The Dissertation Might Not Be Broken, But It Needs a Chiropractor

One more thing that Menand mentioned in passing in his talk at Swarthmore was that the median time to completion of a Ph.D in the humanities is over nine years. Even if the job market in academia were wonderful that would be a very hard pill to swallow.

There are a lot of reasons why time to completion is stretching out as long as it is. One, of course, is the job market itself. Considering that a full-time doctoral student is almost certainly either teaching (for her own institution or adjuncting elsewhere) or is being supported by a partner or family, if the market is especially terrible it might seem to make more sense to wait it out one more year and keep reworking the dissertation. Or it might be that the need to work is keeping a doctoral student from devoting the time necessary to finish the dissertation, or keeping them from having the money for necessary travel to another archive or fieldsite.

Another reason might have to do with the generally weak or diffuse nature of graduate pedagogy. A student who needs devoted attention from a mentor–or who needs to be told to finish up or quit–may well never get what they need, and just go on struggling alone for years and years.

But attention is understandably centering on two things: graduate study before the dissertation and the dissertation itself. A few courageous programs are tackling one or both of these problems, most notably Stanford.

I think something even bolder might be called for: first, no more than a single year of coursework and study, culminating in a proposal for a program of research. Accept only the students who are already well prepared in their discipline and thus accept that they are in fact ready to go to work. If that standard suggests there would be fewer students who met the criteria for admission, then that’s a bonus: it cuts down on the number of students doing doctorates and reinvigorates the separate M.A. as a concept: that’s for students who need further disciplinary preparation or who have changed the nature of their interests in between receiving a B.A. and preparing to undertake doctoral study.

You shouldn’t need more than a year–a year that would be directed at sharpening your possible research interests–because the process of scholarly research involves learning about scholarship in every relevant specialized literature and acquiring the necessary methodological skills.

Second, the research needed for a doctorate should not be a completed book-length manuscript, at least not in the humanities. A humanities scholar should prepare the following: an essay-length commentary on the disciplinary literature that addresses the research problem they’re working on; two article-length essays on the research subject; an executive summary of the overall area of research interest directed at a broad interdisciplinary audience; a plan for continuing research and inquiry on the subject; and a plan for making archives, notes and other materials connected to the study available digitally via some common depository supported by a consortium of academic institutions. In the same time, the doctoral candidate should prepare a syllabus for a thematic course in their area of interest and teach it. All of this should be complete by the end of the fourth year of study, with no more than a single additional year of extension possible.

This has to be done all at once, and every tenure and promotion committee in the country at every institution with even modest ambitions should adjust accordingly. The idea here is to move the expectation of a book deeper into a professor’s career–or to rethink that ambition entirely.

The idea of research as a basic part of the apprenticeship of a scholar isn’t broken, but the dissertation as we have known it is. Anthony Grafton says at the Chronicle , “‘The dissertation makes intellectual sense only as a historian’s quest to work out the problem that matters most to him or her, an intellectual adventure whose limits no one can predict…There’s no way to know in advance how long that will take. Cut down the ambition and scale, and much of the power of the exercise is lost.'” Much as I love Grafton’s work and his frequent attention to the state of the academic profession, this really feels like an extravagant view that’s out of touch with the reality of the actual market and the actual jobs available to the dissertating. Once it’s put like that, it’s not clear to me that we should ever have thought that way.

More importantly, it’s not clear why a process that can take as long as it needs has to run to its conclusion before we award a doctorate and admit someone into the profession. Why not keep working out the problem, keep travelling on the adventure, make the exercise a life-long one? All we should need to see is the evidence that the journey is well begun and the scholar has steady feet upon the path. Not the least of the good things that might follow from such a change is that doctorates might feel like there is more than one path available to them after they’ve finished, and the cost of setting foot on it, whatever might come of it, will be far smaller in human terms as well.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Dissertation Might Not Be Broken, But It Needs a Chiropractor

  1. Evan Roberts says:

    It’s instructive to look at other disciplines. In economics the dissertation is three research chapters, fairly close in spirit to what you’re proposing. One of those chapters–the “job market paper” is selected by the candidate as the most promising piece of work and that’s what hiring committees read and candidates present at interviews. It ain’t perfect, but they get them out the door quicker.

  2. Withywindle says:

    Stealing from Miss Self Important, if I recollect properly … the first thing to do is to make the MA in history a sufficient requirement to teach all the Intro Classes to Western Civ, World History, American History, etc. Ideally you would then regularize the position of everyone teaching the survey classes into a decently paid & benefited job; at worst, the horrible adjunct rat race would only require the investment of time for an MA, not for a PhD. You could then have far fewer people going for a PhD; reform would still be possible, but less urgent with fewer people chasing after doctorates.

