Faster Humanities Ph.D.s, But at What Cost?

UC Irvine moves toward a system in which doctorates can be earned in five years, half the norm for these fields at many institutions. Some departments embrace plan; they fear impact on dissertations and on adjuncts.

June 23, 2015
University of California at Irvine

Critics have long said graduate students in the humanities take too long -- a decade is not uncommon -- to earn their Ph.D.s. But the calls for reform attracted new converts and grew louder after 2008, when available tenure-track positions in the humanities dropped in number. With fewer available positions, some said, programs needed to help their students accrue less debt and get them out on the job market faster. One of the more prominent calls for reducing time to degree came from the Modern Language Association, which last year published a report advocating that departments adopt a reasonable five-year timeline for graduate study, provide adequate funding within that period and focus more on career preparation.

The report generated significant debate and soul searching within departments but so far relatively few have proposed new timelines and models. So an idea taking shape at the University of California at Irvine is notable. Under the so-called 5+2 program, humanities graduate students at Irvine will receive additional funding designed to push them through course work and their dissertations within five years. Those who finish within that time frame are eligible to apply for an up to two-year, teaching-intensive postdoc. Assistant adjunct professors, as they’re called, will receive relatively high pay and supposedly have time left over to do additional, résumé-boosting research and apply for jobs.

“Students, let’s say, have a three-year window of optimal employment prospects, so they’re better off applying from a real academic position rather than being a barista at Starbucks,” said James D. Herbert, associate dean for curriculum and student services at Irvine’s School of Humanities and a major advocate of the 5+2 program. Moreover, he said, there’s a growing “ethical imperative” for universities to fund students for as long as they’re in their programs, so they don't build up crushing loan debt.

“If you’re going to medical school or business school, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be able to pay your loans back,” Herbert said. “But there’s not a guarantee of that holding true in our disciplines.”

Irvine’s 5+2 program, which two departments are set to pilot in the fall, works something like this: year one is a fellowship with course work, followed by a funded summer with attendance at a teaching institute. Year two is a teaching assistantship with course work, through which the student identifies an adviser and dissertation committee. If the student has made appropriate progress, he or she attends another funded summer teaching institute.

In year three, the student takes on another teaching assistantship, and completes his or her qualifying exams and prospectus (to be approved by a five-member advancement committee by spring). Successful students see another funded summer and attend a third summer teaching institute. There’s another teaching assistantship in year four in composition or the university’s signature freshman Humanities Core program for intended humanities majors and most honors students. There’s also dissertation research and writing. Those who’ve made satisfactory progress get another funded summer and attend a teaching seminar.

Year five is a fellowship to complete one’s dissertation. Successful new Ph.D.s are offered assistant adjunct professorships to teach in Humanities Core and possibly in their own departments in year six, with two-thirds of a full teaching load and two-thirds the pay of tenure-track assistant professors. Those with a strong teaching record are reappointed in year seven.

In short: a fellowship, followed by three years of teaching assistantships, followed by another fellowship, with funded summers in between -- and then a two-year teaching postdoc. Tuition is paid by the university along the way. Then it’s up and out -- unless the Ph.D.s get hired into tenure-track positions, or stay on as lecturers or in some other non-tenure-track role.

Herbert said that creating a non-tenure-track talent pool for Irvine was not the idea behind the program. To the contrary, he insisted that the program would not contribute to the “occasionalization” of the profession -- that is, the breakdown of tenure-track positions -- but rather fight it.

Getting students out onto the job market faster helps their chances, he said. “The studies I’ve seen tend to indicate that the longer you take to finish your dissertation, the more difficulty you have on the job market -- schools get worried about scholarly productivity if you take a long time to finish, and there’s already a difficult job placement rate in the humanities.”

Two programs signed up for 5+2 early on: philosophy and Herbert’s home department of visual studies. They’ll launch the program in the fall.

Casey Perin, an associate professor of philosophy who directs the department’s graduate program, said 5+2 is especially appealing within the discipline because most philosophy dissertations are a series of articles, not book-length works.

But there’s a broader appeal, he said via email, since it “enables a grad student to focus exclusively on the completion of his or her dissertation in the years after he or she has advanced to candidacy.” Currently, he said, graduate students “tend to engage in a range of professional development activities -- writing papers to submit to journals, delivering papers at conferences, taking on additional teaching duties to broaden their teaching portfolio -- while writing their dissertation. Invariably this extends the time it takes a grad student to complete the dissertation (in those cases where he or she does complete the dissertation).”

