October 30, 2009
Rethinking the Humanities PhD
An article from Inside Higher Ed, published October 12th, reflects upon recent research of how long it takes students to complete a PhD in the humanities. A humanities PhD is traditionally a huge undertaking, frequently lasting longer than four yearsoften closer to six, and sometimes dragging on for more than seven. At most universities, it entails advanced coursework as well as the completion of a dissertation (an encyclopedia about a chosen, very particular topic masquerading as homework).
The impetus for this project stemmed from observations that humanities PhD programs are considerably longer, and less well-funded, than those in other fields. But an even more basic question is Why is it taking so long to finish a humanities PhD? Researchers Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Harriet Zuckerman, Jeffrey A. Groen, and Sharon M. Brucker set out with help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to find the answer. And the research, culminating in a book from the Princeton University Press called Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities, shows several interesting findings.
One of these is the importance of full financial aid packages. Many graduate students in the humanities do not work traditional full-time jobs, but rely on teaching assistantships or fellowships, along with grants, scholarships, and student loans, to supply them with funds for tuition and also room, board, and normal living expenses. The research also shows that one of the best uses of money is for summer research: Financial aid can also be better directed to encourage earlier completion, the book says. It notes, for example, a strong impact from summer grants, which let students finish program requirements, do preliminary work on possible dissertation projects, and avoid the need to earn money in jobs unrelated to their programs (Jaschik). Utilizing the summer months for productive dissertation preparation can help keep graduates focused and ultimately reduce the time it takes to complete the PhD.
While we are on the topic of financial preparedness, its also worth noting that financial literacy materials, although they cover fairly basic principles, should be circulated through the graduate community. Many humanities students borrow heavily from federal lending programs, and repaying the entire cost of living for four or more years places an enormous burden on new graduatesmany of whom may not land tenure-track teaching jobs soon, or ever. Having financial literacy materials available may cause some students to think twice before mortgaging their futures in student loan debt, and explore more options for grants, scholarships, and fellowships instead.Posted by: Sumiko