    Once we’ve finished reforming the job market in Utopia U: a lot of people coming into history PhD programs are actually sort of sketchy on their history. (Ongoing educational collapse.) The broad course work at the graduate level is necessary remediation, alas, in far too many circumstances.

  3. Matt says:

    Hmm, I took 8 years, but then, I also did a law degree in that same period of time, and worked full-time as a law clerk for a judge during the last two years (a good portion of the very rough first draft of my dissertation was written while sitting at the laundromat near my house in the evenings doing my laundry. Lots of reading was done to and from work on the subway.) So yes, 9 years is unreasonable unless one is intentionally not finishing or has some special research needs that takes longer. I don’t think the MIT philosophy plan (nearly everyone finishes in 4 years) is ideal for everyone, but a shorter period is both possible and better.

  4. From memory: C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers said that having people do highly specialized work for a long time at the beginning of their career was a mistake. That’s when they should be reading and learning widely.

  5. Philip says:

    5 years full-time is generally the maximum in Europe (certainly is here in the UK). Finishing in 4 years is common, 3 years is not massively unusual.

  6. Paige Morgan says:

    I agree with a number of the suggestions and assertions in this post. However, I’d really like to know how teaching fits in. The assumption is that it, too, is part of the Ph.D., but I also think that the teaching load faced by graduate students can have a pretty substantial effect on how long the dissertation takes. I don’t mean that if teaching is available, it makes more sense to finish slowly, as Burke seems to suggest. I mean that independently planning and teaching a new course each quarter (not simply assisting a full professor) can be a pretty big drain on the mental energy that’s needed for dissertating. While I believe that years of doing this (if one begins teaching as a 1st year graduate student) is beneficial to the Ph.D. student’s ability to teach, I think it ends up working against diss. completion — or at least, contributing to the length of time that it takes to finish. (Of course, this varies highly from program to program).

  7. As Philip says, in the UK a one-year MA followed by a 3-4 year PhD is now standard practice in History at least. This includes coursework and a dissertation in the MA, then a book-length thesis in the PhD. Most people, including me, also do some light teaching during their PhDs. I suspect part of this is just different cultural expectations but part of it must be the imposition of prelims in North America, which don’t seem to exist here in the UK. Part of it might also be funding: most doctoral funding is for 3-4 years.

    So, although I quite like the ideas you put forward, another option would just be to switch to the British model.

  8. Edward James says:

    One of the reasons for the very high quality of recent American PhD graduates in my field — late antiquity — is precisely the much longer time that they have taken in getting their PhDs than is common in the UK. It is hardly possible to attain fluency in Latin and Greek (and possibly Syrian and Coptic) in a three- or four-year PhD programme: and gone are the days when you acquire your Greek and Latin fluency before becoming an undergraduate…

  9. Gavin Weaire says:

    Just a quick post to agree with Edward James. Some fields demand linguistic competencies that simply take time. If anything, he slightly understates the case, as such competencies are in addition to the standard expectation of reading competency in German, French, and Italian.

    Yes, the British doctorate is shorter in those fields too. But it comes after a completely different undergraduate training, in which the undergraduate does concentrated work in their subject area. I’m not necessarily against that model in principle – it suited me personally very well – but it’s simply incompatible with American “general education” assumptions about what undergraduate education is like, and it’s even more incompatible with the kind of free-roaming, non-disciplinary, model that Tim would favor.

  10. Ken says:

    It’s not time-to-degree, it’s time-to-job. Eight years spent on a PhD that ends in a good tenure-track job is not too much. Four years spent on a PhD that ends without a good tenure-track job is too much. It all comes down to jobs.

    What if PhD programs could only accept students for whom they could guarantee five years of financial support? Say, tuition waiver and minimum stipend of $20,000 a year?

    Some of the advantages:

    1. It would reduce the supply of adjuncts.
    2. It would reduce the supply of candidates for tenure-track jobs.
    3. It would reduce the time to completion.
    4. It would encourage PhD programs to pick only the better-qualified applicants.
    5. It would be relatively easy for outsiders to police compliance.

    Expediting the granting of the doctorate either increases the supply of candidates for jobs or turns the doctorate into the first step of a multi-step process towards getting a job (if several years of adjuncting and publishing become required for serious candidates). Neither of these outcomes is particularly desirable.

  11. Tony Grafton says:

    Hi, Tim. I take your point–and put it myself to the same journalist, who didn’t quote that bit of our conversation. I know as well as anyone that the profession has its back to the wall. And I shouldn’t have suggested that I think dissertations can take any given amount of time–I don’t, and I do push my students to get done.

