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Mary Bates GS: Doing time in graduate school

Sometimes, graduate school can feel like a prison sentence — the drudgery of running experiments, being cooped up in a lab or library all day, and the endless questions about when you get out. No matter where one is in his or her graduate career, the question, "When do you plan on finishing your degree?" is sure to inspire anxiety.

For many grad students, this is because the timeline for degree completion is far from certain. In the humanities, especially, it is not uncommon for students to take more than eight years to finish their Ph.D.

Nationally, the median time to degree for humanities students is two-and-a-half to three times longer than that for students in the life or physical sciences. At Brown, the difference in time to completion is less pronounced, but students in the humanities still take approximately one year longer than their peers in the sciences to earn their degrees.

The problem of high attrition rates and prolonged completion times in humanities doctoral programs led a group of scholars, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to begin the Graduate Education Initiative in 1991. The results of this ten-year study are being published this month. The group's recommendations, though based on data from humanities students, should be considered by all graduate departments.

The study found that attrition rates and times to degree were improved most by increased financial support for students, clear departmental expectations and encouragement and counseling from advisors. Interestingly, the studies' authors did not come to a single conclusion on how long it "should" take to earn a Ph.D.

Students who finished in five or six years found more success on the job market than those who finished in eight or more years, but were also better off than those who finished earlier than average (three to five years). And about 25 percent of the students successfully completed their degrees even after more than ten years as graduate students.

Brown University is participating in another national initiative to reduce attrition rates and encourage timely completion of graduate degrees. It is one of 29 universities to receive funding under the Ph.D Completion Project. Median time to earn a Ph.D at Brown, across disciplines, is between six and seven years. But the percentage of entering students that complete their degrees ranges from nearly two-thirds in the physical sciences to barely more than half in the humanities.

The Ph.D Completion Project seeks to remedy high attrition rates and lengthy times to degree by collecting data from the participating schools and assessing the impact of interventions in such areas as selection of graduate students, mentoring and financial support.

Brown has begun implementing some of the program's strategies in the past two years. The first efforts focused on supporting grad students at "critical transitions" in their early years of academic study. This included more emphasis on careful selection of advisors and reaching academic milestones within one's academic program, as well as additional resources for students seeking funding and writing grants.

These were augmented in the second year by the establishment of services for advanced students preparing to write their dissertations. Students seeking help in translating their research into writing can now consult with a dissertation writing coach or attend workshops designed especially for those making the transition from researcher to writer.

While Brown is implementing these interventions on a university-wide level, individual grad students can still take an active approach in making sure their time here doesn't drag on longer than necessary. Be aware of how long students in your field typically take to complete a Ph.D. Become familiar with your departmental milestones and make the effort to complete them in a timely manner. Have an open line of communication with your advisor; know what he or she expects a dissertation project to consist of and how long he or she thinks it should take to complete.

Another positive factor in degree completion is the presence of a mentor, whether it is your advisor, a post-doc in your lab or another professor in your department. Mentors can provide encouragement and guidance on your research and career plans, and offer support during especially trying times.      

Graduate school, like prison, can make you feel powerless. Having an open-ended release date doesn't help, especially when the time necessary to complete a Ph.D is not completely within your control. But I would advise grad students out there to have hope — you can usually get a reduction in your sentence with good behavior.

Mary Bates GS is a Ph.D student in psychology. She can be reached at mary_bates (at)



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