A Shorter, More Humane Ph.D. Program

Universities must re-evaluate the time-to-degree requirements for many humanities Ph.D. programs, argues Michael Zimm.

June 5, 2019

I was recently interviewed by a fellow alt-ac Ph.D. who is writing a book, accepted by a major academic press, intended for current and post-Ph.D.s considering nonacademic career paths. He posed an interesting question to me:

“Do you regret doing your Ph.D.?”

That is not an easy question to answer for someone who once heavily identified as an academic but is no longer involved in the profession. So I responded to his question with one of my own:

“Do you mean do I regret it, or if I knew what I know now, would I do my Ph.D. all over again?”

I am now two jobs removed from academe. My career trajectory has radically changed from the days when I was dissertating day and night in the dense stacks of the library. Back then, I was blissfully ignorant about the anemic nature of the academic job market. Certainly no one supplied me with tenure-track placement data. That only became apparent when I began to tabulate placement numbers in the sixth and final year of my program.

Life looks very different now. My years in the Ph.D. program look very different. I now think about ways in which Ph.D. programs can be reformed to take into consideration the long-term, nonacademic job prospects of many of their students. To that end, it is vital that universities re-evaluate the time-to-degree requirements for many humanities Ph.D. programs.

The current structure of those programs is designed to train their students to become professors. This entails a litany of discipline-specific seminars, comprehensive exams and course teaching. But the problem is that such departmental requirements are antiquated, as many Ph.D.s are not getting tenure-track positions. What constituted job-relevant course training in earlier decades are now outdated, time-consuming courses that have dubious long-term professional value for the modern American Ph.D. candidate.

According to a study conducted from 2003 to 2012, the median time that humanities Ph.D.s spent in their programs was 6.9 years or longer. Humanities Ph.D. programs are considerably longer than those in physical and life sciences. Most American Ph.D. students will complete their degrees while they are in their late 20s and 30s. Those are crucial years for their long-term earning power. Any additional year spent in a Ph.D. program will eat into future salary increases and the ability to save for retirement.

Ph.D.-granting departments have a moral responsibility to take into consideration how their program requirements impact their students’ potential earning power and financial stability. Universities should look to their counterparts in Europe that have shorter time frames to degree completion. In fact, since American universities hire European Ph.D.s (sometimes over American Ph.D.s whose degrees took longer to complete), there is little advantage for graduate students to be saddled with onerous degree requirements that have nominal professional value once they explore career options outside academe.

Where could time be saved? Humanities Ph.D. programs contain a large number of up-front courses that can take up to two years of study. As I reflect on my graduate student years, I would certainly trim the number of required courses and seminars. I would also lessen the number of qualifying exams. Cutting the number of courses and exams could result in graduate students preserving precious years down the road.

Humanities Ph.D. programs should also consider limiting their annual enrollment numbers so that they are actually training students for tenure-track academic positions that their Ph.D. students will actually fill. (I’m excluding postdocs, visiting assistant professors and adjuncts, since most first-year students don’t envision these contingent positions as the type of jobs they will one day have.)

In addition, the expected length of dissertations should be shortened. For tenure-track and tenured faculty, their dissertations are springboards for their first book projects. It makes sense that they want heavily footnoted, lengthy and densely researched dissertations. But for those students preparing for nonacademic careers, turgid, long-winded dissertations will simply collect dust in a box buried in their attic. The scholarly contribution will not put food on their table (whereas it does for faculty members, since academic publishing is part of their job).

So after considering the question for 10 seconds, I answered the interviewer, “I would do it all over again if I could complete my Ph.D. program in three to three and a half years. However, even though I found my Ph.D. journey intellectually fulfilling, I would not squander an additional three years of earning power on my Ph.D.”


Michael Zimm received his Ph.D. in classics from Yale University. He’s the director of marketing at Kris-Tech Wire, a copper wire manufacturer.


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