How to Cut Ph.D. Time to Degree

The key may be changing faculty behavior, not just grad student behavior. An unusual policy at Harvard yields dramatic success.
December 17, 2007

For doctoral students, the clock is always ticking. How many years of fellowship support do you have left? How long can you delay starting a family or bringing home a real paycheck? How old do you want to be while still being a student? How many good jobs will disappear before you have a Ph.D.?

But what about the professors who supervise doctoral work? Does the clock tick for them enough to motivate them to be realistic about dissertation expectations, to be sure to get comments back on that chapter draft, and to both encourage and prod their Ph.D. students to the finish line?

A series of new policies in the humanities and the social sciences at Harvard University are premised on the idea that professors need the ticking clock, too. For the last two years, the university has announced that for every five graduate students in years eight or higher of a Ph.D. program, the department would lose one admissions slot for a new doctoral student. The results were immediate: In numerous departments that had for years had large clusters of Ph.D. students taking eight or more years to finish, professors reached out to students and doctorates were completed.

No exceptions were made, and Harvard officials believe that their shift shows that there is no reason for a decade-long humanities Ph.D.

"People get lost. Being a graduate student can end up being a very lonely experience. You've got this enormous dissertation to write, and your children are born and your partner wants you to get a new job," said Theda Skocpol, who is finishing up a term as graduate dean at Harvard and who created the new policies. Skocpol ruffled a few feathers in turning down professors who wanted exemptions, but she said that the costs to students and their universities are too high to ignore the impact of 10-year-plus Ph.D. efforts, many of which don't even result in a degree.

"Losing somebody from one of these very selective Ph.D. programs after the investment of many years of faculty and student time and the students' own life and after we've invested a quarter million dollars or Harvard's money is really tragic," she said.

Harvard's new approach also includes other features, such as full financing for a year of dissertation writing, and a rule that students in the dissertation writing year cannot be assigned or accept teaching assistant positions. But Skocpol said that she believes the potential lost admissions slot is key. And at a time that many groups are focusing on time-to-degree issues, the fact that this was a policy change and not just another instance of Harvard spending some of its billions may make the shift something others could follow.

Here are the numbers that suggest the impact of the new policy, which was announced 18 months ahead of enforcement with the idea of giving professors time to get more of their Ph.D. students over the finish line:

In December 2005, 16 of the 24 departments offering Ph.D.'s in the humanities and social sciences were told that based on then-current data, they would lose a total of 33 admissions slots. (Departments admit anywhere from 1 to 25 or so doctoral students and many of the programs are sufficiently small that losing even a single slot is a big deal.)

A year later, 14 departments were at risk of losing a total of 23 slots. And by the time this year that the policy was enforced, all but two of those departments were in compliance and those two lost only one slot each. If you think departments might have just kicked out slow finishers, that doesn't seem to be the case. Skocpol said that some students really had "already moved on," and that most departments avoided the admissions slot punishment by helping students finish. Indeed, in the two years after the policy was announced, the number of humanities Ph.D.'s awarded increased to 99 from 71, and the number of social sciences doctorates increased to 110 from 95. (Entering cohort size has been flat for years and so does not explain those increases.)

Meanwhile, over the last five years, the percentage of doctoral students in their ninth year (or higher) has decreased to 4.5 percent from 8.5 percent.

While taking a decade to finish a Ph.D. may seem unthinkable to academics in disciplines (generally in the sciences) where half that time is the norm, decade-long Ph.D.'s are actually common in the humanities, which makes Skocpol's timeline (and her success at enforcing it) notable. Recent data from the Council of Graduate Schools, for example, show that only 36.7 percent of humanities students have finished their dissertations by year 8, and only 49.1 percent have done so by year 10.

Skocpol said that it is important to recognize that some fields (those requiring fluency in multiple languages or extensive fieldwork, for example) will have longer duration of doctoral work than others, but that there is no reason ever for a 10-year doctoral program. "Graduate students need to get on to a life where they have their own careers or income before they are entering middle age," she said.

In addition, she said that private donors and government agencies are scared away from supporting humanities and some social sciences doctoral education because it takes so long. "If we are going to make claims on resources, we have to do better."

That means real changes, she said. For starters, she said that professors need to have "realistic" expectations about dissertations, and to factor in the value of getting done along with the value of exploring every possible nuance. "You have to get to a point in a dissertation where you say it's good enough. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's time to get it done as good enough," Skocpol said.

Another change she advocates is that departments view entering cohorts of Ph.D. students as true cohorts, such that there is a goal of students taking their generals at roughly the same time. Treating the process as entirely individual, she said, seems to encourage a slower pace.

Altin Gavranovic, a Ph.D. student at Harvard in American studies, is the humanities representative on the Graduate Student Council. He said he isn't sure that many graduate students are aware that new policies have been put in place to speed up their completion, "but they are benefiting."

At many top universities, graduate students in the humanities just assume it will take 10 years to finish up. "I think the culture where people think about being here for 10 years, I think that has past," said Gavranovic. "The idea is that the Ph.D. should be a transitional stage," not a permanent one. "My intent is to get done in five."

Liz Olson, a graduate student in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University and president of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, said that she had never heard of a policy like the one at Harvard. But she said that the issue it addresses (professors and Ph.D. students not both facing pressure to finish up) is widespread. She said it was important in carrying out such a policy not to increase the stress on students by compressing a 10-year program into 7, but by coming up with a 7-year program.

Of Harvard's rule, she said, "I think that making it something that impacts the department is a good idea."

While the Harvard plan does put pressure on departments, Skocpol said that various pressures on doctoral students will also be a factor. She took seven years to finish her Harvard doctorate, and she said she was "totally unrealistic" about material to cover in it. "I wouldn't have finished it on time, but I was going to get fired from my first job if I didn't finish it," she recalled. "You have to get to the point where you want this thing -- no matter what."


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