The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.

Stanford moves ahead with idea of making time to degree much shorter and reconsidering the nature of doctoral education.

December 4, 2012

Complaints about doctoral education in the humanities -- it takes too long, it's not leading to jobs, it's disjointed -- are rampant. So too are periodic calls for radical reform.

But Stanford University is encouraging its humanities departments to redesign humanities doctoral programs so that students could finish in five years (down from the current average of seven at the university and much longer elsewhere), and so that the programs prepare students for careers in and out of academe. While the university is not forcing departments to change, it last week gave all humanities departments a request for proposals that offered a trade: departments that give concrete plans to cut time to degree and change the curriculum will be eligible for extra support -- in particular for year-round support for doctoral students (who currently aren't assured of summer support throughout their time as grad students). The plans would need to be measurable, and the support would disappear if plans aren't executed.

While some Stanford faculty members in the humanities have been speaking out about the need to reform humanities programs for some time, and while a few universities elsewhere have experimented with one or two programs, the Stanford initiative could shape up to be the broadest yet to encourage substantial change in humanities Ph.D. education.

And faculty members there say that by putting money on the table, the university has many thinking that a five-year Ph.D. is possible in the humanities -- and that it's worth the effort to try to make it work. Because Stanford is a top research university, faculty members there hope that their efforts could inspire other institutions to act -- or risk losing their best prospective graduate students. After all, five years in Palo Alto beats nine years (some of it building up debt) just about anywhere else.

"I think this is fantastic," said Jennifer Summit, a professor of English who is among the faculty members who have circulated papers on how to reform doctoral education. "Change comes slowly in the academy, but someone here said the other day that the way to herd cats is to move the cat food. This is a perfect example of that. There are few motivators more compelling to departments than the future of their graduate students, and we're at a point now where we are in agreement about the problem and the very high stakes, and need to move forward."

Cutting Time-to-Degree in Half

The discussions at Stanford have been closely connected to national debates about the humanities doctorate. Russell A. Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, used his address as Modern Language Association president in January to call for humanities Ph.D. programs to have their duration cut in half. "In light of the rate of educational debt carried by humanities doctoral recipients, twice that of their peers in sciences or engineering; in light of the lengthy time to degree in the humanities, reaching more than nine years; and in light of the dearth of opportunities on the job market, the system needs to be changed significantly," he said. The MLA has been studying the way dissertations are structured in languages and literature programs, and will be discussing the issue at its annual meeting in January. Berman also joined discussions back on his campus about how to promote change.

In response to these discussions, Stanford issued an RFP to humanities departments asking for proposals on specific issues. One is time to degree, and here Stanford said that a five-year Ph.D. "ought to be achievable."

The RFP outlined reasons why shorter completion times are needed. "Extended time to degree can represent a significant drain on institutional resources as well as major costs to students, both in the form of indebtedness and postponed entry onto a career path. We ask programs to examine the current structure of degree requirements in order to determine what reforms might expedite degree completion. The answer will likely vary across fields but might involve topics such as restructuring curricular offerings, revising course requirements, modifying examinations, improving the quality of mentoring, the clearer benchmarking of graduate student progress, and revising dissertation expectations."

The other major issue on which departments were asked to propose reforms was career preparation, and the RFP noted that not all humanities Ph.D.s seek or find academic careers. "While models will certainly vary across departments, possible responses might include enhanced mentoring to highlight career ranges, speaker series with representatives of different career paths, internships in different sectors, or integration of applied dimensions of humanities fields into the core curriculum. We also hope to see plans, on the departmental level, for robust career tracking of alumni, not only in terms of first placements but also with regard to longer-term career paths, e.g., tracking alumni 10 or 15 years post-degree."

"Change comes slowly in the academy, but someone here said the other day that the way to herd cats is to move the cat food."
--Jennifer Summit, professor of English at Stanford

While offering more money for graduate students in departments that have proposals approved, Stanford made clear that these have to be detailed, measurable plans. "The quid pro quo for enhanced support, however, is implementation of a plan that contains clear benchmarking and a mechanism for the monitoring of results," the RFP says. "We will expect annual reports on the progress of students admitted into the new curricular structure. If a cohort of students falls significantly behind the expected schedule, the department will face full or partial loss of the supplementary funding for subsequent cohorts. It will therefore be in the interest of the department to assist and encourage students to move through the program as planned."

The idea of having graduate programs actively promote nonacademic careers is one that has been discussed with increasing frequency in recent years, with the leader of the American Historical Association, for example, saying that such careers need to be seen as true choices, not just a "Plan B."

