Down With the Ten-Year Plan: A Big Grant to Help Ph.D. Students Finish Faster

Graduate programs in the humanities have long been criticized for the extended time that Ph.D. students take to complete their degrees, only to graduate with little preparation for the job market. To be fair, grad students in plenty of other disciplines also take forever to finish their Ph.D.s, but for various reasons, things are particularly bad in the humanities.

A 2014 report by the Modern Languages Association found that the median time to completion of a doctorate for 2012 Ph.D. recipients in the humanities was nine years from the time they entered graduate school. Many students took more than a decade to complete the Ph.D. This has fueled a perception among many critics that humanities graduate schools foster a class of "professional students" mastering literature and history, but with no readiness for employment.

Of course, the academic job market for newly minted Ph.D.s in the humanities remains famously bad. Young grad students are spending a good chunk of their lives getting credentials that may not go very farpotentially presenting big opportunity costs for them, not to mention being a black eye for the universities that keep admitting more grad students every year. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation hopes to change that with a large grant. The funder, known for its generous support of the humanities in an age when business and STEM have dominated higher education philanthropy, just awarded $2.7 million to the University of California at Irvine for a pilot program designed to streamline time to degree completion for Ph.D. students in the humanities. The new pilot also establishes teaching and research positions to better prepare these students for entry into tenure track faculty positions in academia, the career destination for many humanities Ph.D.s.

The Mellon-funded program is known as 5+2 and consists of a five-year Ph.D. program supported by fellowships and teaching assistantships, followed by up to two years in an assistant professor program teaching a humanities core course, a yearlong freshman program that develops critical reading and thinking skills. In addition, graduate students making progress toward timely completion of their doctorates under 5+2 are eligible for summer stipends to enable them to maintain momentum toward degree completion.

UC Irvine, known as a national leader in the humanities, is piloting 5+2 in three graduate programs within the School of Humanities: Philosophy, History, and Visual Studies (a program offered jointly by the Art History and the Film and Media Studies departments). With support from the Mellon Foundation, all incoming Ph.D. students in those fields will be eligible to participate in 5+2. If the pilot is successful, UC Irvine may expand it to other programs in the School of Humanities.

And more broadly, we imagine that many universities will be interested in how this effort goes.