what does an English phd mean? And how long should it take?

There was extensive discussion at MLA this year (and, following that, quite a thread of posts on the WPA list, and I imagine elsewhere) on the subject of doctoral programs. Inside Higher Ed reports on the MLA business here and here. These are not new debates. However I think they are increasingly propelled by job market prospects and the uncertain future of the humanities. They are also connected to discussions regarding #alt-ac (alternative academic) careers and digital dissertations. That is to say these discussions include the fact that at least some doctoral students are seeking nontraditional careers off the tenure track and others wish to produce nontraditional dissertations. 

For me, the central issue is this statistic from an NSF report that indicates humanities students spend a median of 9 years of registered time to degree, which is "time in graduate school less reported periods of nonenrollment." This has increased slowly but steadily from 1978, when it was 7.5 years. I believe that's a 20% increase over the last 30 years or so. I'm not sure what the cause of this increase has been. Perhaps there are economic pressures that cause students to take longer (however here we are talking about registered time). Maybe it is the "reading problem," that my colleague Derek Mueller discussed in his dissertation: the proliferation of scholarship means one is required to read more before writing.

I don't know. 

Typically, though, I believe doctoral students enter their "ABD" phase after three years. That would mean the median time spent writing a dissertation is six years. To put this in perspective, a 300-page, 90,000 word dissertation, written over 5 years, would require writing about 50 words per day. Obviously it's not possible to write that slowly. I would suggest that, if one is in fact writing, then it is difficult to write less than 2500 words per week, which would suggest you could write this sucker in 36 weeks. That is why I tell graduate students that it isn't writing the dissertation that takes a long time; it's the not-writing the dissertation that is so time-consuming.

So this is what I am confused by. The average graduate student will have spent 3 years (one as a master's student and two as a doctoral student) taking coursework. S/he will then spend another year devoted solely to reading something like 75 books (or the equivalent in articles) in preparation for exams. This, of course, mentions nothing of the time spent getting a BA in English. However, despite having taken over 30 English courses in college and spent a year reading books in narrow preparation for an exam, the now ABD doctoral candidate spends an additional 3 years or more doing research to prepare for writing a dissertation, which then takes another 2-3 years to actually write???

I want to be clear. This is not meant in any way as a criticism of the doctoral students. This is a systemic, disciplinary problem. What it says to me is that everything that a student does enroute to becoming ABD leaves her totally unprepared to write the dissertation. One effectively starts from scratch. I don't actually believe that is the case. Instead, I think the problem is more likely a rhetorical-compositional one. First, I'm not sure that the writing and research done in graduate courses connects clearly enough with the rhetorical challenges of researching and writing dissertation chapters. As such, graduate students find themselves reinventing their writing practices once they hit the ABD level. Second, I think that we need to have a frank discussion as a discipline about the rhetorical purpose of a dissertation in relation to the larger purpose of a doctoral degree.

Let's look at this problem backwards and say that we wanted to move the median to 5 years (at MLA the objective was to cut time to degree in half). So we still have three years of coursework and exam prep. As such, we can start by defining the dissertation as "the text you can reasonably produce in 2 years." What does this mean? Well (and perhaps this is a little ideal) I imagine the following:

  • a student enters a program with a general idea of what she wants to study (e.g. 19th cent. Amer. Lit or Digital Rhetoric)
  • she takes a dozen classes in two years that are in that area, in adjacent areas, and introduce her to the primary methods and theories of her field
  • she writes a dozen seminar papers and hopefully 2 or 3 of them will have the potential to be developed into dissertation chapters
  • she then spends a year reading more narrowly in her field, which hopefully provides her with 80% of the research she needs to write her dissertation

Ok, now we're ready to write the dissertation in 24 months. In the first six months, she revises those 2-3 seminar papers into dissertation chapters and gets feedback on them. Then she sits down and figures out whatever chapters have to go around them. Let's say we are going to write an additional five chapters, each about 30 pages. Well, you've been writing 3 seminar papers every semester, right, so we'll write a chapter a month. We're now 11 total months into the dissertation and we have 7-8 chapters and 200+ pages. We've got a year to revise these and write the introduction and conclusion. 

As far as brute force work goes, that's quite manageable. The tough part is the rhetorical challenge of conceiving of a book-length project. It can't just be a bunch of seminar papers juxtaposed to one another. It ain't an essay collection. Conceiving of a book-length project isn't actually hard, unless you've never done it before. The cognitive problem that ABD students face isn't so different from the one FYC students face when they are told they need to write their first 10-page research paper (gasp!) or the one seniors face in writing their capstone essay in an English class or the ones MA students face writing their first seminar paper or their thesis. 

As graduate faculty, we might mitigate this obstacle by helping PHD students to understand the rhetorical challenges of the book/dissertation (and they are different things) as we are going along in coursework. I would imagine there are any number of ways to do this. My inventive strategy has always been to stick things together and see what problems/questions they generate. That's how I wrote my dissertation in six months. I took a couple seminar papers that I liked, stuck them together and then wrote my dissertation in the space they created. In some respects, the less well the papers go together the better the result. So I had a paper that was a Deleuzian analysis of critical pedagogy, another that was on Ulmerian/Derridean invention strategies, and a third that addressed death and simulation using Baudrillard and Blanchot. I tossed in some technology questions along the way, and *poof.* I'm not saying it was the greatest dissertation of all time, but it got the job done. 

And that's another point. The diss isn't an end so much as it is a beginning. To me it's more about creating velocity into a future career than it is about working some subject (and somebody) to scholarly death. But regardless of how one wants to define it or go about it, it just doesn't make sense to me that it should take six years.