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:
12 credits of course work
6 credits of advanced reading
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.