Is it time to completion yet?
May 7th, 2010


Last week in Washington, D.C., a commission on the future of higher education in the USA released a report entitled “The Path Forward….” As trends go, this is a remarkable document. Essentially, it urges government to commit more vigourously to graduate education, emphasizing the need for a highly trained workforce. Since President Obama has stated a goal of having the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020, there is no time like the present to be lobbying for support for such a potential workforce.  The report emphasizes the need for $10 billion a year in doctoral program support, a figure with a nice hefty ring to it. One wonders whether such a figure can be taken seriously by a Congress struggling with the unsavoury elements of late capitalism, not to mention the risk-management geniuses at Goldman-Sachs. The report also stresses the importance of ensuring students complete their degrees in good time, presumably making them better able to line up for all those jobs in the highly skilled workplace. Alarmingly, completion rates for doctoral programs in the US are somewhere in the 50 percent range in most fields, and not really known at the master’s level. I would be surprised if the figures were significantly different in this country, although if there is a difference I expect our success rate would be higher.

So it is that failure to complete a doctoral program is emerging as a serious problem. The longer one hangs about not finishing the less likely it is that s/he will ever do so. And if the world needs highly trained personnel, then it needs them soon, and it needs them fully, not partially trained.

I appreciate the intelligence of “The Path Forward” and the formidable American lobby that has pushed it so far up the Hill. I would certainly embrace a similar newsworthy gesture in this country, although to be fair, numerous Canadian groups dedicated to post-secondary education have been successful at promoting more investment directly to government — current and past. The good thing about democracy is that when it works there’s no better conversation.

As an arts-based scholar, however, I admit I am always a bit nervous in conversations that would add more pressure to doctoral programs.  The discussion about completion, timely or otherwise, is vexing, a subject of ongoing debate and analysis, not likely to be resolved by any one thing, or any one dean of graduate studies.

The average time to complete a doctoral program varies from discipline to discipline. Students in the sciences finish between 4 and 6 years and those in the humanities average about 7 years. These figures don’t seem to vary much from year to year. There are good reasons for this. The writing of a humanities dissertation is itself often the project. As I often advise my own doctoral students, you really don’t know where the thesis is going until you finish it. You have to write it out and discover in that activity what it is you are exploring. How different an approach this is from problem-solving or launching forth with a clear goal. I also know from my own experience that it is often difficult to stop reading and start writing; one usually has a little more than a nagging feeling that more material needs to be covered before on can put finger to keyboard.

Today’s graduate student is carrying debt and raising a young family. Calculating the length of the PhD project might be well-intentioned act, but life will often interfere and delay or slow the process down. Holding too tightly to rigid time-to-completion rates sets up false expectations, and can discourage a student who is just trying to go forward at her own pace and as circumstances permit. We want students to hang in, despite the pressures.

Balance is key. We need to ensure students are supported as they work through their programs, at once urging them to succeed, to make it through, and being sensitive to their individual rhythms. Writing a doctoral thesis is an important and difficult task, but it’s not a race.


Thanks to battsimon for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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