Friday, December 21, 2007

How to cut time spent on getting a Ph.D. degree

This is all amazing to me. 10-year Ph.D.s? I completed my psychology Ph.D. at a major Australian university in the minimum two years -- while I was a High School teacher. I actually had all the work done after one year. So I filled out the second year getting stuff published. There must be an awful lot of dummies getting Ph.D.s these days

For doctoral students, the clock is always ticking. How many years of fellowship support do you have left? How long can you delay starting a family or bringing home a real paycheck? How old do you want to be while still being a student? How many good jobs will disappear before you have a Ph.D.? But what about the professors who supervise doctoral work? Does the clock tick for them enough to motivate them to be realistic about dissertation expectations, to be sure to get comments back on that chapter draft, and to both encourage and prod their Ph.D. students to the finish line?

A series of new policies in the humanities and the social sciences at Harvard University are premised on the idea that professors need the ticking clock, too. For the last two years, the university has announced that for every five graduate students in years eight or higher of a Ph.D. program, the department would lose one admissions slot for a new doctoral student. The results were immediate: In numerous departments that had for years had large clusters of Ph.D. students taking eight or more years to finish, professors reached out to students and doctorates were completed. No exceptions were made, and Harvard officials believe that their shift shows that there is no reason for a decade-long humanities Ph.D.

"People get lost. Being a graduate student can end up being a very lonely experience. You've got this enormous dissertation to write, and your children are born and your partner wants you to get a new job," said Theda Skocpol, who is finishing up a term as graduate dean at Harvard and who created the new policies. Skocpol ruffled a few feathers in turning down professors who wanted exemptions, but she said that the costs to students and their universities are too high to ignore the impact of 10-year-plus Ph.D. efforts, many of which don't even result in a degree. "Losing somebody from one of these very selective Ph.D. programs after the investment of many years of faculty and student time and the students' own life and after we've invested a quarter million dollars or Harvard's money is really tragic," she said.

Harvard's new approach also includes other features, such as full financing for a year of dissertation writing, and a rule that students in the dissertation writing year cannot be assigned or accept teaching assistant positions. But Skocpol said that she believes the potential lost admissions slot is key. And at a time that many groups are focusing on time-to-degree issues, the fact that this was a policy change and not just another instance of Harvard spending some of its billions may make the shift something others could follow.

Here are the numbers that suggest the impact of the new policy, which was announced 18 months ahead of enforcement with the idea of giving professors time to get more of their Ph.D. students over the finish line: In December 2005, 16 of the 24 departments offering Ph.D.'s in the humanities and social sciences were told that based on then-current data, they would lose a total of 33 admissions slots. (Departments admit anywhere from 1 to 25 or so doctoral students and many of the programs are sufficiently small that losing even a single slot is a big deal.)

A year later, 14 departments were at risk of losing a total of 23 slots. And by the time this year that the policy was enforced, all but two of those departments were in compliance and those two lost only one slot each. If you think departments might have just kicked out slow finishers, that doesn't seem to be the case. Skocpol said that some students really had "already moved on," and that most departments avoided the admissions slot punishment by helping students finish. Indeed, in the two years after the policy was announced, the number of humanities Ph.D.'s awarded increased to 99 from 71, and the number of social sciences doctorates increased to 110 from 95. (Entering cohort size has been flat for years and so does not explain those increases.) Meanwhile, over the last five years, the percentage of doctoral students in their ninth year (or higher) has decreased to 4.5 percent from 8.5 percent.

While taking a decade to finish a Ph.D. may seem unthinkable to academics in disciplines (generally in the sciences) where half that time is the norm, decade-long Ph.D.'s are actually common in the humanities, which makes Skocpol's timeline (and her success at enforcing it) notable. Recent data from the Council of Graduate Schools, for example, show that only 36.7 percent of humanities students have finished their dissertations by year 8, and only 49.1 percent have done so by year 10.

Skocpol said that it is important to recognize that some fields (those requiring fluency in multiple languages or extensive fieldwork, for example) will have longer duration of doctoral work than others, but that there is no reason ever for a 10-year doctoral program. "Graduate students need to get on to a life where they have their own careers or income before they are entering middle age," she said. In addition, she said that private donors and government agencies are scared away from supporting humanities and some social sciences doctoral education because it takes so long. "If we are going to make claims on resources, we have to do better."

