Shaving Years Off the PhD in History

For years historians have wrung their hands about how long it is taking our doctoral students to complete their PhD degree. Six years? Seven? Eight? More? In fact, a 2008 report by the American Historical Association indicates that eight years is the average, with the range being 4-11 years to complete a PhD in history.

The longer it takes our students, the more expensive it is for them (and for us), in particular because every year they are in school is a year of lost income after someone graduates. Most of the solutions I’ve heard revolve around offering students more funding so they can spend more time on their studies/dissertations. It is interesting to note, however, that size of program seems to be more important to time-to-degree than funding, as students in small programs seem to complete their degrees in much less time.

I spent a fair amount of time last week in Switzerland chatting with PhD students there. If you are familiar with the typical European PhD program, you’ll know that PhD students on the Swiss side of the pond take no, or almost no classes. They enroll in their doctoral students and, as one student told me last week, begin “making a PhD.” In other words, they start on their dissertations right away, which means that they are generally done in three or four years.

My view is that both versions are problematic. Our students spend too much time on their degrees and European students don’t have the opportunities our have to deepen their knowledge or a topic, develop a knowledge of more than one subject area via minor fields, and because they aren’t spending time in class with fellow students, often lack a community of practice with other students–or so several have told me over the past year.

Given these issues, I have a modest proposal for changing the PhD degree–a proposal that puts the onus on us rather than on our students or the administration. Assuming they come to us with an MA in history, doctoral students could follow a curriculum that includes:

Year 1-2
12 credits of course work
6 credits of advanced reading
Qualifying exams

Years 3-5
Dissertation research and writing

Students who followed such a curriculum would thus have the benefit of the study of two specific areas of history–say a 12 credit major field and a 6 credit minor field, as compared to European students who launch right into the dissertation. These same students would then have had the opportunity to begin building a community of other students that could lead to such things as writing groups, etc., as their career progresses.

If we are honest with ourselves and our students, three years is certainly enough time to research and write a dissertation. Too often we either load them up with expectations that can only be satisfied by spending four, five, or even more years on the dissertation, or we allow them to work on topics more suited for monographs than for dissertations (or simply allow them to dawdle).

It’s possible to imagine fully funding students for four or possibly five years in such a degree program, especially if they spend (no more than) one year working as a teaching assistant go gather some useful classroom experience.

I realize that it’s unlikely that any PhD program out there is going to willingly shave credits off of their program, if only because of the revenue losses that would result. In the case of our program here at George Mason, such a proposal would mean the loss of between at least 6 and probably 12 credits (and possibly more) sold to each doctoral student.

There are many difficulties with such a proposal, not least of which is the willingness of external accrediting agencies to accept a doctoral degree that includes fewer credits. Nevertheless, I think a discussion of such a modified degree path is well worth having.

NB: There was an article in Perspectives back in October that dealt with some of these same issues.

12 thoughts on “Shaving Years Off the PhD in History

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    This sounds a lot like what my degree program looked like, except that it didn’t require an MA. Qualifying exams at the end of year 2 were nominal, and most students did that (I was a semester late). The problem is the dissertation stage: while my program NOW has nearly full funding for 5-6 years, at the time we cobbled together foreign language fellowships, teaching assistantships, loans, a little outright aid, and research assistantships to pay for tuition and food. Then there’s the dissertation research and writing: a program with adequate local archives, or a topic which lends itself to existing digital archives, may be able to get students through the research and writing of a solid piece in 2-3 years. A program which requires foreign language training (historical languages are often rather different from modern languages), foreign archival travel, or which involves substantial non-local archival work even in English, is going to need to be flexible on time-to-degree and be willing to fund these activities (especially now that a lot of the federal foreign language research funding has dried up).

    Doctoral programs don’t make money on students by selling them courses, do they? They make money on students by dragging out the writing process, by using students as dirt-cheap adjunct labor. Unless we deal with adjunctification and loans, this isn’t happening.

  2. Sean Takats

    I think you’re striking exactly the right balance here: although many members of my cohort complained bitterly about the coursework requirements at the University of Michigan (and particularly about the required introductory course), I (and at least a few others) found them an invaluable way to learn how to consume (and ultimately produce) history at a more professional level. At the same time, the marginal return for such coursework diminishes rapidly. The key elements are probably to engage in some varied historiographies and also to produce maybe one or two real research papers, with the second one homing in the diss. topic.

