When I was there, 7-8 years was pretty common. I will also succumb to feelings of inferiority and point out that while I took 10 years to complete the degree, we medievalists tend to take a long time!).

The unspoken part of the story here may be the unpacking of the term "humanities doctorates." Rhet/Comp and Tech Comm PhDs at places I've been frequently finish in around five years, but other humanities disciplines (like lit) frequently average longer. Part of it may be the depressed job market for PhDs in those other fields. The economics of the job search in Rhet/Comp and Tech Comm make finishing your PhD and going on the market extremely attractive (just look at the number of ABDs in those areas that snag good tenure-track jobs). But if you were going into a buyer's market with a PhD, you're more like to put off finishing (at the very least so that you can build up a list of publications and fine-tune your diss).

Three thoughts:

* Johndan is totally right. I raced through my PhD program (see below) in large part because of the job market. My wife took a bit longer (but just a year longer, actually) because of the lack of a job market.

* I finished my PhD in three years, but I guess it depends on how you count these things. This was 3 years of schooling beyond my MFA; so, if you add it all together, it took me five years. But this is of course rocket fast for a variety of different reasons.

* And don't forget that in some fields, finishing the PhD is really just the start of an academic apprenticeship. I was at a party last night talking with a guy in biology who is a post-doc right now. According to him, it's typical in the sciences for folks to have two or more post-docs before getting a tenure-track job.

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