Finishing in Five

Mike Strayer offers strategies for finishing a doctoral program in a timely way -- even in the humanities. And he offers ideas on how departments can help.

May 5, 2014
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I successfully defended my dissertation — "Playing Guns: Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Revolutionary Violence" — last month during the fifth year of my Ph.D. in Spanish. You might say that I’m a bit of a unicorn in terms of Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences — that mythical beast who finishes in five. So far I have gotten two kinds of reactions: “Wow, that was fast. Congrats!” and, usually in a half-joking tone, “Wow, that was fast. I hate you!”

Maybe not in those words, but you get the idea. By writing this I certainly want to acknowledge that it feels good to be done, but I don’t want to make my peers feel judged in any way. I’ll attempt to do this by looking at my personal experience in relation to what I see as systemic practices that both positively and negatively impact Ph.D. students and their ability to finish in five years.

The Writing Process

Starting with the writing process itself and moving in reverse, I used the prospectus as an opportunity to draft my introductory chapter. This helped me hit the ground running because I had already outlined the general trajectory and principal subjects of the dissertation. A solid prospectus makes a difference. Even so my dissertation changed. I had a moment, for example, in which I knew that there was no way that I could possibly finish in five years. So I decided to cut my manuscript from six chapters to four.

My advisers were supportive of this and I think that shift really hastened my time-to-degree. This is where advisers need to be knowledgeable, flexible and realistic. My advisers gave me relative creative freedom with my dissertation and then guided rather than directed my project. They realized that the dissertation is just one step on my path to publication and that I could always return to those nixed chapters if need be.

I also participated in a dissertation writing workshop offered by my university. The workshop taught us how to track and budget our time, set goals and form writing communities. For me, writing as I researched was a particularly helpful strategy. I used conference papers and writing sample requirements in order to draft chapters, even when I had not finished all of my readings or visited all of my research sites. The dissertation writing workshop is an investment that every university and/or department should make. In fact, I think that it should be mandatory after one passes over into the nebulousness of A.B.D. status in the humanities and social sciences.

The workshop I attended was offered to all graduate students but not required. This speaks to the fact that the level of institutional support at most universities during the writing process is almost completely dependent upon Ph.D. candidate knowledge of institutional resources and personal initiative. This varies widely on a case-to-case basis and negatively impacts time-to-degree. Institutional support needs to be a systematic part of our programs, particularly during the research and writing phases.

I also participated in a dissertation writing group organized by my fellow graduate students. The group gave me deadlines, a supportive atmosphere and great feedback. Without my dissertation writing group there is no way that I would have been able to finish in five years. My group particularly excelled at creating a friendly space where I felt like I could share my work at any phase. I have heard other Ph.D.s talk about hostile writing groups and I think that it’s safe to say that barbed feedback never helps Ph.D.s finish on time. In addition to a mandatory workshop on how to write a dissertation, I also believe that programs should automatically enroll their students in writing groups moderated by faculty during each semester that they are A.B.D. A pass/fail grade that indicates participation would be necessary. Passing grades every semester would be required to graduate. In both cases mandatory writing workshops and writing groups — whether department- or university-wide — would be helpful initiatives.

Coursework and Exams

A lot of my dissertation consisted of recycled and reworked material from seminar papers and conference presentations. Obviously, some work needs to go in the trash at the end of the semester, but this was a good way for me to continue to mull over ideas and projects that I had started during coursework. Granted, seminars in my program were less dedicated to canonical texts, which put some students at a disadvantage come comprehensive exam time, but allowed me to write more about what interested me. Having a master’s in my discipline (prior to starting the Ph.D.) really helped because it gave me a decent overview of the theoretical and intellectual history of my field. Whenever someone congratulates me for being speedy I always remind them that it actually took me seven years — still much faster than many humanities students — to finish the terminal degree when you count my M.A., and that I recycled and reworked a large amount of my material.