Changing the Curriculum, the Exams and the Dissertation

Departments at Stanford are just starting to plan the approaches they may propose to qualify for the program. But the changes could be quite expansive. Berman said in an interview that he would like to see changes in the curriculum, the qualifying exams and the dissertation. He said that many humanities programs have relatively little structure in terms of the graduate courses they offer, or those that grad students take. "I'd like to see much greater coordination of curriculum in the first year as is common in some of the social sciences," but not the humanities, he said. "A cohort should come in and take the same courses."

This means that the curriculum would be aligned with qualifying exams -- which now are quite broad and frequently involve material that hasn't been covered in courses, he said. "I've seen more and more preparation for the examinations takes place off the books, and that's not right," he said.

Such changes would mean that "faculty would need to give up some of their latitude and curricular choice" for graduate students, but the result would be students getting ready for qualifying exams, and then moving on to their dissertations promptly. On dissertations, he said that faculty members need to push graduate students to keep moving, and to keep engaged in the department.

Berman said that some of the traditions of dissertation work in the humanities may delay completion and need to be challenged. "There is this notion that one hears that dissertation writing should be a lonely period, the idea that humanists need solitude. This is just not acceptable." Graduate students should face real deadlines and constant interaction to get to the finish line. "We need much more effective mentoring and benchmarking."

Summit agreed that changes in the curriculum would make a big difference. "For most English departments and most humanities departments, planning for graduate courses is very ad hoc, based on the research interests of the faculty, and not on the needs of the graduate students."

Part of the curricular change she would like to see is more of an emphasis on careers other than becoming a faculty member at an institution like Stanford. This year, Summit is an American Council of Education fellow at San Jose State University, and she said she has been struck by "the high level of sophistication about teaching" at San Jose State in areas that Stanford graduate students may not learn. Summit said she was thinking of assessment and digital teaching tools and using analytics. "At Research I's, we like to think we invented online teaching and learning, but the comprehensive publics and community colleges have been doing this for a long time."

Further, Summit said, she thinks graduate programs at places such as Stanford need to change the way they talk about work at every kind of institution but their own. "We need to say that we value and support our graduate students who go on to teach in nonelite institutions, at inclusive institutions, not just exclusive institutions, that we recognize that their work is important, that we are proud of them, and we want to share with them the important message that there are many ways to be a successful academic."

The RFP is generally getting strong support, but some warn that not all programs will be able to fit into five years.

Gabriella Safran, who is chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, said that everyone agrees on the importance of cutting time to degree and supporting graduate students all year round. But she said that different language programs have "different constraints." For example, she said that some language programs -- notably those in Spanish and French -- are able to attract students who, on average, have higher levels of training than languages that are not as commonly taught at the undergraduate level. "One issue to keep in mind is the likelihood of students coming in already having mastered the language."

It also may be more difficult to cut the length of programs with a strong sense of what should be covered in the graduate curriculum. "Some departments are more canonical," she said. "They feel there is a single canon and you have to learn it. That idea is stronger in Slavic departments generally than in English or French departments," she said.

Even in such departments, she said, there may be ideas from the RFP to apply. "People are excited about having this conversation," she said.

The Reasons to Make the Change

Berman said that if Stanford can lead the way in making a five-year Ph.D. the norm in the humanities, young scholars would benefit in numerous ways. "There are real biographical time costs," he said, to the lengthy process now for earning a doctorate. "And there is the real cost to individuals." Even if programs theoretically provide stipends, eight- or nine-year doctorates typically involve borrowing money for life expenses and deferral of starting a career.

It's also important to note that -- putting the interests of graduate students first -- they need to finish and not simply provide cheap labor, Berman said. "Graduate students need teaching experience, but some universities rely excessively on graduate student labor when they should be hiring people to teach full time."

Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said that he thought the possibility of additional funding for graduate students was an incentive that would prompt creativity by departments. He also said that time to degree could come down in part by "enforcing the rules already on the book." For instance, he said comprehensive exams are supposed to be taken by the end of the third year (which would make a five-year Ph.D. possible), but that too many exceptions are made.

He also said departments would need to look hard at requirements and see whether they are all needed. And students would have to push to get things done, something he said he hoped the year-round funding would allow.

Saller said he believed that with the right policy and attitude changes, a five-year Ph.D. could become realistic for the humanities at Stanford. Saller is a classics professor who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (in Roman history) in three years. "I know it's possible," he said.


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