Gradgrind: Queen’s Cuts Time Allowances for MAs, PhDs (19 March 2013)

By Mark Jones; posted 19 March 2013.

Yesterday a message to graduate students announced a new policy on Time Limits for Completion of Programs.  At present, “master’s programs must be completed within five years,” doctorates “within seven.”  The new policy reduces these limits, as of fall 2013,  to two and four.  One might ask whether trains can be legislated to run 75% faster.  But as the new Time Limits document explains, extensions “may be granted.”  Dean  Brouwer’s message explains more fully:

no ‘hard limit’ or ‘cap’ for degree completion is being imposed. The policy for Time Limits for Completion of Programs, acknowledges that while Master’s and doctoral programs are designed and approved to allow completion within 2 and 4 years, respectively, there are many reasons why it might take longer (including, for example, required or voluntary internships, or extended archival or fieldwork requirements). Departments that deliver these programs understand this and the expectations of the discipline, which is why they have the authority to extend the limits by one year. Should further extensions be required, a request must be made to the School of Graduate Studies.

Still, two and four years are the new norms — for expectation, if not for actual performance.

Since they are being applied across the board, it’s good to see as much as a nod toward the “expectations of the discipline.”  In practice these expectations differ significantly.  Here is a chart from the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education 2011-2012:

Time to Completion Table-PHD

For humanities PhDs, the average completion time is about 6-1/2 years; for engineering and some of the sciences it’s closer to 5.  Thus, the new policy imposes on all PhD students an expectation that is more appropriate for those in  science and engineering.  Last December a move for a five-year humanities PhD at Stanford (where the average is over seven) was treated as controversial (Jaschik, Potter).  That said, it is not just humanists who can’t finish in four:  if the CAUT chart is reliable, no discipline comes very close to four years on average.  If it is true that “doctoral programs are designed” for four-year completion (and where is the source for that very sweeping claim?), design and experience are sometimes different matters.

Moreover, it takes more than a decree to put some designs into practice.  Stanford’s way was not to legislate from above but to offer incentives to participating departments  in the eminently practical form of “year-round support for doctoral students” (Jaschik).  Support for the students is an important factor, and it can take various forms.  One might be reducing graduate  teaching and TAing loads to give the students more time to research and write.  Another might be increasing faculty complements so the teaching and TAing can be done by faculty, and so supervisors have time to supervise regularly.  But if you read the “comments” on the online articles listed below, there are many who view time itself as a critical ingredient in the maturation of graduate students into confident and broadly capable researchers and teachers.  Insofar as TAing and teaching contribute to this process, and are not dictated by the needs of the undergraduate programs, they too can be forms of support–but they do take time, and they add time.

Having said all this, it may be that the objection to shortening completion times by decree is  premature.  For Dean Brouwer’s message to the students assures them that there is no “hard limit.”  This message is, in truth, a bit mixed.  It seems to say that there is a new, shorter limit, but don’t worry:  there isn’t really a limit.  And how can that be?  Well, in actual practice, the new policy isn’t a limit but just a new bureaucratic requirement (details on this still to be worked out) that you need an extension to go past a certain point, which is set so low that almost everyone will have to file.  And then you may, possibly, need and qualify for another extension.  Thus, future students might conceivably have as much time as students have now–minus whatever it takes them to file for the extensions.  This appears to be an excellent plan for using up superfluous student, faculty, and administrative time (all three in one policy–an administrative trifecta).  It may also help to increase our students’ anxieties and self-doubts, thus justifying our concerns for their mental health (compare the timely introduction of Ds into our undergraduate grading scale in 2011).

Sources / See also:

An Open Letter to Principal Woolf.  [blog]

Jaschik, Scott. “The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.” Inside Higher Ed, 4 December 2012.

Marche, Sunny.  “Is six years long enough to complete a PhD?  The continuing debate over the PhD time limit.”  University Affairs, 11 April 2012.

Potter, Claire. “On Stanford’s 5-Year Ph.D.: A Preliminary Assessment.” Tenured Radical, 6 December 2012.

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