    My only quibble is that you’re not doing away with the MA prerequisite entirely. I don’t see what an MA provides that those first two years of PhD coursework won’t offer. And ultimately I actually fully agree with your sense of what a PhD timeline should resemble. I finished in six years without an MA, and I don’t know that it would have been possible to do it too much faster, except perhaps by trimming down year three, which was mostly oral exam prep, grant proposals, and prospectus writing. On the other hand, it’s not at all clear to me what would have been gained by staying a minute longer. Unless students are working in extraordinarily difficult languages or archives, there’s little reason for the project to spin out much beyond three years of research and writing. And if it does, its scope was likely poorly defined. In other words, if the timetable seems too short, let’s change the expectations of what’s meant to be delivered.

  3. Ammon Shepherd

    I would love a shorter time frame for completing a PhD. I often complain to others that it only takes medical doctors four years to get their job as a doctor (at least in residency), but it takes us in history 5-6 years to get to a comparable point. Let’s be honest, we’re not saving people’s lives, we’re just writing books. It shouldn’t take us that long. Aren’t most PhD programs in other fields 2-4 years?

    Of course it totally depends on where the funding comes from and the students family situation. I’m a big outlier in that I decided to start a family before getting into graduate school, so that makes funding harder (in that I would require more of it). I had to choose to work a full-time job while doing the MA and PhD work, so it’s going to take me much longer. I’m also heavily relying on getting some big scholarships next year to be able to do my research in Germany. So especially in my case, cutting out a year or two of course work would have really helped.

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  5. Debra Kathman

    I would love to see a change like this–mainly because I think it would encourage non-traditional (by that I mean older…) students to pursue a PhD. For many of us in the over-40 crowd, it is just impractical to think of spending another 8+ years in school, particularly when we have family responsibilities as well. A shorter program would be very attractive to many students like me, and from what I have experienced in my classes, I know we have a lot to offer the profession.

    In addition, for a profession that is so keen on reminding everyone of the terrible job market in academia (see any recent edition of the AHA magazine), it might be a good thing to encourage the “experienced” student to pursue a PhD. As the ones with work experience, both inside academia and out, we would also be the most attractive candidates for jobs in government, non-profit, and even for-profit sectors, where, according to AHA statistics, so many history professionals end up.

  6. Bogdan

    Regarding the absence of classes in European PhDs, I believe that it is the left-over from previous “magisterium” academic title, after undergraduate studies lasting 4 years, where students had first to finish in two years (usually longer) coursework and exams and only after that to start their PhD, which consists of research and dissertation writing. Nowadays that 4+2 system is abandoned and “Bologna system” is widely accepted, with undergraduate and MA programs lasting 5 years in total, as a prerequisite for a doctoral studies.

    I’m part of new PhD program in Poland, based on interdisciplinary studies and interdisciplinary approach of research. Four years, no exams, no courses, two or three semesters of visiting fellowship at other universities outside Poland, monthly seminars (for those not able to attend in person there is video conferencing), online forum for additional discussion, stress on research process, no teaching obligations. A year ago it was pretty much novel both to professors and students, but now it is accepted as a possible role model for future interdisciplinary programs at the University of Warsaw. My biggest, personal, complain is that there is no community of fellow students in such system. Yes, it has many benefits, it is different in positive sense from my perspective, but somehow I miss the notion of belonging to certain group of colleagues and fellows. So I would agree with those students mentioning “lack a community of practice”.

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  8. Mills Post author

    Thanks to everyone who has responded thus far to this post. Clearly, I struck a nerve with some readers and must admit that I’m a bit surprised that no one has stepped up yet to defend the existing system. If you are out there and reading this, please let us know what you think.

    To Jonathan, yes, you are correct. Universities really make their money from the use (and abuse) of graduate student labor as teaching assistants/adjunct instructors. A little teaching experience is a good and necessary thing if the candidate is intending a career as a professor, but it seems to me that more than a year of this sort of experience is not necessary. It’s worth noting that I’m someone who cares very much about quality teaching (as I hope I’ve made clear over the past six years in this blog and elsewhere), but I also think that two semesters as a teaching assistant plus a summer school course is enough basic experience to get a doctoral student to where he/she needs to be for the next step of the career. Those of us who teach know just how time consuming good teaching is and so asking/requiring our PhD students to do more than a little teaching is a surefire way to drag out their time to degree.

