Reducing Time to Degree in Philosophy Doctoral Programs (guest post)


The median time-to-degree for a PhD in philosophy in the United States is nearly 7 years. Is that too long?

Martin Willard and Gina Helfrich (Edinburgh) think so. In the following guest post, they argue that a shorter time-to-degree is both desirable and feasible.

In addition to making the case for a shorter time-to-PhD and sharing some suggestions about how to do so, the post raises interesting questions about the aims of philosophy PhD programs, what we want students to get out of them, what their most important elements are, and what factors are relevant to determining what “too long” is when it comes to getting a degree.

(A version of this post previously appeared at the Blog of the APA.)


Reducing Time to Degree in Philosophy Doctoral Programs
by Martin Willard & Gina Helfrich

Doctoral programs in philosophy, and in the humanities in general, have several structural issues: high attrition rates; inadequate university teaching opportunities relative to the number PhDs awarded each year; a lack of diversity (gender, ethnic, socioeconomic); and unreasonably long time-to-degree (TTD) medians. In this post we discuss TTD—why it’s important, the reasons for reducing TTD, and some of the ways to do it.

The “New” PhD

In an environment in which about 40 percent of philosophy PhDs—and less than 30 percent of doctoral program matriculants (Beyond the Academy: The Numbers Game)—obtain permanent academic positions, TTD is especially important. TTD is important in large part because the immediate post-college years are a critical period of career development for many young adults. But because most philosophy doctoral programs do not provide non-academic career training or job experience, these programs postpone rather than advance career development for a significant percentage of their students. As a result, philosophy doctoral students often fall behind their non-academic peers in both career trajectory and salary potential.

In their recent book, The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, authors Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch note that high attrition and low placement rates in doctoral programs make it impossible to claim that such programs are “apprenticeships” for academic careers. Indeed, according to Cassuto and Weisbuch, the apprenticeship model has not existed for close to fifty years. And yet the median TTD in doctoral programs in the US continues to hover around seven years (Survey of Earned Doctorates, Table 8-15), with very few programs taking effective steps to shorten it.

In today’s dismal market for permanent academic positions, a median TTD of seven years, together with the refusal of many doctoral programs to disclose median TTDs to prospective students, represents a moral failure. Doctoral program faculty generally accept their obligation to assist graduates in obtaining academic positions (although increasingly these positions are not tenure-track). What should be just as obvious is their obligation not to take seven or eight of their matriculants’ critical career development years with academic programs that do not, for most students, lead to permanent employment.

Though philosophy faculty sometimes assert that doctoral programs cannot be shortened, a number of initiatives have demonstrated that in fact they can be. A cursory look at TTD of PhD programs in the US shows that a 7-year program is not necessary: some of the most highly regarded philosophy programs in the US—UNCMITPrinceton, and Yale, for example—have TTD medians about a year or more lower than the national average.

The Oxford Model

Cassuto and Weisbuch note that the DPhil program at Oxford takes three (or sometimes four) years to complete. This is not unique to Oxford—many European programs as well as programs in Canada employ shortened doctoral degree timelines. How does Oxford do it? There are several key differences between the Oxford program and US programs. First, the DPhil program does not require coursework: “You are not required to attend any taught graduate classes as part of your DPhil degree, but you are encouraged to participate in lectures, classes, seminars and other educational opportunities offered throughout the university as relevant to your topic of study.” While many DPhil students participate in graduate classes, “passing” the classes is not a prerequisite to the continuation of DPhil studies. Instead, the focus of the program is the preparation of a doctoral thesis.

Second, admission to the DPhil. program generally requires prior completion of a BPhil or similar course of study (such as the MA in the US and Canada). This means not only that applicants already have received some graduate training, but also that Oxford’s faculty have an additional opportunity to screen a student’s prospects for an academic career before admission to the DPhil program.

Finally, admission to the DPhil program does not guarantee faculty recommendation for a permanent academic position. According to Oxford, some students exit with an MLitt before completing the DPhil.: “The MLitt is more often an exit award for DPhil students who fail or withdraw from the DPhil degree but meet the requirements for the MLitt.” This feature highlights an aspect of the Oxford approach that differs from many US programs: not only are there off-ramps (such as the “terminal MA” in US programs), but—unlike U.S. “PhD only” programs—these off ramps are specifically disclosed to prospective students in the program description.

The Stick

Several methods for reducing TTD have been tried on this side of the Atlantic. Many US programs use a kind of negative reinforcement as their principal means of incentivizing students to achieve program milestones in a timely fashion. For example, Brown uses a “warning” system to place students on notice that their progress in the program is unsatisfactory. Others say that financial support is only guaranteed for five years, although in practice many extend this support through a sixth year. Still others employ “milestone” deadlines with an implicit suggestion—and sometimes an explicit warning—that those who fail to achieve program milestones face probation and possible dismissal.

