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Humanities & Sciences encourages departments to create five-year Ph.D. track

Humanities departments have been requested to submit proposals to redesign their doctoral programs to shorten the time it takes to obtain a degree to about five years on average.

The request for proposals sent out by Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences, and Debra Satz, associate dean, was in direct response to a request for restructuring the humanities doctoral program at Stanford submitted by an ad hoc group of senior humanities faculty led by Russell Berman, professor in German studies and comparative literature.

In the request, department chairs and directors of doctoral programs are asked to consider “restructuring curricular offerings … modifying examinations, improving the quality of mentoring … and revising dissertation expectations.”

A national conversation

According to research conducted by the National Science Foundation, the average time to degree in Ph.D. programs now hovers around 10 years (Graph courtesy of NSF ‘Time to degree of U.S. research doctorate recipients’ report”).

Berman said that the discussion on redesigning the humanities doctoral program is a nationwide effort, and concerns over decreasing opportunities for tenure-track positions are driving the talks.

“There’s been a massive shrinkage in the academic job market since the crisis of 2008,” Berman said.

Gabriella Safran, director of the Division of Language and Cultural Literature (DLCL) and one of the senior faculty members who worked with Berman last spring to send the request for restructuring to the dean’s office, said that with a smaller window of opportunity, shortening the time to degree will prove useful for graduates pursuing academic careers.

“Students who get out of their Ph.D. programs sooner are more likely to get the tenure-track jobs that are kind of the prize that most go into graduate school wanting,” Safran said.

Five-year Ph.D. optional for departments

Departments are not required to submit a proposal, and submissions will be department-specific and reviewed as such.

Saller said that while some departments, like Slavic Language and Literature in the DLCL, are excited to submit proposals, some are wary of changing the traditional curriculum.

“I know that some faculty worry that shortening the time to degree is just a cover for doing a much less good job, and I don’t think that that’s necessarily true,” Saller said.

Though Saller is cautious of major restructuring efforts such as turning a single research-based dissertation into a collection of scholarly articles on various topics, he believes that not all doctoral programs need to take eight to 10 years to complete.

Within the Slavic Languages and Literature Department, Safran said changes have already been made to allow for a more efficient doctoral process, such as allowing students to complete teaching obligations in the second year instead of the third to dedicate more time to the dissertation.

After the Ph.D.

Shortening the time to degree, though beneficial for tenure and academic careers, also brings up the issue that many humanities doctoral recipients go into public sector careers where a traditional doctoral curriculum may not be as directly applicable.

Berman said that students are not fully aware of the various teaching, nonprofit and governmental career options available with a doctoral degree in the humanities.

While the request for proposals states that submissions must address increasing awareness and guidance in choosing non-academic careers, Saller said that tackling this issue is difficult because “students don’t know ahead of time” what career track they will pursue.

“By far the great majority of our students coming into the doctoral program are thinking about academic careers, and some other kind of career may be a default,” Saller said.

Incentivizing shorter time to degree

Departments will have a funding incentive to help reduce the time to degree by providing summer funding for proposals that contain “clear benchmarking and a mechanism for the monitoring of results.”

Safran said that while the Slavic Department’s latest completed dissertation took seven years — less than the national average — had the student received summer funding he may have only taken six years to finish without having to split time working a full-time job over the summer.

Even with the incentive and value of restructuring the doctoral program, Safran is concerned that speeding up the tim  to degree would make it harder for students to take as many electives as they do now.

“We give our graduate students traditionally more freedom than they have at other institutions,” Safran said. “I am concerned that this would mean that we would take away some of the useful opportunities that they have for intellectual exploration outside their traditional disciplines.”

However, Berman said that offering too many electives leads to students taking more time than necessary to complete a Ph.D. That is why he recommends a more coordinated first-year curriculum that can set students on track much sooner.

While the discussion of redesigning the humanities doctoral program continues to be a national debate, Saller said that at Stanford, the revision process of the departmental proposals will be strict since there are risks to being one of the only universities enacting such a change.

“We’d like to be leaders but we don’t want to be foolhardy,” Saller said.

The first round of proposals is being accepted by Feb. 1, 2013, and will apply to students entering in the 2013-14 academic year. A second round of proposals will be accepted by Sept. 1, 2013, for the following school year.

About Ileana Najarro

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.
  • Heather Furnas

    This is excellent news. The sciences have been producing neurosurgeons operating on people’s brains in the time that it takes to get a PhD in the humanities. Louis Menand*’s book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of our Time), delivers an excellent argument on why humanities PhD tracks should be shortened. A more intense, focused course of study, as physicians undertake in their medical school and residency years, would allow the humanities PhD candidates to move on with their careers. Electives can always be studied as continuing studies, just as those of us in the sciences do.
    *professor of English at Harvard