    But I still can’t buy the diminished dissertation that you’re pushing. At the school where I teach and the others I watch, students are tackling more, not less, ambitious topics, with wider language requirements which–as a couple of your correspondents note–usually need to be met in graduate school. Doing cross-border work–as many of our students do–also requires more than languages: it requires engagement with two or more traditions of historiography (or anthropology, or political economy) that have often grown up sturdily uninterested in dialogue with one another. It all takes time.

    The other point that worries me is this: I can easily imagine a future in which (a) some students are allowed to do scaled-down dissertations of the sort you envision while others get more time and money. This prospect doesn’t please me, especially since experience shows that our selection processes don’t identify at admission the students who will eventually do the most brilliant and ambitious work. Or (b) dissertations are scaled down at places with limited resources, while schools like mine go on doing what they do, thanks to their private funds. Not a happy thought either.

    I’m grateful as always for your thoughtful post and for this discussion. But I don’t think you’ve broken the path to Utopia U’s graduate program.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    So three responses to points made here.

    1) As I said, this has to be done collectively by both rich and poor institutions in a fairly constrained time frame. For those who think that’s impossible, I point to the very rapid spread of the German-style research university at all levels of prestige and resources. I’m not sure who goes first, mind you, and the people caught in the transition will be the ones who feel the effects of an incomplete or uneven transition.

    2) Let’s suppose, worst-case scenario, that the rich institutions continue to support (indeed, demand) seven, eight or nine year dissertations. And the poorer institutions do a short dissertation. It’s true that the two groups, when competing for tenure-track positions at rich institutions, will be so far apart that the poorer short-dissertating students will rarely if ever get those positions. However: cry me a river on this point, gang, because it’s already that way. If that’s such a grave concern, the length of dissertations is the least of the issues you should be worried about right now. Doctoral candidates at rich institutions generally get better stipends, more teaching opportunities (if they want them), better chances at funding for fieldwork, better access to language training, better access to prestigious advisors (if not better access to good mentoring or teaching: hardly anyone gets that in grad school), and so on. At the exact same time, good tenure-track positions are largely only found AT wealthy institutions. So what we already have is a situation where different tiers in the hierarchies of higher education largely hire to each other. Many candidates from top R1s will tell you that they have less chance by far to get hired at institutions two tiers down even for non-TT positions because the perception is that such candidates will leave as soon as possible, disdain the institution they work for and the colleagues they have, and so on. For anyone who thinks this is a bad state of affairs, dissertation length or scope is a distraction from far more systematic problems that need tackling right away. Indeed, if everyone moved to a shorter dissertation model, that might be a part of creating a more equitable “middle” in academia.

    3) The language training issue is something I addressed in the post, if rather obliquely. If the field of specialization has highly particular language requirements (either spoken or learning to read difficult older styles of writing) or other technical requirements that virtually no undergraduate could have acquired, that’s what the master’s degree should be for–a two-year crash course in the highly specific technical requirements of a difficult field of study. This extra burden exists whether or not we break it out into a separate degree: you could argue that this would be a more honest way to go about it rather than burying this kind of preparation inside of a single program of doctoral study that is notionally equal to every other program of doctoral study. If the imposition of an extra degree requirement would be sufficient disincentive to route potential students into easier fields of study, then that should already happen since whether we acknowledge it that way or not, these fields ARE harder. In fact, it does happen already–which is one reason that I think there are far more candidates in modern history and far more candidates in fields of study where English is a native or at least highly useful language. Which also corresponds, largely speaking, to where the jobs are at, once you step outside the very small circle of highly elite R1s that have very large faculty covering most existing specializations. This would just help make it clear that the only students who should attempt a doctorate in gruelingly demanding fields with requirements for highly specific preparations are either those who managed, unusually, to begin such preparations as an undergraduate or those motivated enough to tackle such preparation after their BA.

  13. Johann Neem says:

    There is another perspective that needs to be addressed here, the labor perspective. I agree with Anthony Grafton on the purposes and value of the dissertation as an extended, scholarly pursuit. Whether it remains unchanged or is reformed should be an open question. What needs to be put on the table, however, is whether PhD-granting institutions continue to rely so heavily on TA labor that they cannot or will not address the root problem: they admit too many students for graduate study. There are two ways to address this problem. The first is for faculty to agree to teach more (since faculty must agree in a shared governance context, which I support). This would affect faculty in many ways, including their ability to produce the kinds of work research-1 institutions value. The second is to hire more tenure-track faculty to support better undergraduate teaching by faculty. The third is somewhere in between.

    Graduate study in the humanities may prepare people for a wide variety of careers, but students do not go to graduate school in the humanities unless they love the fields that they are entering– they are like ministers. In other words, graduate school is simply not professional education of the same kind as law school, business school, public policy/administration, and education. There is an effort to de-intellectualize the academy, but we also need to resist these trends to protect what is most valuable about the academy.

Comments are closed.