In the US it is not uncommon for programs to dismiss students making unsatisfactory progress by awarding them a terminal master’s degree—“terminal” in the sense that the master’s degree is the end of the academic road for the dismissed student. Unfortunately, unlike Oxford, the idea that one might be asked to leave with only a master’s degree is not always stated in program materials and often exists as an unwritten rule of the department.

Regardless, the various types of negative reinforcement philosophy departments have employed for many years have not put much of a dent in the median TTD, at least in the US It remains 6.9 years. And of course this figure only counts the students who actually complete the program, not the significant percentage who leave doctoral programs without completing them.

The Carrot

The TTD problem has led to the development of pilot programs intended to incentivize early (or at least timely) completion of the PhD The basic idea is to increase support for graduate students as program milestones are completed, including by providing (in some cases) a one-year lectureship upon completion of the PhD itself. This encourages students to more aggressively pursue the requirements of the PhD—particularly completion of the doctoral dissertation—within the timeframe established by program faculty. For example, the geography department at the University of Minnesota created pay “tiers” for its graduate students. Students were paid at higher levels as they progressed through program milestones. Similarly, Brandeis University offered large dissertation completion fellowships (funded by Mellon) for the final year of its doctoral program. (The New PhD, 181–182).

Notre Dame created a 5+1 program (funded in part by Mellon) that offers one year teaching fellowships following the completion of the PhD program for students who complete the program in five years. (The New PhD, 185–190). The 5+1 program requires the student to complete the degree in 10 semesters of active study. The student may then choose one of two tracks: a teaching and research (T&R) track (for students seeking careers in academia) and an internship track (for students seeking careers outside academia). The T&R students are given a 1:1 course schedule; the internships, which are competitive, are 40 hours per week.

According to Cassuto and Weisbuch, the early completion incentive model “is one of the few strategies that has shown signs of budging the stubborn time-to-degree figures.” (The New PhD, 186).

Reducing Requirements

We noted earlier that coursework is not a requirement for the Oxford DPhil. When one compares programs with differences in TTD—Michigan and Chicago, for example—one factor that stands out is the difference in coursework required by each program. Michigan requires 12–13 courses to advance to PhD candidacy, while Chicago requires 16 courses (half of which may be taken pass-fail).

Cassuto and Weisbuch propose a kind of thought experiment when it comes to the requirements of a doctoral program. They challenge US doctoral programs to think of their programs in the following way. Assume that the program may take only three years. What would you include in the program if that were the case? After you have identified those requirements—which, like the Oxford DPhil, would very likely focus on completing a dissertation or preparing papers for publication—then you might consider adding a few more requirements. You would of course add the most important ones first, but the ultimate goal is to add just a few requirements until the program is five years in length. Is there any reason a doctoral program cannot be structured as a five-year program using this approach?

A different approach would be to increase prerequisites for doctoral programs. As noted above, it is not uncommon for doctoral programs in the US to use the MA as, in effect, an off-ramp for students who might not be able to complete the program. Departments might instead consider treating the MA as an explicit prerequisite to a shortened doctoral program. This would provide an opportunity for both sides of this equation—graduate students and departmental faculty—to assess the student’s path toward permanent academic employment before committing to enrollment in a doctoral program.

Another option is the use of alternative degree programs as a means of shepherding students not suited (or not yet suited) for doctoral studies to programs intended to provide additional background in philosophy without commitment to a research program. Oxford, for example, offers a Master of Studies (MSt) in Practical Ethics, useful primarily for those outside academia but also serving as a possible next step toward the DPhil. Similarly, Chicago offers a Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH), which might be useful for those considering the PhD but might also benefit those seeking a new career or returning to the non-academic positions they held before attending the master’s program.

Transparency

We conclude with a few words about transparency, because transparency itself can perform a role in reducing TTD. Furthermore, we believe that transparency about TTD constitutes the minimum moral obligation of philosophy PhD. programs to their prospective graduate students. If prospective students have access to relevant program data—attrition, TTD, and placement data, for example—they are more likely to incorporate this data into their comparative assessment of doctoral programs. It’s hard enough to evaluate doctoral programs when attrition, TTD, and placement data are available. Without this information, it’s nearly impossible. And it’s not simply a matter of comparing one doctoral program with another. Students may also wish to compare philosophy doctoral programs with other programs they might be considering, such as law or medical school—programs for which transparency is the rule rather than the exception.

Doctoral programs might also think of transparency about program data as a means to improving attrition rates and TTD. If career path transparency were the rule rather than the exception in doctoral programs, programs would be incentivized to reduce attrition, reduce TTD, and clarify the career opportunities for their graduates, both academic and non-academic.

