The University is renewing its focus on reducing the length of time graduate students spend in doctoral programs, administrators said, because they are concerned that students — especially in the humanities — are taking longer to complete their degrees.
Yale regulations call for graduate students to complete the degree in six years, but in 2005 some departments in the humanities and social sciences reported median times-to-degree of more than eight years and a median of 6.7 years across humanities departments. Administrators and some graduate students said they think students are taking too long to complete their degrees, while other students said that concern was misplaced because personal circumstances often affect the length of time it takes to complete a dissertation.
“Most people who took a long time usually wish they had taken a shorter amount of time,” Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said.
In the humanities, median time-to-degree has increased over the past 10 years, rising from 6.5 years in 1995 to 6.7 years today. In the sciences, the median time-to-degree has also risen, from 5.4 years in 1995 to 5.7 years in 2005. But in the social sciences, median time-to-degree decreased from 6 years in 1995 to 5.7 years in 2005.
A long time-to-degree might have ramifications for a graduate student’s professional career, Butler said, because faculty search committees look for reasonably efficient progress in a graduate program. History chair Paul Freedman said committees may be concerned because junior professors must satisfy tenure requirements in a certain number of years.
“I think in a rough and crude way, it’s generally correct,” Butler said. “Given the limitations of most predictors, it’s as good as any.”
Butler said he has taken a number of steps to try to address the problem, including asking departments to provide more regular progress evaluations of graduate students to detect students who may be moving slowly. The graduate school has used a recent $100,000 grant from the Council of Graduate Schools to initiate a number of projects, including time management seminars and dissertation research groups for students, Butler said.
Chris Mason GRD ’07, the former chair of the Graduate Student Assembly, said the problems with time to degree are specific to individual departments, not common to the entire graduate school. Yale officials should examine patterns in departments to identify why some students are taking longer than others, Mason said, and reprimand departments or advisers whose students do not make sufficient progress towards a degree.
“Amongst science grad students, there’s certain advisers, everybody knows they’ll push you harder or they’ll make you stay longer,” Mason said. “For some reason, what I think is unfortunate is that the graduate school doesn’t want to ask that question because it’s politically dangerous to do so.”
But students affiliated with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization said the amount of time students take to complete their degree should be assessed by individual departments, not administrators.
“Some members of the administration seem to think grad students are kind of hanging around,” Dan Gilbert GRD ’07 said. “But folks get sick, or have families, or end up doing projects that require learning multiple languages or visiting multiple archives that certainly take longer than six years.”
Gilbert and GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said they have seen no evidence to support administrators’ claims that shorter time-to-degree is correlated to improved job prospects.
Some administrators and students said some students may face specific challenges that would explain slow progress towards a doctoral degree, including families, outside employment or particularly difficult research.
“We want to look at places where there seems to be a long time-to-degree for no apparent scholarly reason,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.
Butler said many at the University believed in the 1990s that increased financial assistance for graduate students would lead to a lower time to degree. But new financial aid programs did not lead to appreciable changes in time-to-degree for all departments.
“Money is not what most directly affects time to degree,” Mason said.
The University releases median time-to-degree statistics for each department, and figures in different subject divisions were created by taking the weighted median time-to-degree for all departments within the division.