The 5+2 Solution: Is a faster doctorate a better doctorate?

Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, has a terrific piece on wannabe PhDs in social sciences.

She reflects on the recent decision by Univ of California Irvine to increase the official duration of PhD programs from 5 years to 5+2 years:

“You finished your doctorate really fast!” The office manager of the University of California–Irvine School of Humanities was impressed as I forked over my completed and defended dissertation for their records. “Not really,” I said. “It’s been five years.” Five long years, if you asked me. “Exactly,” she said. “Fast.”

Welcome to academia, where five years to finish a humanities doctorate—coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation—is considered speedy. So speedy that a new program at my alma mater has raised hackles for encouraging graduate students to finish in a half-decade. (It also foists upon its postdocs what is possibly the worst job title in academia. More on that in a bit.)

Irvine’s program, dubbed “5+2,” begins with increased funding for five years—about $23,000 per year, including summers. (Traditional fellowships and teaching assistantships vary, but usually pay less, and do not include summer funding.) Once the student has finished the dissertation, she receives a two-year “postdoctoral” teaching position within the university while she at last casts herself into a barren, jobless hellscape with completed Ph.D. in hand. The idea, according to School of Humanities associate dean James D. Herbert, is to shorten the time to degree while lengthening the odds of securing gainful employment afterward. Students have “a three-year window of optimal employment prospects,” Herbert told Inside Higher Ed. “So they’re better off applying from a real academic position rather than being abarista at Starbucks.”

She says five years despite being too long is fine, but additional 2 years is just a waste:

As a graduate of UC–Irvine who finished in five years, secured a prestigious postdoc, and then still failed to get an academic job, I’m torn on whether 5+2 is a great idea or a misguided one. Or, more accurately, I’m fairly sold on the five and increasingly skeptical of the two.

UC–Irvine introduced its program in response to a larger conversation about the future of graduate school in a new landscape where the Ph.D. is often both the beginning and end of an academic career. Among the findings of a 2014 Modern Language Association report on the future of graduate study: It currently takes far too long to complete a humanities Ph.D.—the median completion time is anastounding nine(!) human Earth years.

Between seminars, comprehensives, and the dissertation proposal (which can take a while to be accepted), students often don’t begin their dissertations until they’re four or even five years in. Add in any extras a dissertation needs—knowledge of a new language, archival research—and you’re rounding year seven. Now add in any misstep whatsoever—uncooperative adviser, family tragedy—and suddenly you’re staring down a decade or more. I met people who were “working on their dissertations” when I arrived at UC–Irvine, and they were still “working on them” when I left.

The chief misstep with 5+2 isn’t the five. It’s the two.

I understand why it works like this, but still. Come on. There is no conceivable reason that medical doctors can go from pimply little undergrads to actual brain surgeons in less time than it takes to write a dissertation onDer grüne Heinrich. Someone who agrees is my former professor David Tse-Chien Pan, who sees many advantages to 5+2. (However, my old program is not one of the two, visual studies and philosophy, that have joined up.)


Another concern is that because departments will be “less likely to pick someone who wants to do intensive language study or theory-based work,” the 5+2 model will encourage subpar research. This might be true; it might not. (I wrote my own dissertation in about 2½ years, and it was good enough to be published by a top university press.) Even if it is true, though, this protest is also a product of the culture Pan is talking about—one that pushes the idea of a dissertation as a brilliant, groundbreaking Gesamtkunstwerk. Demanding more time to dissertate glorifies a particular ideal of advanced study that I’m not sure deserves it: the endlessly protracted super-project that is so difficult, so important, and takes so long that by the end its writer feels both entitled to a place in its field and unfit for any other type of work.

Hmm. Well said and worth thinking about.

Though, India’s PhD scene is far far away from such discussions. Here, the struggle is to have good rewarding PhD program in social sciences which is completely missing. Though, whatever  there is duration of these programs is a problem here as well.

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