Many universities across Canada are attempting to reduce times to completion for graduate student programs. At my own university, there have been numerous policy changes that are aimed at reducing program lengths. While masters programs are usually described as one- or two-year programs, and PhD programs are described as three- or four-year programs, average times to completion are often much longer than that. Certainly, I did my bit to increase these averages when I was a student, and I suspect many other readers of this blog have as well. So do we really need to reduce times to completion? I’ll argue that often, it isn’t in the best interests of students to shorten the length of their programs, and nor are university policies effective in doing so.
My own experience demonstrates a few benefits and causes of longer program times. My master’s program took months longer than it could have because I collaborated on and spearheaded several side-projects that were only tangentially related to my thesis. Certainly this increased the time it took to complete my thesis, but I also gained experience in writing, analyses, collaboration and publication that were critical to my development and marketability as an academic. I considered the extra months I spent on my thesis research to be a small price to pay for this experience.
The completion of my PhD program was delayed for two reasons. One reason was that I spent many months learning statistical techniques that I have since used and taught perhaps hundreds of times since then. There is no question that the time I devoted to this learning has been critical to my career.
The second reason that my PhD took some time was that I gave birth to a darling, beautiful, and colicky baby a couple of years into my program; i.e., life got in the way of my graduate program. And indeed, in my experience, this is perhaps the most common reason for delays in graduate student’s programs; students take contracts, start careers, get married and care for children. Many delays that are caused by these events are not bad in the long run, and neither are they necessarily avoidable. Indeed, if we are to be academics, we can expect to spend more than a decade as university students; it seems unreasonable to expect or even want students to forego all other elements of their life until after graduation.
So I think that many of the key reasons that graduate programs take longer than universities expect have nothing to do with university’s policies, and indeed, even the actions of student’s supervisors. Perhaps it is just as well that, as a result, policies aimed at reducing completion times are unlikely to be particularly effective. Gaining experience in additional publication opportunities, jobs and contracts, and background research all contribute to our students’ eventual success, while devoting time to families and personal activities contribute to our students’ well-being. Let’s focus more on the quality of student’s graduate programs, rather than how long it takes to complete them.