Is a Five-Year Doctoral Program Achievable?

Five-year doctoral program TTD medians are both desirable and achievable. Shorter TTD is desirable for the simple but under-appreciated reason that more than 70 percent of doctoral program matriculants will not obtain permanent (tenure track or similar) academic employment, and current trends away from university instruction in the humanities will only make this situation worse. Philosophy PhD programs with long TTD medians therefore hamper the majority of their students’ career trajectories as well as their lifetime salary potential. Shorter TTD is not only desirable, it is achievable: it has already been achieved outside the US, and in the US the doctoral programs at UNC, MIT, Princeton, and Yale have achieved a median TTD of six years or less for many of their graduating cohorts. In light of the limited job prospects for philosophy PhDs in the US and Canada, sustained efforts to reduce the TTD for doctoral programs from the current 6.9 year median are, we believe, a moral imperative.

 

 

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DPhil
DPhil
1 month ago

I suppose one downside of the Oxford model (having gone through it myself) is a lack of breadth. Perhaps not a problem in itself but may make it harder for students to sell themselves to departments with wider teaching needs.

Steven DeLay
Steven DeLay
Reply to  DPhil
1 month ago

I really enjoyed the Oxford model. It provides an immense degree of intellectual freedom. One focuses on the writing, and attends seminars and lectures at one’s own discretion. Ideal, frankly.

DPhil
DPhil
Reply to  Steven DeLay
1 month ago

Oh I agree! I just wondered if it might be perceived as a downside by hiring departments. I know I’ve heard “so you did no coursework…” at interview.

Steven DeLay
Steven DeLay
Reply to  DPhil
1 month ago

There was certainly discussion among the DPhil and BPhil students about whether it is seen as a downside by US departments. The placement directors during my time–first Fricker then McMahan–told us that although it being a downside was an impression that some on selection committees in the US would have, it was no longer so common as it had once been. This all was nearly ten years ago, so I would assume that such a view of the Oxford model, if anything, is only less prevalent than it was then.

DPhil
DPhil
1 month ago

I also note in my department that the long time period tends to happen during the dissertation phase. Students go on tangents trying to publish stuff that’s not in their thesis (because of the arms race). Then they run out of funding and pick up teaching to pay the bills, which further delays progress.

Alfred
Alfred
Reply to  DPhil
1 month ago

Could you elaborate on the “arms race”, please? That’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase in this context.

Michel
Reply to  Alfred
1 month ago

Until ~2009, it wasn’t necessary to publish in order to get interviews/jobs, nor was it common–indeed, it was pretty rare, and generally discouraged. PhD students are now encouraged to publish early and frequently, and pubs are almost a necessary component of a job candidate’s dossier.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
1 month ago

I don’t quite understand why the authors focus on Oxford, when every university in the UK (to my knowledge) that offers a PhD in philosophy follows this model. Mine certainly did.

Jonathan Kendrick
1 month ago

I think the Oxford model is quite bad, because, since there aren’t any coursework requirements, everyone needs an MA to enter a PhD. With only a few exceptions, MAs aren’t fully funded. If I had to go into debt to get a PhD in Philosophy, I simply would have done something different, and I suspect this is true for many people. So, if we implemented an Oxford model, we’d be excluding a lot more people from philosophy.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jonathan Kendrick
Chris Letheby
Chris Letheby
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
1 month ago

On the flip side, I did my PhD in Australia, which shares the 3-4 year British model, and started it when I was 27, well aware that I probably wouldn’t get an academic job out of it and was therefore most likely choosing to defer starting my “real career” for another 3-4 years. Had it been 6-7 years instead, I’m not sure I would have made that choice, and I suspect this is true of a lot of other people, too. So having a long PhD program with associated opportunity costs can also exclude people.

Incidentally, in Australia, a Master’s is not the most common pathway into the PhD – that is rather an Honour’s year, which is something like a 1-year MRes undertaken at the end of the Bachelor’s, featuring coursework and a 12,000-18,000 word thesis. This is not too expensive for most people as there are government tuition loans with fairly good conditions and a modest living allowance. I’d bet having to do the Honours year to get into a PhD doesn’t financially deter as many people as having to spend 6-7 years on the PhD would…

Matthew J Brown
1 month ago

In the US context, adopting the Oxford/UK/European model would have several disadvantages. One is competitive disadvantage for students: since most programs are admitting a mix of students with an MA and directly from the BA, programs requiring an MA miss out on since promising students. Another problem is that coursework is part of how students find their area of research and their advisor. It helps them know that there’s a compatibility of interest and approach there. Jonathan’s point about funding is another major problem.

