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Science. Communication. Community.

The 5 Year PhD: An Endangered Species?

Decades ago, grad students felt sympathy for their colleagues who took seven or more years to complete a Ph.D. Today, however, only a select few are out in five. Why?

By Jessica Stoller-Conrad

How long does it take to earn this shiny hood?  It depends.  (Image credit: joebeone via Flickr)

How long does it take to earn this shiny hood? It depends. (Image credit: joebeone via Flickr)

Completing a Ph.D. is an endurance race.  Five years of teaching responsibilities, coursework and research can lead to an exhausted student who just wants to graduate already.  But nowadays, that fifth year student might have a few laps to go.

A doctoral degree in the sciences is now, on average, a six to seven year endeavor, says a 2010 report from the Council of Graduate Schools.  And scientists are the lucky ones; completing a terminal degree in the humanities can take close to a decade, the report says.  But why does it take so long?

It wasn’t always this way, says Dr. Lenny Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, who also writes “The Graduate Adviser” column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

After World War II, the G.I. Bill encouraged two million veterans to go back to school, resulting in an immediate need for professors to educate them.  This surge in enrollment — followed by the baby boomer generation and an increase in federal research funding — allowed universities to hire more faculty than ever before, says Cassuto.

“The 5-year or 4-year Ph.D. was common in the 1950s and 1960s,” Cassuto says.  “Grad schools couldn’t produce them fast enough…for one generation, people coming out of grad school with Ph.D.s were guaranteed professorships and could choose where they wanted to go.  A 4-year Ph.D. was considered enough education,” he says.

But as the academic job market dried up and funding became scarce, quickie Ph.D.s were no longer a priority.  There was still a large supply of Ph.D. students, but eventually those with more experience became a greater asset, says Cassuto. And though their degrees aren’t speedy, doctoral recipients today may be among the most accomplished.

“As the job market has contracted, the grad schools [have tried] to make students more well-equipped for the job search; they try to enhance their credentials.  They take longer because they go to more conferences and they publish more papers,” says Cassuto.

Though a Ph.D. once symbolized a mastery of knowledge, today the degree may more accurately represent a readiness for employment, the latter, perhaps a more subjective — and controversial — metric.

But if you’re considering graduate school, don’t let a competitive academic job market be your sole decider.  In the process of earning a Ph.D., students learn problem-solving skills, patience, and shear determination – invaluable resources in any career field, academic or otherwise.  Even if it takes seven years, it might be time well spent.

And though the average time to completion seems rather high, many students are also able to stay on a 5-year plan.  Physical sciences professor and blogger Female Science Professor (FSP)* says that students in her department routinely finish their degrees in five years.  The few students requiring seven or more years, usually had extenuating circumstances involving data collection or dissertation writing, she says.

FSP says that science departments today face increased scrutiny in time-to-degree data, and are encouraged to practice diligence when enforcing degree milestones, such as qualifying and candidacy exams.  Even the humanities are feeling this pressure; in December, Stanford University encouraged a redesign of their humanities programs, in hopes of making a 5-year Ph.D. the new normal.

“[These measures] should have the effect of decreasing average time-to-degree, but perhaps it is too soon to see this trend,“ says FSP.

But even if students today start finishing on time, the problem still runs very deep.  Cassuto says that if 5-year Ph.D.s are to become routine, employers will need to adjust for a less experienced, less accomplished entry-level Ph.D. workforce.

“If time-to-degree is going to go down, it requires employers to expect less [of candidates].  But who is going to do that?” he says.

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*Female Science Professor is a pseudonym/pen name.  According to her blog and her contributions at The Chronicle of Higher Education, FSP is a full professor of physical sciences at a large research university.  The author directly communicated with FSP via email.

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About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2013 by in Policy, Research and tagged , , , .
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