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« Disraeli, 1999-2014 | Main | This Week's Acquisitions »

April 29, 2014


There's not much point in pushing a student out if there's only an abyss.

The more honest answer might be, "There's not much point in admitting students when most of them are likely to fall into the abyss."


The more honest answer might be, "There's not much point in admitting students when most of them are likely to fall into the abyss."

Not that it isn't a valid point, but my advice to potential graduate students is "Will you enjoy the experience over all? Because there's not guarantee of employment when it's over. (And make sure you can afford it/get funding.)" In which case, pushing people too fast destroys even that benefit. (Although letting them stay too long doesn't help them in the long term either. I think saying that 10 years is too much isn't out of line.)

Mr Punch

My daughter recently completed a humanities PhD, with teaching (and a fair amount of outside employment). It took her eight years - which she insists could have been six had she received timely feedback from members of her dissertation committee. Perhaps an accelerated schedule will function as a way to change faculty behavior.

Rich Puchalsky

I can't read the linked article, but something vaguely visible beyond the paywall mentions social sciences too. My prospective dissertation was in astrophysics, so I don't have direct experience, but to your otherwise excellent list of reasons it can take longer you might add "research topic turns out to be uninteresting or unobservable". ("Observability" probably isn't a problem in the humanities, but the social sciences have an equivalent.)

Contingent Cassandra

I'm another Mellon fellow (early-mid cohort, I believe), who originally planned to take 5 years, thanks to the fellowship, to get through what was ostensibly a 4-year(!) Ph.D. program at a place not too different from Brown (I entered as a very recent B.A.; a number of my cohort had M.A.s or substantial grad course work, but they didn't necessarily fare better). I think you've pegged the issues exactly; the only one I would add (which you partly touch upon in mentioning feedback) is that the department/its faculty can't be in transition, crisis, or off on sabbatical and more or less incommunicado. I experienced a worst-case version of that scenario: large numbers of faculty, including the advisors who saw me through generals, left; the department was in turmoil over another faculty member who had raped a grad. student and wasn't swiftly punished; the department was also unable to hire efficiently because the university insisted on proof it was getting the absolute best possible faculty rather than simply very, very good people, and generally lost both to other schools in the process; due to some combination of all of the above, the department was actually in academic receivership during part of my grad years. And also thanks to all of the above, the very little bit of structure that was in place for guiding students through the diss. proposal process simply didn't happen my year. It was basically a system that relied almost entirely on the advisor/advisee relationship for all guidance, and I had no advisor, and little guidance for how to deal with the politics of finding one among the less-than-perfect-fit possibilities left in the department. But even smaller bumps in the road (one advisor on sabbatical, departing for elsewhere, pregnant/on maternity leave, ill, on family leave, going through a divorce, etc., etc.) could cause problems in a very short program.

I also had some non-structural/departmental issues: no spouse, kids, or illness of my own (things that classmates experienced), but elderly relatives to help care for, and a family of origin that was having some serious (partly-related) issues (which also distracted my Ph.D.-holding parent from noticing that my department was in serious trouble, and offering any advice (s)he might have been able to). And I chose to teach composition classes of my own design, which was not great for my dissertation progress (especially since there was no advisor to bring my attention back in that direction), but did make me employable as an adjunct -- which is what I did for 5 years after the department stopped offering me work -- and eventually as a full-time contingent faculty member -- the security of which position eventually allowed me to finish the diss., 2 years after I went full-time, and 15 years after I started the whole process (which, of course, means I don't show up in any of the departmental statistics, which generally stop at 10 years, but I do have the degree). I did, in the course of my adjunct odyssey, run into a fellow-grad of the same program who *had* finished in 5 years (due to absolute financial necessity), and was just beginning hir 2nd tenure-track job, having struck out on the one (s)he got just after graduation due to lack of time to turn a too-thin thesis into a book while learning to teach.

So, basically, a very long "I agree." The structural departmental issues could have partly been avoided/fixed (the generals-to-prospectus transition is key, in my opinion), and maybe the current state of the academic job market is limiting faculty mobility (though I'm not so sure that's true in the sort of elite programs that value time to degree over grad students as TA-fodder), but I'm not sure what in the world you do about the fact that both grad students and grad faculty are human, and related to other humans, and so are subject to all the weaknesses and distractions attendant upon being part of human communities.

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