With 5+2, students don’t work on professional development activities until after they finish their dissertations, Perin said. So those two years “can be spent revising dissertation material for publication or submission to conferences, developing new courses of their own or teaching in an interdisciplinary program, and conducting a national job search.”

Herbert said both philosophy and visual studies used 5+2 as a recruiting tool for this coming year’s graduate cohort. While visual studies' yield, or the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll, stayed flat, at about 40 percent, he said, philosophy's yield shot up from 40 percent to 75 percent. (Note: This sentence has been corrected from an earlier version to show that philosophy's yield increased while that of visual studies stayed flat.) He said visual studies was particularly suited for the kind of experimentation in dissertations that 5+2 encourages.

The fellowship or teaching assistantship stipend next year is $19,279 per year, plus $3,000 per summer. The program is being launched with a $2.7 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

History also has signed on to 5+2, though it won’t join the program -- which Herbert says will remain voluntary, by department -- until 2016.

Other programs, such as English, haven’t built consensus around the idea. But the arguments against 5+2 seem to center on the dissertation phase -- not course work “coverage,” which has been a major part of the national debate over time to degree.

Carole M. Burke, professor of English and director of the Humanities Core program, said she couldn’t speak for the department, but said there was concern among some about students “rushing” to finish their dissertations -- particularly those in, say, medieval studies or comparative literature, who may have to acquire significant foreign language skills to obtain their Ph.D.s.

Burke said she wasn’t too worried, but said that perhaps the five part of 5+2 should be flexible for those students who are working hard and making significant progress, but still need extra time.

Daniel Gross, associate professor of English and director of composition, had similar concerns. The plan might work for some English graduate students, he said, but others studying the Renaissance, for example, might need more time for Latin and Italian and using archives.

Impact on Jobs for Adjuncts

Some lecturers of composition have raised concerns that more assistant adjunct professors will mean fewer jobs for experienced, non-tenure-track faculty members, and decreased quality of instruction in the Humanities Core. Herbert said some of those fears are fueled by current cutbacks to lecturer positions, which he called highly unfortunate but totally unrelated to the 5+2 program, which won’t produce any new faculty members for several years. And graduate students from a variety of disciplines already are teaching composition, as the students in the program are set to do in the fourth year, he said.

Herbert also said the program would not decrease the number of available sections for composition lecturers to teach down the line, as assistant adjunct professors are only envisioned to teach the Humanities Core. As for quality of instruction, he said, only students with strong teaching records will be accepted as assistant adjunct professors.

Keith Danner, a lecturer of composition at Irvine and secretary of the campus’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated non-Senate faculty and librarians’ union, said he worried that the assistant adjunct professors weren’t part of any union, and would have no way to air grievances or otherwise better their working conditions.

He also said the new rank could “destabilize” appointments in the composition lecturers’ core down the line, in that “instead of having lots of lecturers who are very experienced, you end up with people who are less experienced. People often become good teachers, but they don’t start out as good teachers, necessarily.”

Ana Baginski, a graduate student in comparative literature, said she applauded attempts to offer students more funding. But she expressed concern that the program was apparently being driven by concerns about the job market, rather than pedagogical or research principles.

“Encouraging or, effectively, forcing students to finish graduate work in five years sounds good on paper, but in practice becoming the kind of rigorous and reflective researcher with an interesting project who would be hired for a tenure-track position at a major institution takes time and financial support, not speed,” she said in an email interview. “Students who don't have prior graduate training, who are coming in from years of work in other sectors and need time to adjust to academia, who support or want to have families, who want to change their area of research or just do thorough critical work will be disadvantaged by this new funding model (or, potentially, not even [be] considered).”

Outside Irvine, the program has at least one fan -- Russell A. Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University (which announced its own five-year humanities Ph.D. plan several years ago) and past president of the MLA. Berman chaired the MLA report calling for reduced time to degree.

He called Irvine’s version a “very promising step in the right direction.”

“During the [last two years] it offers young scholars the opportunity to enhance their teaching profiles -- absolutely crucial on today's academic job market,” Berman said. “It also provides a substantial incentive to complete the degree requirements within a reasonable time frame.”

Time will tell if the initiative succeeds, Berman said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised to see other, similar programs pop up elsewhere.


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