Fellow Hermeneut
1 month ago

These suggestions make good sense. However, if we are talking about the US context, we should also consider the fact that the K12 educational system isn’t really equipped to prepare most students for academic life, especially in the field of philosophy, and this affects what students learn in college. If we are committed to diversifying our field, then many of our students will need time to cultivate academic skills and learn their craft. Unfortunately, this creates a catch 22 since less prepared students are often the ones who will have to find employment elsewhere. On the other hand, fields like education churn out PhDs far more efficiently — often within 4-5 years — but they cut several corners in doing so.

David Wallace
1 month ago

Some thoughts, as someone who’s seen both systems extensively:

1) I think this post exaggerates the difference between the ‘Oxford’ (i.e., UK) model and the US model. What matters isn’t length of time on the PhD, per se: it’s time between finishing an UG degree and getting a PhD. In Oxford that’s 5-6 years, 2 years doing an MA and 3-4 doing the PhD. A US program could move most of the way to the UK model just by badging the first two years of coursework as a separate masters’ degree. Similarly, the ‘MLitt’ in Oxford is mostly just there as an off-ramp for students who otherwise outright fail their dissertation defense; I’m not sure there’s much practical difference from the way students can leave a US program with a masters’ degree.

2) The OP suggests that another virtue of the UK model is that ‘faculty have an additional chance to screen a student’s prospects for an academic career before admission to the [PhD] program’. It’s worth saying that from a student perspective, this translates to having to apply to grad school a second time during the second year of graduate study, which is a considerable time sink and source of stress (and generates nontrivial extra workload for academics too). I’m not at all sure we should want to replicate this in the US; that said, any department that did want to could achieve most of it by making it much harder to pass their comprehensive exam.

3) UK PhDs are still a year or so shorter on average, even when the MA is included. At least in Oxford, that’s a mixture of (i) substantially less undergraduate teaching, (ii) somewhat narrower coursework, (iii) less time on professionalization and getting papers published. (i), of course, would have financial implications given how the funding model works for US PhDs, and also raises issues of teaching preparedness. (ii) and (iii) somewhat weaken Oxford applicants compared to US ones, in my experience, though to some extent that’s a tragedy-of-the commons issue. Note that in the UK it’s a lot more common for people to do postdocs prior to getting a permanent position, and that’s partly about needing more research time to build up a good publication record. (It’s also relevant here that UK permanent positions are de facto straight to tenure, which perhaps makes people a bit less willing to take a chance.)

4) As for the underlying argument (that reducing time to doctorate is a moral imperative given that only 40% of philosophy PhDs get a permanent position) I’m not sure it makes sense to think of that on a sector-wide basis, since placement rates vary so much from department to department. A department that only places 20% of its PhDs in permanent academic jobs should absolutely stop thinking about their PhD program as academic job training, and should consider significant changes to its structure as a consequence (including having a frank conversation about whether they should close it down). A department that places 75% of its PhDs in permanent academic jobs seems to have much less need for reform (though for any program, TTD is something to carefully monitor). 

EarlyCareer_UK
EarlyCareer_UK
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I agree with all of this – I would just add to a fourth really important reason for why UK PhD’s remain shorter even when accounting for a one- or two-year masters, and that’s funding. Most students are funded by AHRC-like grants (not the department/university itself), and when the funding runs out, it runs out. That’s it. (Also, I’m pretty sure students aren’t *permitted* to stay in doctoral programs for many additional years, as they are in some US programs, irrespective of funding.)

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

This is all right and important – but I think it would benefit from a deeper investigation of what fraction of US PhD students enter with an MA or other graduate training. I have the impression that in the past ten years, a majority of people admitted to PhD programs have had some sort of post-graduate education already (I believe that was true both at USC and at Texas A&M while I was on the admissions committees there, though I didn’t specifically do a count.)

David Wallace
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

Agreed, this is an important point.

Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

I question a one-size-fits-all TTD imperative. But granting it for the sake of argument, l can say I wish I didn’t have so many coursework requirements.

My philosophical education took place largely outside the seminar room, in informal reading-and-discussion groups, in my living room, in the courses I taught, and in casual discussions with other grad students.

I did learn something important from my coursework though. After spending so much time and energy reading purely extractively and often uncharitably simply for the sake of having something to write about, I learned I found no intellectual or spiritual sustenance in playing that game.

I fully recognize that my comments are artifacts of my psychology, my views about philosophy, and my program. I’m just sharing my experience. I wish souls like me weren’t required to do so much coursework.

Joseph Duvernay
1 month ago

I wish you all well.
And very likely a ‘self-taught’ poet, some will surely say, has little to nothing of substance to add here, but reading through the above, I’m just simpliystic enough to think, it may just.
And, for this searcher, ‘Animal Simbolicum’s’ comment seems the more important one, regarding what seems the loss of basic philosophic practice handed down by so many, including poor old poets over the millenia.