I do not mean to say that programs should only admit those of us with master’s degrees — some of my brightest colleagues came straight from the undergraduate level  — but rather that the master’s should figure into Ph.D. coursework. If a program is going to admit a high number of students without master’s and department members are concerned about time-to-degree, they should either forget about teaching the canon or tailor courses to the canon. This plays out during exams too. If you want your Ph.D.s to know the canon then you ought to systematically teach the canon. My master’s coursework, for example, specifically addressed texts, authors and movements that I had to know for the exams. My Ph.D. coursework, however, was based on my professors’ research interests, which would have been great if not for the fact that my exams were based on a canon. There was then some unnecessary overlap and backtracking involved in my exam process.

Which brings me to my next point. If Ph.D. programs are truly worried about time-to-degree then why don’t more programs and universities honor master’s degrees from other accredited programs? Why not cut off a year of coursework in order to give qualified candidates more time to research and write? Those Ph.D.s will still have an extra year of coursework when all is said and done. Also, why not then cater exams to one’s research specialties and other related fields? That way exams can segue directly into the prospectus phase of the project and Ph.D. students can maintain momentum. In reality, I would have appreciated a little extra time because I felt extremely rushed as I hammered out my last chapter and conclusion just before my institutional deadlines during the last semester of my fifth year. My experience was the perfect storm in which things just happened to work out mostly because my family was supportive, my advisers were motivated and our department staff really worked hard behind the scenes to make my defense happen.


While I believe a Ph.D. should be possible in five years, post-master’s, my belief in flexibility is why I do not think that elite Ph.D. programs ought to strictly adhere to a five-year rule. In my case, my partner took a job in another state and I knew I would not be living in residence during my sixth year — a requirement for sixth-year funding. I also knew that my job prospects would continue to be negatively affected by my A.B.D. status. And, as an older Ph.D. candidate, I was, quite frankly, tired of being a student.

Here I believe that my case is the exception rather than the norm in the humanities and social sciences. There ought to be some institutional flexibility for students who have met all of their degree requirements and duly participated in writing workshops and groups. A sixth year of funding should be guaranteed when all is in order. A seventh year ought to be a possibility under special circumstances. At a lot of elite private research institutions this type of funding should not be a problem, especially when teaching is involved. In the case of elite public research institutions there will most likely be more problems with this level of institutional support and flexibility. Either way I think this kind of unconditional flexibility is completely necessary if we are really going to tackle the problem of time-to-degree. And I should note that I had a good package throughout my doctoral program, I realize those who must chase every chance to be a T.A. or work outside of academe can’t make the kind of progress I did.

Going to the Modern Languages Association Convention this past year as a Ph.D. candidate did not yield any job offers, but it got me thinking about professionalization. A.B,D.s need serious support that results in a higher likelihood of obtaining the vaunted job offer if they are to finish on time. Here I am talking about mandatory job search workshops and faculty-lead activities that create networking opportunities. My program staged mock interviews that helped me conceptualize the kinds of questions asked by committees. These mock interviews, again, were completely voluntary. They should be required. Mandatory professionalization should take place during the fall of the fifth year and be required to graduate. Support needs to be rationally systematized in order to be effective. An efficient program cannot do everything to get its Ph.D.s a job, but it can do a lot.

But this still raises the question: Why should Ph.D.s finish on time considering their dismal job prospects and most employers’ stated preference for non-ABD candidates? Does it really matter if we can get Ph.D.s through faster if there is nothing there for them when they graduate? And do I believe that what I am writing here is a sure guide to getting more Ph.D.s done in five? In this I am rather skeptical. I have my reservations given the systemic limitations of the current academic job market where austerity prevails and practically no job security exists for Ph.D. candidates looking to graduate in five. In my particular case I am still not sure where I will be or what I will be doing in September. One might ask, then, what’s the hurry?


Mike Strayer is a Ph.D. at large.


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