    To Sean I’d say thanks for bringing up the point about doing away with the MA. I’d be curious to know what others think about that? I also want to say thanks for the clear statement about diminishing returns from further courses. That is, in part what I was trying to say, but hadn’t formulated it so clearly.

    I want to recommend to everyone interested in this subject the post that Brian Sarnacki has up on his blog right now because it includes links to other voices on this subject.

    Finally, I’d like to thank the grad students who have chimed in thus far. I’d love to hear from more of you, given that it is your career we’re discussing here.

  9. Amanda Shuman

    What a coincidence that you have written about precisely this topic the week I’m going through yet another paranoid PhD student moment. While I have found the training in my program to be useful on several levels, I found the coursework requirements to be excessive on top of all the TA/GSR/GRA’ing that is generally required in order to get full funding. I found myself completely burnt out after three years of intense coursework, which included the MA (with a master’s paper), grant proposal writing, and QE prep (for us this requires a substantial written portfolio of lengthy field statements, teaching syllabi, and the prospectus followed by a three-hour oral exam)… this doesn’t include the additional year I spent studying a language intensively abroad on my own dime. All that and I hadn’t even begun dissertation research! Not that I didn’t also learn quite a bit and adore my advisors, but the point is that after those 4 years I was so burnt out that I found it difficult, initially, to start dissertation research because in some respects it was like starting all over again. Why not start students in their dissertation research a year or a year and a half into the program? I’m currently one year into my dissertation research (thanks to the now temporarily defunct Fulbright-Hays DDRA grant), it’s been more than 5 years since I began this program, and I’m lucky if I only have 2 more years to complete things. Meanwhile, my daily worry is that I have spent so much time pigeon-holing myself into a niche that may or may not have a job prospect in the end – is this really worth 7-8 years in a program? I like your proposal and think it is far more realistic, especially for those of us who are not necessarily vying for Research I university positions.

  10. Nabeel Siddiqui

    There are a couple of critical issues here and they deal with more than just the time of the PhD. I want to specifically address the issue of smaller program size because others have already said what I would about the other requirements.

    It has become kind of a buzz word that every class needs to be smaller but when it comes to a PhD it is the department not the class that is critical. I actually came to Mason to work under you. I sent you an early email detailing it, but I believe you were on vacation at the time and got an automated response. I really wanted to work on these issues with you or at least discuss them—perhaps before I graduate this December I will stop by at the office. When I got to Mason, there was little chance to meet with any of the professors in the department. Some of the graduate student history meetings that I have gone to are rarely attended by the students and most of the time there is only one or two professors that show up. The last one only had one, for example. The department is in a variety of buildings and I rarely see students hanging around the department, which was pretty common at my last university.

    At the department, I have heard from numerous full time students that the reason they do not complete their PhD here at the department after completing their MA is because the size of the program is too large. Unfortunately, I have to agree and is one of the reasons that I am not continuing to the PhD here in the History department. We have, at least according to some, one of the largest, if not the largest, Masters program in the country. Most of the MA students cannot complete their program and a variety of issues are complicating the problem. Almost none of us are on campus during the day.

    What does this have to do with student completing of a PHD program? Well there are a variety of issues. Students in science departments and other departments are able to work under a professor for research options. I have not seen this occur that often, if ever, in history programs. If a professor is doing research, students are expected to do their own. There is no collaboration with the students with the professor. I would argue that this does not only impede completion of the program but also learning. Your blog has addressed a variety of issues and I really enjoy reading it. I think you face similar issues that I have faced.

    The generational gap becomes too large with this small amount of interaction with the students. Students are not talking to their professors and as a result, most educators despite their best efforts have little knowledge of what students want. For example, I don’t think that students really enjoy professors communicating with them through Facebook as it is not meant for schoolwork but for personal relationships. I do not know if others feel the same, but for me, it is weird when a professor communicates with me through these channels. Yet, professors say things like “we need to embrace Facebook and YouTube.” This has led to educational resources that could be spent on blogs, wikis, etc. being spent on Twitter and Facebook.

    Others educators are working in reactionary mode. They are likely to address an issue as part of a changing paradigm that needs to be stopped. Yet, the likelihood that somehow a student that has worked with computers or technology his whole life will somehow stop using it in the classroom is ludicrous. I remember one professor banned them in a class that I took. Another professor asked “I noticed you had a laptop. That better be used for notes.” I dropped both classes immediately, because to me, these professors had little to teach me about the world or how to interact with it. I saw no difference between a student playing Angry Birds than one doodling in classes. Yet, the professors obviously did. With smaller departments, I think not only would the PhD students benefit but the undergraduates also with professors better understanding the changing population and how to reach out to it.