Closing, here is what one ‘fool poet’ said about philosophy, one H. D Thoreau: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”
One more quote from one that caught a truth, as if in mid air – one John Evelyn (1620-1706) in roughly his 86th year (one having spent Time in reads, in looking about, in that great bulwark Madam Contemplation: “…That all is vanity which is not honest and that there’s no solid Wisdom but in real piety…”

Here, might men admit, their general, tribal, state, and continental, among many more – short, medieval, if not outright evil assaults on one another and their, OUR world, and clean themselves and the whole up.
I suggest we: Leave greed and meaningless accolade outside, off the stoop, with the other trash for pickup, or not!

TT faculty
TT faculty
1 month ago

You should be able to finish in five years at most US programs. (Maybe not Pitt, and some variance with some advisors.) The median time to degree is driven up by people who hang around longer than they truly need to to have multiple shots at the academic job market.

I wouldn’t welcome the Oxford model here. Most first year grad students coming from the US aren’t even close to ready to begin doing research of their own. That’s in part because most undergrad curricula are full of fluff and nonsense, and the undergraduate degree is here watered down.

That said, programs should allow many more transfer credits from students with MA degrees.

Louis Zapst
Reply to  TT faculty
1 month ago

I’d like to amplify that last point. I recall that when I applied to PhD programs, I already had a terminal MA in Philosophy from a well respected program (this MA was a standalone program, not an exit ramp for failed PhD students), but my 4.0 GPA MA coursework simply would not be accepted for credit at my first choice (an Ivy) where I was accepted for the PhD. They had such a detailed course curriculum for their own program that going there for the PhD (which I did not do) would have cost me at least an additional two years of coursework.

Grad Student #223
Grad Student #223
Reply to  TT faculty
1 month ago

The transfer credits from MA programs is so important. I came into my PhD program with a terminal MA from of the the known MA programs, asked about transfer of credits, and the answer was basically “maybe, we don’t know because we’ve never done it before.” Functionally that meant no because I didn’t want to fight the uphill battle of convincing whatever the half-hearted curriculum committee was that year. It was composed of 3 people, each of which basically decided for their areas of expertise, and 2 did not seem to be in favor of the idea of incoming students skipping anything they deemed of little use to them (in my case skipping history and formal logic requirements). Of the 10 classes I took at my PhD program, about 3.5 of them were actually of use to me. The others were either well-taught but of little use to me, or outright poorly taught where I would have been better of just having a reading group with the student in the class on our own. If I had 4.5 years to come up with ideas, write drafts, and revise instead of 3 I’d be moderately better off.

don’t mourn, organize!
don’t mourn, organize!
Reply to  TT faculty
1 month ago

why not Pitt?

TT faculty
TT faculty
Reply to  don’t mourn, organize!
1 month ago

I don’t speak from experience, but my understanding is that the norm there is to take significantly longer than at most places.

don’t mourn, organize!
don’t mourn, organize!
Reply to  TT faculty
1 month ago

Gotcha — thanks! (I didn’t know that)

Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

A relatively minor point – I believe that Michigan is on the semester system, while Chicago is on the quarter system. That means that Michigan’s 12-13 courses requires 6-6.5 course-years of enrollment, while Chicago 16 courses only requires 5.33 course-years of enrollment, so this difference can’t explain a longer time to degree at Chicago.

Grad Student #223
Grad Student #223
1 month ago

I highly doubt that decreasing average TTD, separate from some from other proposals, will make things much better. Despite claiming that “the immediate post-college years are a critical period of career development for many young adults,” there’s no evidence given here showing there’s a real difference in PhD graduates’ ability to get quality non-teaching/research jobs if average TTD is 5 vs. 7 years. Choosing to do a PhD at all, whether you do or don’t complete the program, I’d guess, has a bigger impact in this way than the amount of time you take to complete the program.

The proposals put forth here seem to be successful, if they are successful, for reasons other than decreasing average TTD. Kicking students out for not doing good enough cuts down on the amount of people applying for academic jobs, increasing the average chances for PhD graduates to get academic jobs. And having upon-completion fellowships or lectureships likely correlates with the wealth of the program, which is more predictive of PhD student (completers or not) than average TTD (or at least if both school wealth and average TTD are similarly correlative with PhD student success, school wealth is more explanatory).

Everyone besides new PhD students knows that humanities, arts, and a number of social and physical science PhD programs are just not valued by the overall non-academic employment market. And there are more people getting PhDs in humanities than there are livable jobs for people with PhDs in humanities. And teaching/advising/mentoring quality is at best uneven across all programs. And most programs are not good at helping grad students go into non-academic career paths. Worrying about average TTD seems to obscure these issues. At best lowering average TTD correlates with but does not directly address the most influential causes of current macro level grad school failures.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Grad Student #223
1 month ago

Rather than thinking of this as a solution, think of it as harm reduction. I agree that any efforts that require major institutional changes to U.S. academia would be better spent elsewhere. But internal steps within a given department or graduate school to address time to termination (whether with or without a degree) can be very beneficial for students in those programs.

