theda skocpol rules the galaxy, or cutting phd completion times in one e-z step


People often ask me why PhD training takes so long. The short answer: incentives. Though graduate students may contribute to the problem, it ultimately comes down to the fact that there is no incentive for professors to efficiently train doctoral students. Department resources, salaries and promotions rarely depend on how graduate students perform … unless Theda Skocpol is your dean.

Here’s some excerpts from an Inside Higher Ed article about the “miraculous” drop in completion times at Harvard that resulted from Skocpol’s reforms at the Harvard grad school. I’m glad that I’m not alone on this incentives issue:

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.

The common sense continues:

“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.

And this shocker:

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. [my emphasis]

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.

I should include this quote in the grad skool rulz:

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.”

Not only is Skocpol a leading political sociologist, she’s also full of common sense. Let’s hope more graduate schools adopt these policies. [Hat tip to Tyler at MR]


Written by fabiorojas

December 18, 2007 at 1:26 am

Posted in academia, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. I entirely agree with Skocpol’s assertion that Ph.D. programs should be shortened. However, it’s important to highlight that completing one’s degree in a timely manner is not only a matter of graduate student drive and adviser support; it’s also a matter of temporal and economic resources.

    Despite Harvard’s public commitment to shortening Ph.D.s, the university actively erects barriers that keep particular groups of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in graduate school well beyond “the five year plan.” Let me explain. Harvard’s current graduate financial packages deny any economic differences between students – according to officials, there is no real “need-based” financial aid because students are assumed to enter school on a level playing field. However, the reality remains that there are significant inequalities in the levels of resources Ph.D. students bring to their programs. Affluent families, spouses, previous earnings from work, and prestigious multi-year fellowships all provide those graduate students who are fortunate enough to have them with much-needed external resources that enable them to a) engage in less paid teaching and research, b) focus more of their time on their dissertations, and c) finish their degrees faster. Those of us without such privileges, at least at Harvard, exist in qualitatively different Ph.D. world where we are employees first and students only in our spare time.

    Although such a “two-class” system exists in many universities, Harvard actively extends the time to degree for students who lack external resources by imposing a $5000 per year mandatory “tuition and health fee” package on advanced graduate students (note: we no longer take classes and engage in paid employment well over the 17.5 hour per week minimum that provides all other university employees with health benefits, so these fees are dubious at best). Without external support, we typically have to work the equivalent of a full-time teaching job (i.e., 40+ hours per week) in order to cover the cost of fees plus living. As many graduate students and faculty are aware, working a full-time job on top of one’s dissertation necessarily increases one’s time to degree and results in a vicious cycle: the more one teaches, the more time one takes, the more one has to pay, the even more one has to teach, the even more time one takes, the even more they will pay, etc. These fees are, thus, not an acceptable student “pressure” (of the type Skocpol alludes to) but rather a prohibitive barrier to completion.

    Some of my classmates have found that the only way to actually graduate is to “opt out” of the Harvard teach-pay (or “teaching surcharge”) cycle. Some have accepted the “Starbucks Fellowship” (i.e., withdrawing from school to avoid the fees and then slinging lattes for a living because the big green provides benefits); some have taken full-time jobs in corporations because dong so is less time-consuming and more financially beneficial than Harvard’s system; quite a few have moved in with parents; a handful of those without that luxury have partially or entirely moved in to their shared graduate student offices.

    Recently, I decided to take what I considered to be the reasonable approach – to simply ask for financial aid to cover these fees. Even though I come from a low-income family and have worked 40-70 hours per week for the university (without benefits) for the past 3 years, I was told that there is no need-based financial aid for graduate students, and that I should either take on more employment (because apparently 8 jobs aren’t enough for Harvard), take on high-interest, unsubsidized loans, or leave school. This was, of course, after being asked several times, “Don’t you have any family that can help?” and “What about your parents?”

    If Harvard and other research institutions really want to shorten the average duration of their Ph.D. programs, they need to recognize economic inequalities within their graduate student populations and make sure that all students (not just the well-off and externally funded) have the financial and temporal means to complete their degrees in a timely fashion. They can begin to do this through removing monetary penalties like that imposed by Harvard and through providing need-based financial aid.



    December 18, 2007 at 3:46 am

  2. L: Thank you for the candid feedback. And I agree 100% with you. I am not familiar with Harvard, but I do know that a number of wealthier schools, such as Princeton and Chicago, now have programs where every student gets enough financial aid so they don’t have the problems you describe.

    Perhaps there are four “pillars” of graduate success: talent, motivation & work, financial support and encouragement and assistance from the faculty. Grad students provide the first two, but the university provides the other two.

    On a personal note, L, I did experience similar problems. When I entered graduate school, I recieved a tuition remission and no other support. This meant that I filled out tons of fellowship applications and took a job as a research assistant. I lived in a nasty part of town where rent was cheap and I was able to scrounge up support from the UoC and other sources.

    However, much like you, I discovered in my later years that there was about $2,000 of fees that canceled out my teaching income (about $2,000 per course back then). That required me to take out loans or teach more. I decide on loans and gambled that I could get out of graduate school quickly. Luckily, it worked.

    Right now, I am fortunate enough to work in a program that guarantees support for students, however modest, to all grad students for the first 4-5 years and many students win department fellowships in later years. Nothing’s perfect, but the IU system does actually help many folks avoid the problems you talk about.

    I think you’ve identified the problems created by many graduate schools and their bizarre financial policies. If nothing else, I hope that Harvard’s commitment to timely graduation will mean that fewer students must face the choice between working at Starbucks or working on their dissertation.



    December 18, 2007 at 4:21 am

  3. […] I’ve only been on the other side of the PhD for five years and I haven’t had chaired any dissertations, but I do feel that I should at least mention what faculty can do to help grad students finish in a reasonable time, barring a Skocpol style incentive system. […]


  4. […] a comment » Orgheads know that I [heart] Theda Skocpol. I [heart] her because she’s a rockin’ dean. And I [heart] her because she’s a rockin’ historical sociologist. Gosh, there’s […]


  5. […] theda skocpol rules the galaxy, or cutting phd completion times in …Dec 18, 2007 … Department resources, salaries and promotions rarely depend on how graduate students perform … unless Theda Skocpol is your dean. […]


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