    Also, this could help older students. I find it great when an older student returns to take courses. Many members of my family have returned to school. Yet, the students that I have seen tend to do it for very different reasons than the full time students. Many are simply going for personal enrichment and take one or two courses a semester. Why are these students not allowed to take courses online? Where are the professors that would teach such students? What about allowing some of the bottleneck of PhDs in academic markets, who are more familiar with technology, reach these students?

    Finally, having all courses simply at night where no professor is still on duty means that full time MA and PhD students barely interact with one another let alone the general student population. I am still amazed at the amount of graduate students that barely know what the campus has to offer or know each other. While it may be important to offer classes at night. I see no reason why two or three of them can’t be offered in the morning time or afternoon allowing the graduate students to have more access to social resources that may help them complete their program.

  11. Mills Post author

    Hi Nabeel: I’m sorry you never stopped by the office to say hello, as I’m in most days from 9-5 now that I’m the Director of the Global Affairs program here at Mason. As for the question of why no day classes for grad students here at Mason, the reason we offer all of our graduate courses at night, whether for PhD or MA students, is that the reality is that the vast majority of our graduate students are employed full time or near to full time and so are simply unable to take day time courses. When we’ve experimented with day time courses over the 11 years I’ve been here, they simply don’t enroll more than a handful of students. With a limited number of faculty to teach a large number of students, we have to offer the courses when the largest number of students can take them.

    Your point about the size of a graduate program and what it means for the educational experience of the students is certainly well-taken. I think it’s fair to say that both the faculty and administrators here at Mason would love to have smaller programs. The reality, however is more complex than that. First, we are the only public (and so lower cost) university in a Northern Virginia region with a population now greater than 2 million and so at the MA level if we were to limit the size of our program as you seem to suggest we should, far too many students would be excluded from the option of graduate education. Such an exclusion would be especially problematic for high school history teachers who must have an MA to maintain their licensure.

    The second reason it is essentially impossible for us to limit our program size (we do limit the size of the PhD program, but not the BA or MA program) is that over the past two decades, the legislature has shifted the burden of funding higher education in Virginia from the general pool of taxpayers to the users (students/parents). In effect, higher education in Virginia, which used to be defined as a public good, is now defined as a private good. You can see this when you look at how our resource base from Richmond has changed over the past decade.

    What this means for a university like Mason, which effectively has no endowment to support its daily operations, is that we are almost entirely dependent on tuition and fees to run our programs. We are funded, largely, based upon how many seats we fill. If we don’t have students, our budgets are cut. I’m not saying this approach to funding higher education is right or wrong. I’m just saying it is how higher education is funded in Virginia and so that’s the reality of our program.

  12. Nabeel Siddiqui

    Thank you for the response. I think I should clarify the point that I was trying to make. The size of the program is important, but I am aware that the issue of state funding has caused an increasing amount of problems. Tuition rates continue to rise due to these cuts and a need to address the state legislature on the issue has been taken up by a variety of professors.

    I do not want to imply that I would like people cut from the program simply for the reason of making it smaller. Yes, I believe that the role of the programs size has a factor, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The larger point I was trying to make was that it wasn’t the size of the program that is necessarily important, but the increased access to relationships that these programs provide. It isn’t necessarily important to cut the program in order to provide this relationship. It can be done a variety of other ways. For example, the graduate history meetings could be better utilized by both students and professors. Furthermore, and I do not know if Mason is already doing this, but many programs allow graduate students to sit in on departmental meetings to understand the issues that the department faces. If Mason is already allowing this, I would suggest that it be better known to the general student population and if not, perhaps begin such a policy. Due to the size of the program, this may need to come in the form of a representative committee.

    With the graduate students, I believe professors have a unique opportunity to expand teaching techniques. While undergraduates may be getting degrees for a variety of reasons, many graduate students in the humanities are hoping to move into academia. It seems that they can provide a link between professor and other students that may be overlooked by professors. My earlier discussion of technology use was meant to be an example of how this increased communication could lead to professors better understanding what incoming students are looking for in their education.

    On a side note, I will try my best to stop by before the winter break to perhaps expand on the discussion.

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