I can confidently say that I was both harmed and benefited by my own institution’s attempts (mainly by way of ‘the stick’) to reduce time to completion. The benefit was that I was forced to focus, overcome my anxiety, and finish my dissertation in a (relatively) timely manner. The harm came from the mid-stream change of rules denying me certain opportunities for solo teaching at my home institution and ultimately the need to take on a heavier load of solo teaching under worse conditions as an adjunct at a nearby school. There was also a bit of insult added to injury in being required to submit an application explaining why 5 years hadn’t been enough, as though that were some sort of personal failing rather than an institutional norm. Still, on balance, I think it was a greater benefit not to become one of the long term ‘hangers on’ that TT Faculty alludes to above.

Jonathan Higgingsworth
1 month ago

I’m usually pretty sympathetic to the posts here on DN, but this one I think is really wrongheaded. Longer PhDs are better for the student: the longer the better. “But the job market is terrible” you say. “Yes, and that makes my point!” Here is why: the worst thing you can do in this super competitive job market is to graduate without elite publications. In the UK nowadays, people keep finishing their PhD in 3 or 4 years with a couple decent but not truly elite publications, and they just don’t get jobs (or at most one-and-done postdocs). This is why UK students have begun, smartly, switching to part time, go slow down the clock to graduation giving them more time to land something in, e.g., Nous. The US model is far better in this respect: you can’t publish in Nous in 3 or 4 years unless your a genius, but you CAN potentially get something in there (or at least Phil Studies level) if you work your butt off for 7 years of a PhD. And then you’ll be competitive on the job market (or at least, you’re not completely toast!).

Noah
Noah
Reply to  Jonathan Higgingsworth
1 month ago

I think you’re ignoring the main argument, which is that because most students will not get permanent academic positions regardless of how long they take, shorter is better because it takes away less years of earning potential and gets you into a non-academic career path more quickly. The question of whether staying in the PhD longer is better for securing an academic position does not affect this argument.

markwilson
markwilson
Reply to  Noah
1 month ago

So the argument is just that if you are going to fail, better to fail quickly?

I think most people are going to be very reluctant to have that principle be the guiding principle with which they determine the structure of their graduate program requirements.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  markwilson
1 month ago

Given that ‘failure’ (meaning both failure to complete the PhD and failure to secure permanent academic employment) is a guaranteed outcome for a large percentage (even a majority) of the students in you grad program, it would be irresponsible not to plan for reasonable modes of failure.

David Wallace
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 month ago

I think we should avoid automatically counting noncompletion as failure (I’m not saying you’re doing that). It depends a lot on the details: there’s a big difference between someone who decides after two years that academia isn’t for them and leaves with a Master’s, and someone who stays in the program for seven years trying to get a dissertation written and finally has to give up.

Noah
Noah
Reply to  markwilson
1 month ago

We should probably not think of getting a non-academic job as failure, and dedicate more resources to helping grad students to succeed on the non-academic market. This academia or bust attitude leads to people trying to get academic employment for a decade+, which is much worse, in most cases, than the “failure” of deciding to go non-academic.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Noah
1 month ago

I agree with you and with David that someone who attends graduate school and leaves (with or without a Master’s or PhD) should not think of themselves as a ‘failure.’ To the contrary, achieving a sustainable non-academic career or any sort is an achievement, and in many cases a greater achievement than many academic career paths. Hanging in there long enough to get an MA or PhD is an achievement in itself. Having the insight to realize something isn’t right for you and moving on, even without a degree, can also be an important personal achievement.

But I do think the purely descriptive use of ‘failure to x’ is appropriate. To say that graduate programs need to help their students succeed on the non-academic job market underestimates how radical a change it would be to make graduate education in philosophy something other than training for academic employment.

Within the current system, helping grad students and PhDs who fail to attain academic employment with other career options is an important form of harm reduction. But making graduate programs places to learn, study, and practice philosophy for those who are not on an intended path to something like academic employment would require a more radical reimagining of the shape of that education.

B. Smith
B. Smith
Reply to  markwilson
1 month ago

“Making it” in academia isn’t necessarily success. It can be, but it can also be a failure like any other line of work. It depends on the aptitudes and disposition of the person in question. By the same token, leaving academia isn’t necessarily a failure. Even in cases where it is a professional failure, it isn’t always an intellectual or moral failure. There are a number of economic, sociological, and other reasons why it’s harder to “make it” now than it ever has been. If you can’t recognize that, you ought to pay more attention.

