Let’s say a first-year Ph.D. student in German studies teaches a freshman seminar. By the time that German student earns his degree, pre-med majors in that long-ago seminar might also be called "Doctor."
Few believe the current model – in which humanities students often study for 8 or 10 years only to enter an uncertain academic job market – is smart or sustainable. While that conclusion isn’t a new one, the traditional blueprint has persisted.
Now the University of Colorado at Boulder is offering an alternative. Beginning next fall, students there can earn a Ph.D. in German studies in about half the time it might take to earn that degree elsewhere. The program has been approved by campus administrators and the Board of Regents and is likely to be finalized at the state higher education commission’s meeting this week.
The goal is to have students in and out in four years, Professor Ann Schmiesing said. Colorado’s program, which has been in development for almost half a decade, will admit two students a year and pair them with faculty mentors.
Students will spend two years focused on classwork, one year doing research (perhaps in Germany) and the final year writing their dissertation. Candidates will be encouraged to take on internships during summers to prepare for careers inside and outside of academe. Students might be steered toward "less onerous" dissertation topics or pursue digital publication, professors say, but the writing will adhere to university guidelines on length and rigor. The difference is in a lighter teaching burden and one-on-one mentoring, allowing more focus on classroom work earlier on in the program and more guidance on research and the dissertation.
Colorado administrators and others believe the program could be a model elsewhere, both in German and other humanities disciplines.
But the fact that this program is in German – a language fast losing its cachet in American high schools and colleges – is especially interesting. Just last month, the University of Pittsburgh announced it was suspending admissions  to its graduate programs in German. Other colleges have done the same – even shuttering entire departments . In fact, Colorado ditched its doctorate in the subject back in 1996.
Since doing away with that first Ph.D. program, Colorado has seen undergraduate enrollment in its German department boom. When student interest and faculty expertise suggested it might be time to reintroduce a doctoral degree, it was done with the very explicit goal of not mimicking what had already failed.
“What’s being eliminated are traditional German programs,” said John Stevenson, dean of Colorado’s graduate school. “We had one of those. We eliminated it. We want to reimagine what advanced graduate work in Germanic studies might be and I think [Colorado professors] have come up with it.”
David Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association and a history professor at Kalamazoo College, is similarly optimistic. Colleges should be able to deliver quality doctoral programs in a reasonable timeframe, he said.
“It’s crazy for people to be extended forever,” Barclay said, adding that he was speaking for himself and not the German Studies Association. “That’s just nuts. At some point somebody had to say something about that. And if the University of Colorado is doing that, then more power to them.”
Stephen Brockmann, the German Studies Association’s president and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, likes the idea behind Colorado’s program. He’s curious to see, however, whether students will be able to finish within such an ambitious timeframe.
“The four-year thing strikes me as awfully fast,” Brockmann said. “That’s the ideal, right? You want your students to go through quicker rather than slower. I just wonder if they can really do that in four years.”
Colorado professors are confident they can, and say there’s plenty of demand in business, government and NGOs for holders of high-level German degrees. But when students don’t earn a Ph.D. until after their 30th birthday, such careers might seem less attainable.
Carol Lynch is the senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization that has pushed for a greater focus on non-academic careers . Lynch was also Colorado’s graduate dean for 12 years, ending in 2004. Plans were already in place to phase out the German doctoral program when Lynch took over her post in Boulder.
Lynch said Colorado’s German department has always been focused on realistic career options for its students, perhaps the reason for its enrollment spike in recent years. The four-year Ph.D. is a logical next step in that direction, said Lynch, who generally rejects the argument that students need the better part of a decade to be worthy of a doctorate.
“One would ask what those students are doing in the ninth or tenth year,” she said. “A lot of science and engineering students finish in four years, and they’re not shabby degrees.”
Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, agrees. The MLA has called for foreign language programs to move beyond language and literature  and to embrace broad study of cultures, including politics, economics, social movements and more. A past president of her organization has advocated for shorter Ph.D. programs designed to prepare students for a variety of careers . To see such a program proposed at Colorado is encouraging, Feal said.
Of course, some humanities students finish their degrees well before Year 10. Schmiesing earned hers in three and a half years, and fellow Colorado professor Helmut Muller-Sievers received his after four years. But the consensus at Colorado is it’s well past time to make that the norm rather than the exception.
“It’s an effort on our part to shape the market,” Muller-Sievers said. “We hope students will see that as an alternative. We think that many graduate students in these long programs may not want to be there; they just see no alternative. I’ve met these students. You just could not counsel them because there was no possibility of doing this.”