How to Cut Time to Degree

Alan O'Rourke, Creative Commons

April 05, 2017

Today’s critics of doctoral education aim their rapiers in many directions, but most of them are pointed at two hard truths: It takes too long to get a Ph.D., and there aren’t enough professorships for those who do.

Those two facts need to be faced together. For years, says John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame, "there was the sense that ‘it’s fine, no problem’ for graduate students to stay seven or eight years — and then not get an academic job."

That belief is changing, but not the facts that drive it. How can we build a graduate program so that students can finish their doctorates before they reach middle age, and also be prepared for a diversity of careers?

Reformers have tilted at the time-to-degree problem in the past, and come away frustrated. Carrots haven’t worked: Given extra financial support, students have taken the money and simply stayed longer. Sticks don’t do the trick either: Threats of punishment usually fail to speed students’ progress, and faculty and administrators have proved understandably unwilling to ratchet up the penalties. Who really wants to expel a student who’s stuck?

Brandeis University, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, has experimented successfully with an unusual carrot with strings attached: Students sign a commitment to finish within a prescribed time period, and their advisers sign along with them. That model suggests that the answer may lie in some combination of carrot and stick.

McGreevy’s administrative team at Notre Dame has tackled the problem in a similar spirit. The "5+1" program proposes a solution grounded in pedagogy. It’s a worthy and very promising attempt to meet one of the most vexing ethical challenges facing any graduate school.

The program’s name refers to a big carrot: Instead of a stipend, doctoral students at Notre Dame who finish in five years get an extra year of full support at a regular salary, with benefits. The stick is that if students don’t finish in five years, funding for the sixth year is by application. It isn’t guaranteed.

Notre Dame isn’t the only university to offer extra time in this way. Vanderbilt University provides a one-year, full-time lectureship to students who finish in five years, and the University of California at Irvine offers a two-year term as a clinical — i.e., teaching-centered — assistant professor.

The Vanderbilt and Irvine programs have their virtues, starting with the simple fact that they encourage doctoral students to finish sooner. What makes Notre Dame’s version exemplary?

  • First, it focuses on professional development. Sure the extra year’s salary is important. But more crucially, students get a university-supported year of career building, enabled by a reduced teaching load and a special professional-development budget for each graduate. At Notre Dame, then, the extra year isn’t so much a teaching job as an invitation to a newly minted Ph.D. to think about what comes next. If the new graduate is looking beyond academe, an off-campus internship — in a different city, or a different country — can replace half a year’s teaching. And graduates can apply to academic jobs at the same time — the goal is bridge-building, not bridge-burning.
  • Second, the Notre Dame program is remarkable for its integration. The five-year goal — marked from the point at which students begin graduate study — applies to all arts and sciences disciplines. The university’s graduate students are socialized to expect to finish in five years, and faculty teach toward that goal. It’s for all students, not just the exceptional or the precocious ones. For McGreevy, the guiding question to departments was, "Have you built a program so that a student who’s good, but not unbelievably good, can finish in five years?"

A five-year degree starts with annual funding packages that cover students for 12 months at a time, not just nine months of the academic year. Year-round support is commonplace in the sciences, but not in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. If graduate school is to be a time-limited, end-focused pursuit, then programs have to free their students from the annual scramble for summer money. Twelve-month support especially helps students who need to develop language proficiencies — they typically use the summer funding to do that.

But a five-year Ph.D. requires more than committed graduate students. It demands commitment from professors, too.

Perhaps the most important ingredient of Notre Dame’s 5+1 program is the faculty commitment to marking students’ progress — and helping them reach the benchmarks on the way to the degree. Graduate programs at Notre Dame aim to get students into the dissertation by the halfway mark in the program. "A lot of the planning went into this part," said McGreevy in a recent interview.

Before the program became policy, departments reflected on their pre-dissertation requirements. They became "more intentional" in their course offerings, McGreevy said, and experimented with linking and sequencing courses in rotation. Some have also encouraged team-teaching of larger-scoped topics (for example, a course on "colonialism" instead of the colonial stage of a given country).

The 5+1 program was formally instituted at Notre Dame last year. In the planning phase, the dean’s office asked programs to examine their requirements during the comprehensive-exam year — including the teaching requirements students face. Some departments rethought the structure of their comprehensive exams. The English and history departments reduced the number of required fields covered by the exams. At the same time, they each added one field specifically linked to a student’s proposed dissertation topic, and another section based on teaching, in which candidates present a syllabus and defend it.

The last mile to the five-year degree is the steepest, because it contains the dissertation. History departments nationwide in recent months have engaged in particularly fractious debate around the shape and scope of the dissertation in recent years, so I was particularly interested in how Notre Dame’s history department was handling the challenge. The solution, said department chair Patrick Griffin in an email, is "pretty simple," but it’s pretty demanding at the same time.

"We work on teaching them how to work," said Griffin. The program focuses on "a few key points" in each student’s course of study. "The first is getting the proposal done and defended. We keep a tight rein on deadlines." (The proposal is due in October of the third year.)

"We then focus on how to do the research," said Griffin. Students "start in the library, so the archival visits can be as productive as possible."

Next comes "the transition from research to writing," said Griffin. Professors encourage students to write — "even before they feel ready to do so," he said — because that strategy avoids the pitfall of perfectionism and "gets them thinking early on about broad themes and narrative structure."

"We also tell them that writing is a daily discipline," Griffin said. "Advisers let students know that they have to hold themselves accountable on a daily basis for pages and word counts, and that this discipline can stand them well throughout a career."

None of that discipline is necessarily obvious to graduate students. "They see unlimited amounts of time — time that can suck away tangible goals," Griffin said.

I was struck by the repetition of the word "we" in Griffin’s description. When professors work together to develop a course of instruction, students get a more coherent picture of what they need to do. Such collaboration is a rare thing, especially at the graduate level.

Detail-and-deadline-oriented advising continues for doctoral students in history right through chapter and draft deadlines, and through that key fifth year. "It means," said Griffin, "that advisers have to be more engaged."

Indeed. I’ve described the department’s process of dissertation advising in some detail because it’s critical to bringing students’ dissertations into port by Year 5 — and because it’s so different from the usual solitary practices of advisers.

With a plan like this, Notre Dame has spotlighted the "school" part of graduate school. The 5+1 program depends on more than setting deadlines — it requires hands-on teaching by professors who seek out students instead of waiting for them to drop by.

Yes, Notre Dame is rich. (The university ranks in the nation’s top 25 in endowment dollars per student.) The institution’s wealth surely helped them to build this model.

But the program’s value depends not so much on dollars as attitude. What separates Notre Dame’s 5+1 program from its competitors is the active and concerted commitment to teaching that’s built into it. If we want graduate students to finish sooner, we have to teach them better. Together.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.