Rob Hughes
1 month ago

Suppose the demand for blacksmiths goes dramatically down. How should master blacksmiths respond?

Option 1: Make apprenticeships shorter, so that journeyman blacksmiths will be younger when they determine that they cannot find permanent work in their chosen craft and decide to pursue other occupations.

Option 2: Have fewer apprenticeships. Let the length of apprenticeships continue to be determined by the time needed to learn the craft well. That amount of time could change (e.g., because new tools are introduced), but it does not directly depend on the overall demand for blacksmiths.

B. Smith
B. Smith
Reply to  Rob Hughes
1 month ago

Option 3: Make a living off of blacksmithing, not training more blacksmiths.

mario
mario
1 month ago

well, a lot of people on this thread seem to be thinking of this issue in relation to jobs at research schools only. arent there far more jobs at teaching schools and at c.c.s? is a quicker degree better for that market? building a teaching portfolio takes some time, no?

Riss
Riss
1 month ago

I would like to speak from my experience to highlight some different issues not addressed in the comments thus far. I completed the PhD in 2009 at a non-ranked US program (joint MA and PhD track) that does have okay placement by virtue of catering to a niche market. I finished in 8 years (the program advertised itself as taking 5 years) but I was among the fastest, of those who even made it. A really big factor I can see in the rearview is that my program simply threw up way too many barriers that slowed people down or caused them to quit altogether. As if we were training to be Jesuits or something like that. Between the MA thesis, pretty exhaustive comps, foreign language literacy requirements, teaching expectations, etc., these things were lovely experiences in their own way but the program really demonstrated a lack of reflection on why people take so long, or why so many end up quitting. Above all, this was evident in the experiences of (quite talented and able) folks whose directors threw them under the bus by refusing to accept their dissertation or MA thesis. On the whole the prevailing attitude from program leaders seemed from the get-go to be “we’re going to make this really hard for you” — such that if you were one of those who finished, you were wondering if you simply escaped notice. Of course, people like me didn’t know any better; we just accepted that’s the way it was

Bharath Vallabha
1 month ago

Great ideas, especially about the moral imperative. It took me nine years to get my PhD. When I started at my program in 1999, I met a few people who were there for 12 years or more. My department was already coming around to emphasizing shorter times, though I see in retrospect I myself resisted it.

I resisted it because I didn’t want to become professionalized. There was a remnant of a fantasy in the air of my department that a PhD is a continuation of a liberal arts education – a time of free thinking and wide exploration and of finding one’s deep voice. The idea of having time to just think about philosophy seemed like a dream. I didn’t think back then about the exploitative dimension of graduate labor, or losing my income potential for my 20s. It seemed grand to fly in the face of such “practical” concerns – as if the extent of what I was giving up was a mark of how much I loved philosophy.

I suspect there are many who are like my 25 year old self. The exploitative dimension of grad school continues in part because people like my younger self prefer that to the “horror” as I experienced it of being professionalized. To lose material and social benefits was bad, but losing my sense of the grandness of philosophy seemed worse.

I take full responsibility for my idealizing about philosophy. But if my 25 year old self had only the option of a 5 year PhD, he probably would have left the field earlier than I in fact did. I am not supporting that now, but just describing what seems to me a psychological fact. What would have helped him was a way to reconcile the grandness of philosophy with the practical wisdom of a shorter PhD time. My younger self lived into a false dichotomy: the grandness of philosophy vs practical concerns. It would have helped him to see the shorter PhD isn’t just capitulation to professionalization, but actually a better way of holding onto the grandness of philosophy – that grandness doesn’t require sacrificing one’s practical needs. How to show that? That is a great philosophical question.

Ben Laurence
1 month ago

This argument appears to presuppose that we are harming students by not forcing them to finish faster. (To be clear, I’m all for reducing unnecessary obstacles to finishing more quickly, but I’m here focusing on “sticks” side of the argument.) But PhD’s in the United States are usually fully funded. This means that for a portion of their lives students are paid to think and learn deeply about a subject matter, a subject matter they find to be of sufficient intrinsic importance that they are considering spending their entire lives learning and teaching about it. When we remove years from that process by kicking them out at 5 years, say, it is not so clear that this benefits the students–even if they’re not going to find academic employment. In short, this argument is incredibly paternalistic and seems to presuppose that the choice to learn deeply instead of accruing extra lifetime salary is harmful and people should be prevented from doing it (at least in excess of 5 years). Why?

