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Careers Café

Should we try to reduce graduate program times to completion?


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.

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  1. Andrew Park / May 8, 2013 at 14:48

    Back in the (very-long-ago) day, the standard PhD program in a British University was three years. My PhD supervisor had his doctorate in hand by the age of 25, and then proceeded to a 40-year academic career.

    He was able to do this because a core assumption of the “elitist” English system of the period was that your undergraduate education was preparation enough for research. Also, the money woudl run out after three years and in the UK of that time, you would have had to go out and get a job, finished or not.

    Fast forward to modern Canada, and the otions are more flexible. Provided that there is a source of money, you can spin out that graduate degree for quite a long period. Which is just as well, because we now load students with heavy course loads because undergraduate work is no longer conidered adequate preparation for a graduate career.

    Nicola looks on this as a potentially good thing, since it allows one to becaome a more rounded and complete scholar.

    I’m going to respectfully suggest that, for every well-rounded scholar, there are probably 5 struggling scholars living on the margins or below the poverty line, desperately juggling poorly paid part-time work with the demands of completing an acceptable thesis. Many drop out, never to be heard of again, while others are forced to rush to completion before university-set deadlines expire.

    In an industrialized higher education system that has seen substantial grade inflation, there may not be much that we can do about preparing students for graduate work before they begin their programs. But we can, and in my opinion, ought to adjust our expectations of what can be accomplished during a graduate degree. Excessively complex research projects coudl be simplified. Course loads can and should be reduced, focusing on what is needed to allow the student to pursue their research program.

    As for becoming a well-rounded scholar, isn’t that a life-long learning project in which we are all engaged?

  2. Colette / May 8, 2013 at 15:11

    Well said, Nicola. While reduced program times might serve universities, in many areas, they do a disservice to the student. In my field, those who take longer to complete usually gather much more experience in teaching and research than those who speed through, making them much more attractive on the job market.

  3. Jay / May 28, 2013 at 19:28

    I found this blog to be both charming and disturbing. Against the background of frustration and outraged expressed by PhD students in response to the article on completion rates (University Affairs, 6 February 2013), the fact that it is charming makes it even more disturbing. I get that in order for Ponzi schemes to function, someone familiar, sympathetic and credible has to announce that s/he has benefited from the system. Can someone please tell me: what’s the difference between Wall Street bankers and brokers promoting a system where people buy mortgages that they can’t afford for houses that are worth less that they are agreeing to pay, and University administrators and professors encouraging students to do graduate degrees that will take at least twice as long to complete as students have been led to believe, when there is a near-60% chance they will never complete the degree and a 60%-plus chance that they will never get the job that the degree qualifies them for if they do complete it?

  4. Mari / November 28, 2013 at 17:29

    I appreciate your thoughts and perspective on length of graduate programs. I feel a lot of shame for not completing my thesis within the four years. My Master’s thesis took much, much longer than anticipated as I proposed a mixed method study, which I found out after I completed a rough draft of my thesis that I took on a PhD project. Throughout my thesis work, I was working as an independent consultant, which allowed me to gain more experience and the opportunity to apply my skills and knowledge learned in my coursework. At times, I have been extremely hard on myself for not completing my Master’s within the allotted time. However, I feel that I got so much more out of my program. I attended and participated in as many professional development activities that I would not had the opportunity if I finished earlier and was in the workforce. My social networks and contacts in my field have increased in breadth and depth. Because my thesis project required me to do quantitative and qualitative research methods, I feel confident in my research skills and knowledge. When I step out into the workforce, I feel very prepared and confident in my skills and abilities, due to the time I spent in my Master’s program.

    Thank you for validating my choice of spending more time in my Master’s program!

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