Since when is faster necessarily better?

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"I'm late! I'm late!"

In “Fast Tracking a Ph.D.,” Judy Beth Morris assures us that earning a Ph.D. in three years is possible.  While university presidents and deans of graduate schools everywhere will be thrilled to read her article, I’m not sure why the rest of us should be excited–just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s desirable.  Morris explains how she earned a Ph.D. in Communications in under 3 years:  careful mapping of coursework, a supportive advisor, and above all, a relentless focus on the dissertation:

It’s essential to zero in on a dissertation topic as soon in the process as you can. I figured out pretty quickly what I wanted to do with my dissertation; I had the first chapter by the end of my first semester. The professor of the film history class I took that first semester assured me that it was a worthwhile dissertation topic: the “extended adolescence” of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy films and how and why the films resonated with Depression-era audiences. I knew that I would have fun researching this topic, so getting it done was not going to be a problem. Thus, the “dissertation topic” piece fell into place for me.  (Ed. note:  why the scare quotes around “dissertation topic?”)

Another crucial piece of the puzzle involves working on the dissertation as part of your coursework. I was able finish the bulk of the work while I was taking classes because I chose my classes with the end project in mind: my goal was to use class papers as eventual chapters in the dissertation. This worked much better than I could have hoped; I seemed to choose just the right seminar classes with research paper assignments that would allow me to cover the different facets of my topic. For a cultural studies seminar, I examined how Rooney’s adolescent films illustrate the American dream of upward mobility. In a qualitative research seminar, I interviewed members of the “historical audience,” people in their 70s and 80s, and I later wrote about how their recollections hinted at why the Andy Hardy films were so popular. In a speech-communication seminar on textual analysis, I analyzed the rhetoric of masculinity in the father-son talks in the films.

During my first year of classes, I wrote two and a half chapters (the interviews would have to be expanded and completed later); my second year yielded five papers that became chapters. I was able to complete about four-fifths of the dissertation as papers for seminars.

Also in her favor:  Morris entered her Ph.D. program with a Master’s degree already, and she was 30 when she started–two things that augur well for speedier completion.  I’m sure Morris was popular with her graduate school dean, since Ph.D. programs are being accelerated everywhere.  But let’s be clear about the reasons why graduate deans are under pressure to crank out Ph.D.s in three years:  it’s because the university doesn’t want to fund graduate education adequately, it’s not because the Ph.D. on the other end is necessarily the equivalent of a Ph.D. that took 5 or 7 or 9 years in the making.  (How can it be?)  My department is currently developing a Ph.D. program, and we are under orders to make sure that it will take no more than three years post-Master’s degree (as well as be “revenue neutral.”  Hah!)  I also take issue with Morris’s throwaway claim that “[a] humanities-centric project can more feasibly be completed in three years than one in the sciences”–although that’s perhaps the topic of another post. 

I admire Morris’s singleminded focus on the Andy Hardy oeuvre–but, speaking for myself, I would have gone out of my mind with boredom at having to spend three years on a single decade of American history and one series in one genre of film.  (I fully recognize that my disciplinary bias is showing here–guilty, as charged!)  In a program such as Morris’s, where’s the breadth of training, or the opportunity to take an English or an Anthropology class that might have opened up fascinating insights into her research?  Shouldn’t a Ph.D. indicate that a person has achieved a certain level of erudition and sophistication?  Faster Ph.D.s aren’t better Ph.D.s–they’re just faster.  Moreover, they serve the needs of the granting institution, not the needs of the students or the departments that might consider offering them a faculty position.

Morris’s article reminds me that I’ve heard some graduate student anxiety about not finishing “fast enough,” because they believe for some reason that they’ll be penalized for “taking too long” to get through grad school.  This, as far as I can see, is nonsense.  So long as a student demonstrates that that year of language training in Portugal or the archaeological dig in Wales is something they’ve incorporated into their intellectual agenda broadly speaking–why would we see the extra time spent on an honest intellectual project as “wasteful?”  In evaluating possible future colleagues, my department has seen these sorts of activities as evidence of intellectual seriousness and commitment to writing the best, most informed dissertation possible.  Extra languages and interdisciplinary training are good things that take time.  In a roundtable discussion last weekend, I made the point that speeding up Ph.D. programs in History would have the effect of discouraging archival research in favor of consulting only published or on-line primary sources, because poking around state and local archives takes time.  Writing a complex and well-researched dissertation that makes an original contribution takes time. 

Who decided that time was the enemy to the development of human knowledge, and what do we lose when we accept this vision of intellectual life?  Faculty who earn Ph.D.s in three years are all part of a vision of higher education in which Master’s degree programs are specifically marketed to adults with busy lives and full-time jobs (“Think you don’t have time for a Master’s degree?  Try our on-line M.B.A.!”) and undergraduates think it’s reasonable to work 35 hours a week, party with their friends four nights a week, and earn 18 credits per semester.  You might be able to pull it off, but don’t kid yourself that you’ve earned the equivalent credential to someone else who put the time in the old-fashioned way.

0 thoughts on “Since when is faster necessarily better?

  1. It, Rad Readr? And, BA to PhD, while TAing? In the US? In the humanities? I’m aware of lots of 3 year programs but they presuppose the M.A. Maybe I’m getting field-o-centric (to my field).

    But perhaps one could think of these 3 year BA to PhD programs like the old fashioned M.A.’s with theses, which were really solid back in my grandmother’s day. The upside would be fewer ramen eating years in graduate school.

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  2. I think one thing we are increasingly seeing at my campus is non-admission of students whose interests in the research side of the PhD would take longer than 5 years to realize. E.g., they want to study something that requires three languages and they can only show one of them, and people on the admissions committee say that they are unprepared to study the topic and an otherwise strong candidate gets turned down, the explicit reason being “unprepared” but the implicit one being “we aren’t prepared to support that language study on our clock and our budget.” This problem will probably kill medieval history on our campus over the mid-range. There is a certain irony to all of this happening just as the big push in the profession is for transnational and comparative projects.

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  3. Servetus–I agree entirely with your assessment, and it’s extremely troubling to me. I’m afraid that this push for speed (and typical U.S. carelessness about languages) is going to further privilege modern and U.S. History. And precisely as you say–it’s an incredibly imperialist maneuver to try to do “comparative” or “transnational” history in only English!

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