Time to Degree

If you haven’t had a chance to check out Dimitri Nakassis’s blog post earlier this week at his Aegean Prehistory blog, you should take the time now. He takes on the issue of time to completion for Ph.D. with particular reference to Classics and applies Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat arbitrary 10,000 hour rule. He argued that, despite the problematic nature of Gladwell’s proclamation, in Classics, 10,000 hours is a reasonable length of time necessary to produce a substantial dissertation (he calculated 10,000 hours is about 2.74 years). This is on top of the time a student will spend acquiring mastery of Greek and Latin which he suggests is another 10,000 hours of time (or approximately another 3 years). All told, then, the Ph.D. in Classics should run close to 6 years in an American institution. (I might add that a Ph.D. in Ancient History should take around the same length of time even if we allow that most Ancient History programs do not emphasize languages at quite the intensity, any time gained in that area is lost to methods courses and various discipline specific seminars.) As a result, Ancient History and Classics are among the most time consuming Ph.D.s to complete within the academy.

This argument got me thinking, once again, about the unintended consequences of shortening time to degree and various recent efforts to either accelerate or dilute the Ph.D. programs in the humanities. Putting aside the observation that more people receive Ph.D.s in the humanities than there are jobs available, and shortening the time to degree alone will do little to remedy that situation, I have a few observations:

1. Ph.D. as a Professional Degree. From its introduction in the U.S. in the late-19th century the Ph.D.  – at least in History – was considered a professional degree designed to control access to our increasingly professionalized academy. In other words, lacking any certification like the bar or medical boards, holding the Ph.D. became the marker for professional standing in most of the humanities. Thus, Ph.D. programs served to establishing and perpetuate the professional credentials in our fields. We should be wary of any efforts to weaken the professional core of our disciplines from individuals outside our discipline. Pressures to change our professional credentialing can be seen as part of larger process of deskilling and deprofessionalizing the academy.

2. Ph.D. Programs as More than Professionalizing. The legacy of Ph.D. programs as professional programs is that the individual is seen as the most important outcome of the program. If the individual cannot be hired or does not continue to contribute to the profession (defined disciplinarily) then this is an outcome that does not coincide with the historical goals of this degree in the humanities. Some programs, to be sure, have begun to emphasize the potentials for employment outside the discipline for their graduates, and shift their programs accordingly, and this is a good thing as long as professional outcome for these students more or less aligns with the professional training of the faculty in these programs. After all, medical doctors should not be training cooks and engineers are probably not ideal for training the next generation of poets. 

This tendency to emphasize professional outcomes of Ph.D. programs is historically understandable, of course. It does tend to overlook one of the byproducts of these programs: new knowledge. The dissertation is more than just a tool for professional credentialing, but an actual contribution to human and disciplinary knowledge. Both the work of the academy and the work of the discipline and profession occurs just as much in Ph.D. programs as among credentialed professionals. In fact, the Ph.D. programs often serve as incubators for ideas which accelerates their development in the humanities. Enforcing time to completion may undermine the potential of these programs as part of the larger knowledge producing ecosystem of the American academy.

I know I’ve used this comparison in the past, but some aspect of the Ph.D. program is like minor league baseball. These programs are both the training ground for the profession, but also share most of the characteristics of the profession, just like Single-A ball is not the same as the major leagues, and not all Single-A players are promised a position in the major leagues, but minor league ball does produce baseball and ensures that the game continues to have a grassroots presence in communities and developing players have a chance to refine their skills. It has always struck me as odd that more people are not outraged about the minor league baseball system considering the outcry among academics for a similar problem.  

3. Ph.D. Programs as Pioneers. Finally, we should recognize that the graduate education tends to depend on the “flipped classroom” and “learning by doing” which are key aspects of many efforts to reform undergraduate education. Graduate education so often relies on the co-development of specialization between the graduate advisor (“the guide on the side”) and the student. This process takes time and is immensely valuable for both the student and the research faculty who advises them. Accelerating the process of graduate education runs the risk of weakening the development of specialized knowledge. If we accept that educational practices that cultivate the development of knowledge both among students and faculty are a priority for education all levels, it would seem problematic to work counter to this at the graduate level where so much of these practices developed.

I don’t mean to suggest that these observations eliminate all concerns that surround the increasingly long time to completion for graduate students in the humanities. I recognize, of course, that fellowships and teaching assistantships regularly pay below the poverty line for these students. And graduate students are often asked to do more than just focus on their studies and teach courses which slow their progress to degree. At the same time, I fear that our highly practical and humane approach to reforming graduate education cares a bit too much for the individual product and not enough about the intricate ecosystem that our current process embodies.  

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