It seems universities everywhere are looking to cut down the amount of time it takes to earn a graduate degree. A story in Inside Higher Ed reports on the latest effort:
[Russell Berman] and five other professors at the university have produced a paper that calls for a major rethinking at Stanford — a reduction in the time taken to graduate by Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, and preparing them for careers within and beyond the academy. The professors at Stanford aren’t just talking about shaving a year or so off doctoral education, but cutting it down to four or five years — roughly half the current time for many humanities students.
This includes getting an MA (they suggest a two year review to decide “which students will advance to candidacy, and which will receive a terminal M.A.”). Now I can’t remember where I read it, but I believe that the average time to Ph.D. in anthropology is roughly what they say it is in the humanities: about nine years. How feasible is it that this time could be cut in half?
Part of their plan involves making better use of the summers: “Unfunded summers impede progress.” I can see how this might have speeded things up for me, maybe shaving off a year or even two, since not only would I not have had to work summers, but funding would have made it possible to start my fieldwork sooner. Lets say students receive full funding and aren’t required to teach (as I was) and I think one could go from an average of 9 years to 7. Of course, the reality is that funding is getting cut these days so I remain skeptical that we’ll see many universities increasing funding even if it means getting students out sooner.
Can we get it below 7? At my four-field program I took three years of courses. The only way I can see that being cut down is if they eliminated the four-field approach. That would be unfortunate. While I resented it at the time, I’ve really come to appreciate my four-field training in subsequent years. Actually five fields because we also had a visual anthropology program with its own requirements. But even if we are talking about a straight cultural anthropology program anthropologists still need pretty broad training. Usually we need additional courses on the language, culture and history of the region we intend to study – often outside of our own department. Language study alone can take at least an extra year (or two). On top of that we might need to brush up on an area of study related to our research topic, such as immunology, second language education, environmental science, etc.
And then there is fieldwork. I’ve seen some recent Ph.D. thesis from universities which have instituted drastically reduced time-to-Ph.D. constraints and you could really see it in the mismatch between the theory and the ethnography. It might be possible to do fieldwork in a few months if you’ve already spent a year or two somewhere during grad school, but I don’t think it works for graduate research. And if you don’t get a chance to really “be there” as a graduate student when will you have that opportunity? As a professor trying to get tenure?
Three years of course work, a year of language study, a year in the field, plus at least a year or two for exam prep, proposal writing, etc. not to mention the dissertation… I just don’t see how anyone could do it in less then seven years unless they were doing the research in their own backyard, already spoke the language, and had already gotten more than enough specialized training in the culture and topics they are studying before starting an Anthropology degree. And remember, seven years is predicated upon 12 months of full funding for each of those seven years. Have to work summers and part-time to make ends meet and we get back up to the current average…