Grad schools face greater troubles than time

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler has called on all departments to conduct reviews of their Ph.D. programs as part of the “2-4 Project.” The review is serious business — so serious, in fact, that last week the dean invited Ph.D. students to spend between 10 and 15 whole minutes on an anonymous electronic survey, as “no one at Yale is better placed … to offer candid and constructive feedback about our academic programs.” The purpose of the review is to yield feedback on how the Graduate School might be run better, with the clear intent of reducing time-to-degree, that classic bugbear and bane of every university administrator’s existence.

Many proposed changes are floating around in the ether of e-mails and conversations between students and directors of graduate study, and they revolve primarily around pushing students to advance to candidacy earlier — reduced foreign language requirements, streamlined qualifying exams, earlier prospectus due dates. At least, those are the changes that have already happened in my program, discussion or no. The idea seems to be that years two through four of graduate school are somehow inefficient. My own recollection of that time is quite the opposite: I progressed through my qualifiers and defended my prospectus while spending more time teaching in the classroom per week than the senior faculty did. But the Graduate School would evidently like to be able to say that it has done everything it can to get candidates working at their dissertations as quickly as possible, and that if they can’t get out by the end of year six, the student is squarely to blame.

This all begs the question of whether time-to-degree is the problem itself, or is rather a symptom of a greater crisis facing the American academy. Six years into my sojourn here, I can assure you, I am eager to leave. There’s a dearth of queer life, and I’m not getting any younger. Am I just so afraid of the challenges to come that I’d rather bide my time in the cradle as long as possible? The most successful graduates from my program in the last few years took between seven and nine years to finish, but the payoff for them were top-notch professorships. Writing a major intervention in my field takes time. That is what I was brought here to do, and it is what I intend to accomplish.

Last April, when Dean Butler announced the “2-4 Project” in an e-mail, he referred to Yale’s participation in the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s “Responsive Ph.D.” initiative. This report does something revolutionary. It confirms what graduate students have known for a very long time: The academic job market is a disaster. Perhaps only two out of 10 graduate students will find a tenure-track job. The logical solution would seem to be to just reduce the size of graduate programs, but the report doesn’t suggest this. Who, pray tell, would be the Teaching Fellows Program Participants for all the introductory language classes?

Instead, the “Responsive Ph.D.” suggests that graduate schools use their resources to point students toward nonacademic careers, and reform the structure of Ph.D. programs to reflect a doctorate that will very likely never be engaged in the kind of teaching and research career for which that degree has long been the ideal preparation. Don’t get me wrong, nonacademic careers are wonderful, and students who want them should be supported in every way. But I imagine where I could go with my dissertation about pornographic aesthetics, and what kind of lame soundtrack and bad lighting it would have — but at least the adult film industry probably provides dental insurance. And then I get to wondering why a graduate school would be so eager to foreclose on the potential of all its students to become the intellectual leaders of their generation, producing ideas that change the world and teaching whole new generations of students how to do the same.

There is much more at stake in the “2-4 Project” than the scheduling of oral exams. It is part of an effort to rethink not just how graduate school works, but what the purpose of the Ph.D. in the world really is. And while there is probably a 10-minute version of that vision that can be shoehorned into Dean Butler’s little survey, my guess is that doctoral candidates — we are a long-winded bunch — will have much more to say on the matter.

Evan Matthew Cobb is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and an organizer for GESO.