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]