Brown University's push to get everyone up and out in five years touches on a subject of abiding interest to me. Now, I did finish my doctorate at the U of Chicago in five years, much to the surprise of my committee (although not to me). This is how I did it:
- I was in one of the final cohorts of the five-year Mellon Fellowships. (Which, on a large scale, didn't do a particularly good job of accelerating time-to-degree.)
- I also received summer travel funding for dissertation research.
- My committee was always efficient in commenting on my work, and provided strong mentorship throughout the process.
- Although my dissertation was long, it was on a relatively unusual topic.
- I didn't do any teaching, beyond two once-a-week discussion sections. (Which is why I was unemployable when I finished. So much for the market value of a fast Ph.D.)
- Neither I nor my parents had medical issues.
- I had no mental health crises. (I...um...rather enjoyed graduate school. Er, sorry?)
- I had no spouse or children.
- I read very, very quickly.
In other words: I did my traditional doctorate under pretty much ideal conditions. Privileged, as many might say. (In fact, I could probably add "second-generation academic" to the list, as my parents were able to provide me with a lot of concrete advice about negotiating seminars, finding a chair, etc.) Most graduate students do not have these ideal conditions. The funding runs out. Their dissertation chair goes AWOL or needs to be blackmailed into returning work. The topic turns out to be unmanageable as is and requires a do-over. The pressures of teaching, sometimes multiple sections, interfere with coursework, research, and writing. Someone develops a serious chronic condition. The graduate student sinks into depression. The spouse suddenly needs to relocate for work. The children become ill or need special attention at school. And so on. And so on. Institutional inflexibility is of no use here. Moreover, as bullet point #5 suggests, the push for fast doctorates may come at the expense of a graduate student's viability on the market, especially at schools like mine (where being able to hit the ground at the proverbial fast speed is crucial). There's not much point in pushing a student out if there's only an abyss.