Last edited 1 month ago by Ben Laurence
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Ben Laurence
1 month ago

Even when fully funded, it seems optimistic to say PhD students are paid to think and learn deeply. Yes, they are paid to do that – but not just that. They are also paid to TA or teach classes, and so help professors to that extent focus on research. Grad students are thus agreeing to be at the bottom of the research chain of being. This may be justified if the students become professors in turn, saying that is the cycle of life. But if a significant portion don’t become professors, and this is known in advance, what are they gaining by being at the bottom on the research hierarchy? Many “gain” a lot of psychological baggage which reenforces a false, research sense of what it is to be a good philosopher and how they aren’t as good on that score. So the question becomes: are they getting paid to think deeply or are they being sold a bill of goods so that ultimately others may think deeply?

Contrast the situation of undergraduate majors who don’t go to grad school. They are below graduate students in the philosophy expertise hierarchy. But knowing they aren’t “experts” in philosophy, the philosophy major is freed after college to continue their philosophy journey in a personal way. They can continue to read Plato or Confucius to find inspiration for themselves.

But the grad student who doesn’t become a professor is in limbo. They are developing a professional sense of what constitutes engaging with philosophy texts, and yet they will spend most of their life out of the community of such engagement. If they are in grad school for ten years, they lose not only income for those years – they also lose the years of non-professional philosophical development in their own lives. After leaving academia, they might have to spend years unlearning the professional modes of thinking philosophically they internalized, so that they can continue with their own personal growth. And even when philosophy departments might help students find jobs outside academia, the “unlearning” of professional expertise is something that the people leaving academia will have to navigate on their own – the academics can’t help because they are in academia, and the general public can’t help because they are never gained the professional expertise. The longer the grad school time, the greater is the work needed for such recalibration of oneself as a philosopher for those who don’t continue in academia.

cecil burrow
cecil burrow
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
1 month ago

> what are they gaining by being at the bottom on the research hierarchy?

Some might regard being a TA and a research assistant as much more engaging and stimulating than being a waiter, for example.

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  cecil burrow
1 month ago

Absolutely. I would much rather be a TA than a waiter.

But here is a different set of options: (a) be a TA for 5 years, then an adjunct for 3 years and then leave academia because of not getting a stable job without a plan for what else to do job wise or how to keep intellectual life alive, or (b) be a TA for 3 years, see if getting a stable job is in the cards, transition to a different career if needed and engage in non-academic philosophical communities to keep intellectual life alive and contribute to philosophy (akin to being part of local soccer leagues or music groups). Here (b) seems to me much preferable.

People will differ and rightly so. Some will choose (a) and more power to them. But (a) is already the default option, because (b) is so little seen or valued. Grad schools should make the choice explicit for entering students, and let them decide which they want. Currently grad schools treat the life of the professors teaching the grad students as the default best option, and if one doesn’t make it, tough luck. This only recognizes the few who get the most stable jobs, all on the false idea that those few will somehow through their superior intelligence and the resources given to them come up with the best ideas for society. This is a survival of the intellectual fittest mindset, and I think it is this mindset which is harmful, inside and outside academia.

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Ben Laurence
1 month ago

I mostly resonate with Ben’s comment, at least if the extra time actually isn’t due to obstacles. This suggests to me that what bothers me about the posting is the generality of thinking – given without taking context into account and concluding a particular number of years matters as a general matter. We don’t have a shortage of philosophers, so reducing the number of years is unlikely to help with the general fact that philosophy jobs are hard to get however long one takes getting the degree.

Will it be better for those who are grad students admitted to philosophy programs? Some of them – but this is going to be very individual. If it means forcing people out who would either have enjoyed the time but gone on to other things or to philosophy jobs, I don’t see the benefit. It might benefit people forced out who do not enjoy their grad education and would not have had good philosophy careers, but I don’t know that for sure. It would probably hurt people who could have done well in the field with a bit more scaffolding but not without it. What about people incentivized to finish faster and take jobs earlier? I suspect that will be mixed. I look back on grad school as a time when I could read as I wished and follow my interests, but I also got a job before I had a degree in a different market. Probably longer than the time I took would have been bad for me. Less time with support from my department and I might have been a lawyer. But my point is not about me. My point is that general policy proposals like this are just too general.

Back in that day there was a program to speed up grad education due to a predicted shortage of faculty that needed to be met. It (the shortage, not the program) never happened. Which perhaps explains my skepticism about any advice that focuses on a general number across a variety of different sorts of program.

Laura
1 month ago

It should be a shorter time, not because of anything specific to the job market, but because it simply shouldn’t take that long to get through a comprehensive set of courses and write a dissertation. Too many grad students end up burdened with teaching duties so they can financially survive the dissertation years, but then progress is slow. There is no benefit to this extended period for students that can’t be gained more profitably after becoming employed elsewhere. But we have to think of grad students not as labor for the academic department but as students there to learn and then move on in their own careers.