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The Associate

Today’s PhD students face more pressure

The typical PhD funding package is for four or five years but the typical PhD takes six or seven.


It has been said that to play pool well is a sign of a misspent youth. Or, in my case, of a doctoral degree. Maybe that amounts to the same thing. I got quite good at pool in years four to six of my PhD. When grad students ask me how long my degree took, I squirm. “Seven-plus years. But really, just four. Once I got down to it, I actually got through very quickly, in a way.” I spent much of that time finding excuses to do more research, making outlines, bartending and playing pool. I didn’t write. One day, archaeologists will undoubtedly trace Jesus’s missing years to a PhD in religious studies.

Today’s doctoral students are likely to feel more pressure to complete than Jesus and I did. Universities want students in, done, and gone. It’s good for the student, it demonstrates that the program is dynamic and efficient, and it helps attract future applicants. Still, it’s an odd business model:

“We appreciate the thousands upon thousands of dollars you give us each year for the (often decreasing) amount of service we provide you – but please stop, and if you don’t, we’ll make you stop.”

We’ve developed ways to encourage timely doctoral completion. Occasionally, an entire element of a program will be lopped off, such as comprehensive exams. This is the only strategy that could conceivably be called a carrot rather than a stick – if you accept the maxim that education is the only commodity for which consumers are happy to get less for their money.

More often, efforts are made to shoehorn parts of the PhD program into shorter periods of time. The problem is that this tends to address the program’s early, structured components – coursework, comps, thesis proposal – but not the later, unstructured ones – researching and writing of the thesis – where students are most likely to get bogged down.

The university’s most entrenched method of encouraging quick completion is to limit the years of graduate support: students will see the end of funding approach and will work to complete their degree by then. While it makes sense that students not be funded indefinitely, it is hard not to miss the fact that, in my field at least, the typical PhD funding package is for four or five years but the typical PhD takes six or seven.

My university has become so insistent that its PhD is a four-year degree that it has taken to discouraging the allocation of provincial graduate scholarships to students entering their fifth year, even though such students are eligible under provincial guidelines. As a graduate chair in history, I don’t know what to do with that: as long as the norm in my field remains a dissertation of 300 or so pages, our program can’t simply start calling for 150-page ones. Our doctoral program can either be one that conforms to the standards of the discipline or a four-year one, but it is not obvious that it can be both.

Doctoral students don’t much worry when entering their programs about the disparity between the length of funding and the average length of degree: they are confident they will do better than average. Plus, the part-time work they are doing for the university pays so well that they assume they can find work to support themselves in a post-funding period if necessary. But TA work – this year paying $42.75 an hour at my university – will be closed to them then. They will find that it would take many years of contract teaching and postdocs, and even deep into a fulltime position, before they reach that hourly rate in academe again.

In The World According to Garp, the title character’s son famously asks what a “gradual student” is, and Garp replies that it’s somebody who gradually realizes they don’t want to be a student anymore. That’s such a good line that it’s easy to assume it’s true. But nowadays when doctoral students complete “gradually” it is more often because their discipline still requires a dissertation that cannot be completed within their funding term, so to make ends meet they end up contract teaching – the sort of contracts, incidentally, which they’re assured are obligatory stepping stones to full-time positions.

I can’t pretend that’s my own story. My doctoral missing years were defined less by economic need than by procrastination, perfectionism and pool. Things turned around only when I realized I was paying greater respect to the work I was doing for others than to the PhD that was to be an investment in myself. Yet Garp’s line still seems wrong. I put down the pool cue and picked up the pen not because I stopped valuing being a student, but because I started to again.

Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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  1. John Osborne / October 8, 2014 at 10:00

    Those of us who completed doctorates in the UK can only shake our heads in wonder at all the “extra” hoops that we demand of Canadian students. Four years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time for completion of a Ph.D. if you eliminate the coursework and comprehensive exams that we continue to insist upon.

  2. JCVeletta / October 9, 2014 at 09:30

    Who in there right mind will respect a 4 year Ph.D? One of my prof once said she will not even look at a 5 year Ph.D.

    A good Canadian/U.S Ph.D takes about 7-8 years to complete. Here is the breakdown:
    3 years of course work
    1 year of comprehensive exams
    1 year to write up and defend your proposal
    3 years to collect data (assuming it is original research) and write-up your dissertation.

    The Canadian model is highly respected worldwide as oppose to the 3 year Ph.D in the U.K. Do not compromise the Canadian Ph.D please. I take my hats off to Canadians who do their Ph.Ds from one of the U15 universities.

  3. Alan MacEachern / October 10, 2014 at 09:00
  4. K Gallagher / October 10, 2014 at 09:30

    To JCVeletta:

    As a PhD student who will be defending their PhD next week (It took 4 years to get to this point and I’ve secured a tenure track position for January 1st), I cringe at thinking students should endure three years of coursework and an entire year of comprehensive exams! The coursework I took was not the reason I obtained my position but my research was. The courses acted as basic a foundation. Any specific information I needed was built upon independently through research projects and my own learning.

  5. JCVeletta / October 11, 2014 at 10:30

    To Gallagher,
    Consider yourself very lucky. You are probably in a scientific field. But I stand for a Ph.D where the student is given a comprehensive education via course work and comp exams. There is no substitute for the Canadian model. It is highly respected worldwide.