Friday, January 30, 2009

Timing the PhD

I thought this was interesting . . . .

The Impact of ‘Time to Degree’
The most logical reason to focus on “time to degree” for doctoral students is that most of them say they want to finish — and most graduate departments say the same thing. People are happier and programs are more efficient.

But a new national study suggests another key reason — at least in social science disciplines: Those who finish earlier than others do are more likely to land jobs on the tenure track. Of those in the national sample whose first job was on the tenure track, the median time to completion of Ph.D. was 6.5 years. For those whose first job was an academic position off the tenure track, the median time to completion was 7.5 years.

The data are from “Does Time-to-Degree Matter?,” a new analysis of the “Social Science Ph.D.’s — Five + Years Out” project, which has been yielding a series of insights into the path students take in graduate school and beyond. The work is done at the University of Washington’s Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education and is based on national data on doctorates in anthropology, communications, geography, history, political science and sociology.

Maresi Nerad, director of the center and associate graduate dean at the university as well as principal investigator on the research, said that the finding has several possible implications. One is that those doing the hiring view “time to degree” (fairly or not) as an indicator of quality. She said that the findings can suggest inappropriate considerations (favoring younger candidates) or skepticism about whether someone taking a long time to finish a dissertation may also take a long time to finish a first book or other research projects.

While Nerad’s research has stressed the importance of helping graduate students finish in a timely manner, she said that hiring departments’ preferences could play out in good or bad ways if they influence doctoral students’ behavior. To the extent that students are motivated to get through on time (and that departments help them do so), it’s all for the good, she said. But if this encourages students to pick only “safe” topics — those assured of a reasonably timely completion — for dissertations, that’s not so good.

Other findings from the new analysis support the idea that graduate programs need to spend more time on helping graduate students prepare for their careers — not just their dissertation defenses. In surveys of Ph.D.’s wherein they evaluate their programs, those who finished doctorates sooner than others were more likely to give “excellent” rankings to both their mentoring and training and also to “professionalization” activities, which include programs to prepare graduate students for careers (both finding jobs and being socialized into academic life).

Those findings are important, Nerad said, because they show that professionalization need not lengthen the duration of a graduate program. Some professors who believe a doctoral program should focus strictly on academics have suggested that adding programs to help with jobs could delay dissertation completion — and Nerad said the data suggest otherwise.

In addition, Ph.D. recipients gave higher marks for overall satisfaction to programs with professionalization activities than to those without.

Nerad stressed that the reasons any individual doctoral student completes a program in a set time period relate to a variety of factors — both personal, those that relate to the student’s project, and those that relate to the program. But it’s also clear, she said, that for many people “time to degree can be an indicator of program quality.”

Looking ahead, Nerad said that some fields may see changes in the duration of programs because of the economic downturn. In fields in which job prospects in academic appear bleak, especially in the humanities, graduate students may “opt to stay a little longer.”

But in fields in which there are good non-academic jobs, or where postdocs have become the norm prior to permanent employment, the shifts may be minimal, she said.

— Scott Jaschik

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

..."But a new national study suggests another key reason — at least in social science disciplines: Those who finish earlier than others do are more likely to land jobs on the tenure track..."

While the piece says it's "new" national study, if you go to the study linked and read more about the methods and findings, it indicates that the research was compiled from doctoral students completing their programs over 10 years ago in the 1990s.
The study out of Berkeley in recent news surveyed more recent doctoral students in comparison to how things have changed even more in this decade.

I don't know if the same would apply in terms of landing tenure positions vis a vis time to degree.

here is what it says on the link:

sorry this is a bit long for a blog post perhaps...

The Social Science PhDs—Five+ Years Out survey is CIRGE’s latest contribution to PhD career path and retrospective program evaluation.

Funded by the Ford Foundation, Social Science PhDs—Five+ Years Out surveyed PhD recipients who received their degrees between 1995 and 1999 from 65 U.S. universities in six disciplines—anthropology, communications, geography, history, political science, and sociology


The data collected provide tools for program evaluation, benchmarks for comparison, and objective information on PhD career outcomes. We have begun trend analysis, which we anticipate to be an ongoing output activity.

The 8 key findings are:

Among surveyed social science PhDs, 6 to 10 years post-PhD, 63% were tenure-track or tenured professors, 19% held other kinds of jobs at colleges and universities, and 18% worked in business, government, and non-profit sectors.

Men and women were equally likely to begin careers in tenure-track faculty positions; however, women experienced more work-family conflict, were more likely to be single and to forgo desired children, and lagged behind men in achieving tenure.

Respondents gave high quality ratings to their PhD programs for training in analytical competencies central in doctoral education, but often felt their PhD program had neglected career preparation, socialization into the academic community, and writing and publishing.

Fewer than half of respondents reported the availability of formal training in teaching in their PhD program.

Reflecting the usefulness of doctoral study in the social sciences, respondents in all disciplines and job categories rated as “very important” in their current jobs: critical thinking, data analysis and synthesis, and writing and publishing.

Respondents often viewed their programs as failing to train them well in research design and writing and publishing.

Competencies not traditionally central in PhD programs were very important in many respondents’ jobs—including team work, communication skills, working in interdisciplinary contexts, and managing people and budgets.

Investigators: Maresi Nerad, Elizabeth Rudd, Emory Morrison and Joseph Picciano