The Time-to-Degree Conundrum

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 16, 2011

It's job-market season again, and for those who plan to hire new assistant professors, the usual embarrassment of riches awaits. For more than a generation now, job candidates have been hitting the market with amazing qualifications. Hiring committees routinely choose among applicants who have accomplished much, much more than their interviewers had at comparable stages of our own careers.

At the same time, though, we've been calling for reducing the time that graduate students take to complete their degrees. How can we square that imperative with our hiring practices?

Just about everyone agrees that graduate students—and indeed, academic culture as a whole—would benefit if our Ph.D. students could graduate in fewer years than they do now. Deans call loudly and frequently for streamlined degree programs, and many, if not most, graduate directors have been asked to figure out ways to reduce the amount of time students spend in graduate school.

Yet time to degree remains stubbornly high. It's lowest in the sciences, where students still take about seven years to earn a Ph.D., and highest in education, where doctoral students take about 12 years (though students earning education Ph.D.'s often work full time while they study). In the humanities, students average more than nine years to complete the Ph.D.

Graduate students take longer and longer to finish because we don't reward quick finishers with academic jobs. In fact, we do quite the opposite.

In their search for the best candidate to fill an opening, hiring committees privilege the kinds of achievements that can be attained only when graduate students stay in school for more time, not less. We offer the highest prizes—full-time faculty positions—to the ones who stay longer.

Let's compare two hypothetical new Ph.D.'s. The specs can be adjusted by field, but the gist of the difference should be clear.

Candidate A completed her Ph.D. at a rapid clip and has emerged from her program with a passel of recommendations attesting to the publishable quality of her dissertation and to her creativity, perspicacity, teaching ability, and enormous upside potential. Candidate B, who took three years longer, is also coming out bedecked with praise. She's done more varied and advanced teaching than Candidate A, and she has placed a couple of articles in leading journals in her field.

We would naturally expect Candidate B to have more to show for the extra years she spent in school, and we see as much in the form of her publications, enhanced teaching credentials, and (depending on what field you imagine her in) perhaps work on grants or even some administrative experience. That extra expectation is amply reasonable: If you take more time, you should do something useful with it.

What happens when hiring committees compare the two applicants? This is not a hypothetical question. Hiring committees find themselves presented with versions of this A-B comparison all the time. And if you look at the profiles of the assistant professors who get hired these days, you'll see that the nod almost always goes to those who look more like Candidate B.

In fact, many departments take it even further and hire assistant professors who have been out for two or three years or even longer. Some of these more experienced Ph.D.'s have had postdoctoral fellowships. Postdocs became the norm in the sciences during the 1970s, when an excess supply of job candidates led to the creation of what Paula Stephan, an economics professor at Georgia State University, calls "a holding tank" (one from which only the bigger fish emerge). Postdocs have now become increasingly common in other fields, where they serve the same purpose.

I've also seen departments hire midlevel assistant professors (who typically show up with an armful of publications and other achievements) and then encourage them to reset their tenure clocks backward. Although that adjustment is made postgraduation, it essentially converts an experienced faculty member back into a recently minted Ph.D., and thus contributes to the same overall trend. (You'd think that departments would instead bring such well-qualified new hires up for tenure early, but somehow that never happens.)

To be sure, junior faculty members are themselves complicit in such retrograde moves. Most of those who sacrifice years of experience make that decision in order to rise up the academic food chain, or move to a preferred geographical area, or both. But we can hardly blame them for choosing options that employers make available to them.

What does it mean for an institution to advertise an entry-level position and then place new Ph.D.'s on the same playing field with applicants who have years' more experience?

To begin with, it amounts to a preference for concrete achievement over raw potential. It also creates inexorable selective pressure in that direction. After a couple of years on the market, Candidate A gradually metamorphoses into Candidate B.

Choosing experience over possibility can result from the lure of achievement—and the achievements of today's graduate students are indeed considerable. But it can also result from a certain complacency. An emphasis on attainments over potential further implies that an applicant needs to have experience in order to get experience: a classic Catch-22 that is bridged by the willingness of departments to employ their student apprentices far past the point of simply training them.

Intentional or not, such practices send a disturbing message. Given that most graduate students won't get full-time academic jobs, it's more than cruel to force them to wait many years to find out whether they'll be part of the chosen few who do. To set up such a gantlet is thoughtless at best. But an alternative interpretation—advanced by Marc Bousquet, an associate professor at Santa Clara University (and a Chronicle blogger), in his book, How the University Works—is that the unspoken goal is to keep students around long enough for them to teach enough undergraduate courses or complete enough lab experiments to earn their keep, which is a venal scenario to contemplate.

Graduate school lasts too many years, and it's neither right nor fair to force our apprentices to wait longer than necessary to become full-fledged professionals. If we truly want graduate students to finish their degrees sooner and start their grown-up lives, then we have to honor that goal not only when we monitor their progress through a graduate program but also when we work on hiring committees. Only then can we personally endorse the actual results of a shortened time to degree. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a contradiction—a collective hypocrisy, even—from which we have no right to avert our eyes.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at