Fast Tracking a Ph.D.

Fast Tracking a Ph.D.
June 17, 2009

When I arrived at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Communications in the fall of 2001, I felt all of the sensations that accompany a fresh start: excitement, relief, uncertainty, trepidation, dread. The dread of living on a stipend that was less than half my former salary propelled me to wonder how quickly I could finish this degree and return to “real life.”

At the college’s grad student orientation, we were told that the funding for Ph.D. students had recently been cut in order to admit more students: instead of a four-year teaching assistantship, we were assured three years. Our grad school dean admitted that a degree could be finished in three years, but it was rarely done. But never fear, the college always needed (exploited?) grad students to teach full time while they finished their dissertations.

He cautioned us about losing our way; Ph.D. students took an average time of six years at the college to finish their degree. He acknowledged this was not a good trend. It wasn’t that students couldn’t finish earlier, they seemed to want to stay here because they had “set up housekeeping,” so to speak. In the most memorable line of the orientation, he advised us to learn from “the corpses along the road": grad students who had stalled in their quest to finish and were content as “ABDs.” “Don’t become a corpse,” he warned.

These words made me all the more anxious to plow through to the end. I had already spent too long as a student in higher ed: six years in college (I transferred to a fine arts college and in essence had to “start over”), another two in a master’s program, and now here I was back for a Ph.D. at the age of 30. I sometimes wondered when is my life going to begin? It would be nice to start earning a real salary and embark on a true career.

I devoured my college’s grad programs handbook and strategized. After a year of coursework, I would take the required candidacy exam during the summer. I would also take courses during the summer, so that I could finish the coursework in two years. In my second summer I would take comprehensives and combine the comps defense with the dissertation proposal meeting. Then, I would take papers I had written on the same theme throughout the two years of coursework and make them over into chapters, creating a final dissertation. Though there were a few mishaps, my strategy played out in just that way. I really was able to complete my Ph.D. -- coursework, comprehensives, dissertation, teaching requirements -- in three years. I entered the program in August 2001, and was hooded in May 2004.

Truth be told, it’s even more amazing that I finished in that time since I am not a very ambitious or driven person. I was motivated largely by love; I met a man online during my first year in the program and I wanted to finish as soon as possible so I could move to New York City and hopefully marry him (which didn’t happen, but it kept me going).

To finish in three years, there are important pieces that must fall into place. You must have an adviser/committee chair who is willing to support you in this goal and work with you. It’s important to ask your adviser, “Can this be done?” Is it possible, with your chosen topic and the type of research you will need to do, to finish in three years? In my case, the answer was yes. My adviser thought it would be possible. If your adviser says no, you may want to consider a different adviser, but the problem might be more with your chosen dissertation topic or even your field -- a Ph.D. program in chemistry might make finishing in three years impossible. In some fields, the period of time simply cannot be shortened.

Also, you may need more time to devise and carry out research projects; my dissertation primarily involved textual analysis, theorizing, and some qualitative audience research. A humanities-centric project can more feasibly be completed in three years than one in the sciences.

It’s essential to zero in on a dissertation topic as soon in the process as you can. I figured out pretty quickly what I wanted to do with my dissertation; I had the first chapter by the end of my first semester. The professor of the film history class I took that first semester assured me that it was a worthwhile dissertation topic: the “extended adolescence” of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy films and how and why the films resonated with Depression-era audiences. I knew that I would have fun researching this topic, so getting it done was not going to be a problem. Thus, the “dissertation topic” piece fell into place for me.

Another crucial piece of the puzzle involves working on the dissertation as part of your coursework. I was able finish the bulk of the work while I was taking classes because I chose my classes with the end project in mind: my goal was to use class papers as eventual chapters in the dissertation. This worked much better than I could have hoped; I seemed to choose just the right seminar classes with research paper assignments that would allow me to cover the different facets of my topic. For a cultural studies seminar, I examined how Rooney’s adolescent films illustrate the American dream of upward mobility. In a qualitative research seminar, I interviewed members of the “historical audience,” people in their 70s and 80s, and I later wrote about how their recollections hinted at why the Andy Hardy films were so popular. In a speech-communication seminar on textual analysis, I analyzed the rhetoric of masculinity in the father-son talks in the films.

During my first year of classes, I wrote two and a half chapters (the interviews would have to be expanded and completed later); my second year yielded five papers that became chapters. I was able to complete about four-fifths of the dissertation as papers for seminars. During my last year at PSU, while I was teaching, I revised the existing chapters, interviewed more participants for the qualitative project, completed the interview chapter, and wrote the introduction and conclusion chapters. In all, I wrote ten chapters and the final dissertation is 280 pages.

Fast tracking a Ph.D. requires sympathetic, accommodating professors — and not just in those who make up your committee. My seminar professors were very receptive to my idea of using their classes to write dissertation chapters; this includes classes that were outside of my college. English professor Michael Bérubé agreed to my plan of using his cultural studies seminar for my selfish ends, even though he was far removed from my project. When he returned my final paper, he joked that he was “only seeing one end of the elephant” of what appeared to be a salient project.

Not everything was smooth sailing. I lost one committee member (when she did not receive tenure). You may have to keep your eye on “alternates” for committee members as I did: people to fill in when a professor doesn’t receive tenure. But I didn’t expect too much from the committee members. It’s important to focus on your adviser; satisfy her demands on the edits of the dissertation, what to include, exclude, what research should be done and so forth. Seek to please your adviser and hope that she knows what she is talking about. In the end, my adviser sensed what was needed for my project and she and the rest of the committee were satisfied with the results.

Since time is of the essence, the dissertation must always be a priority while in grad school. You must accept criticism politely and then make corrections on your manuscript right away. The first time I put the dissertation together as one “book” it did not blend well. My adviser gave me searing comments. I licked my wounds for a while but returned to it in time to defend in spring, 2004.

Ironically, the December before the dissertation defense, my romantic relationship deteriorated. The man I thought I was destined to marry was not my Prince Charming after all. I had to mourn my loss and quickly shift gears to refocus a job search (up until that time I was only looking at opportunities around New York). Amazingly, even at that late date (spring semester), I was able to land a tenure-track job at a small college in Colorado. I successfully defended the dissertation in March, received the job offer a few weeks later, and walked in May commencement. My string of good fortune followed me to Colorado, as I would meet my future husband that very August. We would marry two years later.

Not every circumstance is within your control, but it is possible to finish a doctorate in three or, at the very least, four years. It was important to me to remember that I was in a transitional mode; I did not look at State College as my home or my teaching responsibilities as a permanent job. Go to school, do your coursework, find your topic, and get it done. Your dissertation should not be your life’s work; don’t become too enamored with your project. Don’t lose sight of the fact that grad school is a phase; real life comes after.


Judy Beth Morris has taught college for six years (including two years before receiving her Ph.D.) and will be an assistant professor of communications at Susquehanna University, in Pennsylvania, this fall.



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