That means real changes, she said. For starters, she said that professors need to have "realistic" expectations about dissertations, and to factor in the value of getting done along with the value of exploring every possible nuance. "You have to get to a point in a dissertation where you say it's good enough. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's time to get it done as good enough," Skocpol said.

Another change she advocates is that departments view entering cohorts of Ph.D. students as true cohorts, such that there is a goal of students taking their generals at roughly the same time. Treating the process as entirely individual, she said, seems to encourage a slower pace.

Altin Gavranovic, a Ph.D. student at Harvard in American studies, is the humanities representative on the Graduate Student Council. He said he isn't sure that many graduate students are aware that new policies have been put in place to speed up their completion, "but they are benefiting." At many top universities, graduate students in the humanities just assume it will take 10 years to finish up. "I think the culture where people think about being here for 10 years, I think that has past," said Gavranovic. "The idea is that the Ph.D. should be a transitional stage," not a permanent one. "My intent is to get done in five."

Liz Olson, a graduate student in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University and president of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, said that she had never heard of a policy like the one at Harvard. But she said that the issue it addresses (professors and Ph.D. students not both facing pressure to finish up) is widespread. She said it was important in carrying out such a policy not to increase the stress on students by compressing a 10-year program into 7, but by coming up with a 7-year program. Of Harvard's rule, she said, "I think that making it something that impacts the department is a good idea."

While the Harvard plan does put pressure on departments, Skocpol said that various pressures on doctoral students will also be a factor. She took seven years to finish her Harvard doctorate, and she said she was "totally unrealistic" about material to cover in it. "I wouldn't have finished it on time, but I was going to get fired from my first job if I didn't finish it," she recalled. "You have to get to the point where you want this thing - no matter what."


Britain: Private schools should not be a 'guilty secret'

Parents should not be embarrassed at sending their children to private school but should feel the same pride they do in buying expensive jewellery, the new leader of Britain's independent girls schools has said. Vicky Tuck, the incoming president of the Girls Schools Association and principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, said people should not feel apologetic or "sheepishly" hide the fact that they are buying a good education

"We are not embarrassed by paying a decent sum for a nice house or a nice jacket or a nice engagement ring," she said. "Yet if you decide to spend your earnings on the most valuable thing you can do - to give your children an education - you are damned for doing so."

Mrs Tuck, who takes over the association in the New Year, said that the public school sector in the UK was renowned around the world, and that the "sheepishness" some parents felt about admitting to using it was not apparent in other countries. The head launched a strong defence of the right of families to choose. "It goes back to this question of opportunities and life chances," she said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. "If you are able to afford it, you are giving your child a better life chance - I can see the moral dimension to that. "But we should not be embarrassed by the fact that we are providing something that is excellent just because, sadly, it is not available to everyone. We would be perfectly happy not to have to exist. If the state provision was so excellent, it would be inconceivable that you would pay twice for education.

Official figures published last month showed a rise in the proportion of children aged 11 to 15 in England attending the independent sector, from 7.1 per cent in 2004 to 7.3 per cent this year. The figures show the Government's failure to persuade the middle classes that state schools have improved so much that parents no longer need to opt for the private sector.

However, despite the increasing popularity of independent schools, some parents feel reluctant to admit their "guilty secret". Earlier this year Ruth Kelly, at the time communities minister, faced criticism from backbenchers when it was revealed she had decided to send her son to private school. While Tony Blair - who attended Fettes College, in Edinburgh - supported colleagues who went private, Gordon Brown has pushed his state school credentials and stated that his children will attend the local school.

Mrs Tuck, who has been credited with modernising the regime at the o26,000-a-year Cheltenham Ladies College, said the Government had created a climate where the independent sector felt "under siege". "At one level the Government is clearly aware of all the quality that we are providing in our schools," she said. "Yet at another level we still feel under siege. There seems to be an idea that we are having an easy time but people couldn't work harder than our staff here."

Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said the emphasis on widening access to university and social mobility was "tending to engender a certain unease" about private schooling. "By drawing attention to the gap you make people feel guilty," he said


Australia: School reduced to cartoons and PC self-loathing

A youthful voice of intelligence below

As one who recently graduated from one of Queensland's best private schools, I view the Rudd Government's promise to consult a team of education experts in drafting a national curriculum with trepidation. These so-called experts, remember, inflicted on us entire terms of work on Queen Kat, Carmel & St Jude Get a Life and The Simpsons, not to mention long assignments on designing advertising campaigns and the front covers of teenage magazines. The justification for The Simpsons was that it contains myriad references to Dante. Too bad hardly any of the students knew what he'd written before or after that term. My five years of high school English were dominated by some of the most vapid aspects of our culture. In history, meanwhile, we took a suffocatingly PC approach that emphasised all that is wrong about our nation's past and identity.

Studies are repeatedly showing that standards in literacy and numeracy are slipping. Regrettably, the Howard government failed to halt this trend. But at least it, unlike Labor, recognised the link between falling standards and the time spent analysing the values espoused by, say, a Vegemite jar.

Luckily, many Australian children are indeed articulate and well-read. But this is in spite of their schooling, not because of it. They are fortunate to have parents who see the problem, correct their spelling and grammar and guide them towards better literature than Harry Potter. As for the young people who dispute that this is even an issue, in many cases their education has been so inadequate that they don't even realise its deficiencies. Even if most students can read and write at what the government deems an appropriate standard, the question remains: could they do better?

At high school, I can remember a grand total of five English lessons on language. In Year 8, we had one on synonyms, which was so puerile it was insulting (for example: "big, enormous"), and in Year 11, noticing that many students were still making mistakes in elementary punctuation, our teacher endeavoured to explain the difference between "its" and "it's". Oh, but I'm forgetting, we learned these things in primary school, didn't we? And apparently, grammar and spelling were better taught integrated into all our subjects. Perhaps my (first-rate) physics teachers should have taught me some French as well?

I read seven novels in my five years of English classes. We did study a few works from the canon: four of Shakespeare's plays, A Room with a View and Pride and Prejudice (though we tended to watch the cinematic adaptations to analyse film techniques).

However, since everything is a text (even a table, one teacher told us), and all texts are of equal merit, it didn't matter whether we were reading Macbeth or watching Australian Story. We still churned out essays on dominant discourses, foregrounding, privileging and marginalisation. I recycled these essays from one year to the next, and still ended up with good grades.

All I learned from five years of English was that "texts" can have multiple "readings", and that it is not necessary to choose the one the author intended. What a profound observation. Never mind the subtle nuances of our beautiful language, as employed by Blake, Hardy or Steinbeck. "Critical literacy" taught me to become a critical thinker: critical, that is, of what the education authorities disapproved of.

Subsequently, I became an authority on the marginalisation of the working classes in Pride and Prejudice. I became well-practised at disparaging the West. After a term studying racism, my understanding of American and Australian history surely lacked nothing, except perhaps some knowledge of the oldest constitution in the world, or the war with fascist Japan. I knew plenty about the binding of women's feet in ancient China. But was I aware of the beginnings of democracy in Greece?

After a term on the Vietnam War, everyone had grasped that Americans are stupid. What a shame we never studied the Cold War as a whole, and that nobody mentioned the millions of people who died under Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. How about the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the subsequent turbulence in the Middle East?

It gets worse. Of my eight terms of history, one was spent on popular culture, one on foot-binding, one on East Timor, and one on racism. In selecting only those periods in history to study, our teachers made it clear what their views were. Yet surely it is inappropriate for them to show political affiliations of any persuasion. Their task should be to provide students with the facts (yes, the facts), discuss arguments on both sides, encourage us make up our own minds and to aspire to great things. At the moment, though, we're made to feel ashamed of most of our history, and to wallow in the cultural mire that is postmodernism.

We were continually being told at school that we were getting a world-class education. Frankly, though, I feel cheated in the humanities. The teaching of other subjects was excellent. Other young Queenslanders may protest that their own experience was nothing like mine. If that is the case, they were fortunate not to attend a school that boasted of "leading the way" in progressive education. Unless Julia Gillard has significantly more influence over the teachers' unions and the state bureaucrats than her predecessor, I am certain that all students will soon have to endure the same boredom that I did.


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