Friday, October 05, 2007

Pontification alert Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.
Many of us have known this scholar: The hair is well-streaked with gray, the chin has begun to sag, but still our tortured friend slaves away at a masterwork intended to change the course of civilization that everyone else just hopes will finally get a career under way.

We even have a name for this sometimes pitied species — the A.B.D. — All But Dissertation. But in academia these days, that person is less a subject of ridicule than of soul-searching about what can done to shorten the time, sometimes much of a lifetime, it takes for so many graduate students to, well, graduate. The Council of Graduate Schools, representing 480 universities in the United States and Canada, is halfway through a seven-year project to explore ways of speeding up the ordeal.

For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

Okay, so I spent 15 years for the whole grad school routine: Two years of classes and preparing for and passing comprehensives, and from then on doing a master's thesis and thence on to the dissertation. There are a number of reasons for the length of time, including, but not limited to, crappy funding in my department and the resulting nearly full-time job outside the department for the last 11 years of that. That job actually helped me build a separate research career. I wrote the dissertation in the evenings and weekends, mostly sitting alone in a lab on campus. Which was actually quite pleasant for me, really. I liked working all day, going home, having something to eat, and then taking a nice walk to campus, working along for a couple hours, and then having a pleasant walk home in the evening. Happy times, the late 1990s were.

Most of this depends on two things: funding and what is demanded of the dissertation. The Princeton thing in the article is moot because nowhere else is going to do that. So, most people are stuck with working in some capacity and doing the dissertation on off-time. If you can, do it by teaching and paid research since it keeps you in the loop of your profession.

The other thing is my personal crusade, sorta. I will type this slowly so everyone can read it clearly: THE DISSERTATION SHOULD NOT BE EXPECTED TO BE YOUR MAGNUM OPUS. It should not be the utter high point of your career, from thence on only a downhill slide into research mediocrity. Faculty need to get that in their heads as well as students. The dissertation should be a mechanism by which you demonstrate that you can do original research (I left out the "significant" part most people include, for a good reason), nothing more.

We had something of an arms race in my department, with people racing to see who could make the biggest frickin' dissertation EVER. It was eventually won decisively by some guy whose dissertation eventually ended up as two massive volumes. Forget that. I think in some ways these things end up as sort of an academic form of hazing, a weeding mechanism to see who will do the most tortuous thing to please the faculty.

It should not be so and I think students ought to do more to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Faculty will probably give you leeway if you have a pretty good idea of what sort of research you want to do straight up, and demonstrate that you are serious about just putting out a nice piece of original work. If you spend several months seeing your committee chair with the usual "What do you think of this idea? I think maybe I should try this approach. . .blah blah blah". No prof wants to do your thinking for you.

Which means, of course, you should find a good topic you're interested in that most decidedly isn't a magnum opus. What they're interested in seeing is that you can identify a research question or problem, decide on a way to address it, assemble or create the relevant data, and produce a coherent piece of work explaining what you did.

Yes, I kind of made that mistake. I had an initial idea that was WAY more than I could have done myself without major funding and wasted like 4 years chasing it down. I finally settled on some work that needed to be done, wasn't earth-shattering, and could be accomplished with the data at hand. And it worked out fine; my first draft was largely accepted as-is and the defense was. . .well, our "defense" was really a formality; once they signed off on the dissertation, that was basically it. It helps if your adviser has an ongoing project or two (or three or four) that always has analysis needed, which is what I fortunately had. That's why it's also important to choose your faculty advisers carefully.

Okay, soapbox OFF.

(HT to CalGal at TPW)