The Mythical 4-Year PhD

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Susannah Barr/Guest Columnist and FIU PhD Candidate

Recent attention to graduate student issues at FIU has been focused on the economic burden graduate students face as they struggle to survive on stipends well below the cost of living while they pursue their degrees. In response to questions about these issues, UGS told PantherNow that their “fundamental interest … is to have students progress and complete their studies in four to five years.” When one examines what completing a PhD looks like and typical time-to-degree across the country, this fundamental interest is, frankly, unrealistic. PhDs shouldn’t be rushed through the process and funding them for the duration of their studies is critical. 

The process of getting a PhD follows the typical steps of a rite of passage – separation, initiation and reincorporation. PhD students are separated from students at other levels because they have chosen to pursue specialization in an area of knowledge. Undergraduate degrees provide a general body of knowledge with some focus on certain areas. Master’s degrees focus on an area of knowledge, usually a professional skill. Doctoral degrees dive into knowledge itself, questioning established rules with the intention of improving upon them. 

Full-time enrollment for a doctoral student at FIU is 9-hours (3 courses) and the workload is significantly greater than most undergraduate courses. In my first semester of graduate study at FIU, I read about 600 pages of text and wrote 6-9 pages per week, and then ended the term with three 20-page papers. The amount of reading varies by discipline, but all PhD students are asked to ingest massive quantities of information in the first phase of their studies and apply it to their specific area of study. 

After meeting the course requirements for their program, PhD students undergo “initiation” –comprehensive exams and writing a research proposal. Comprehensive exams are meant to ensure that PhD students deserve to become PhD Candidates, certifying them to teach at the college level. Imagine having a written exam on everything you’ve learned in the last 3 years or walking into an interview and answering questions about things you read a year ago. These are common comprehensive exam formats. 

Once a PhD student passes their comprehensive exams, they must convince a committee of expert faculty to let them do their dissertation research project. Their research proposal must demonstrate that they can do their project and that it will likely uncover important new knowledge. Once the committee approves their project, PhD students become PhD Candidates.

Candidates conduct research in archives, in labs and “in the field”, often travelling to do so. They also attend regional, national and international conferences, and work to publish some of their early findings. Once Candidates have done enough research, they write a dissertation according to the traditions of their field. The initiation rite for going from PhD Candidate to “a person with a PhD” is the dissertation defense – another presentation to the committee, this time explaining what they learned, how they learned it, why it matters and what they plan to study next. 

Could you do all that in four years, while teaching, fulfilling familial and social obligations, and staying healthy? Perhaps, but according to the National Center for Sciences and Engineering Statistics, the median time to degree for a PhD is 5.8 years, with a range of 4.8 years (Civil Engineering) to 7.1 years (Anthropology). After reaching Candidacy, time to degree largely depends on the research itself – equipment breaks, respondents ignore surveys and global pandemics shut down everything.  

So, why does UGS only provide four or five years of funding, which might only get students to Candidacy, depending on the discipline? 

Although this is not uncommon across universities and FIU is better than some, the duration of FIU assistantships implies that UGS expects us to fund the remainder of our studies through grants, fellowships and awards. Candidates can apply for external funding or find a research assistantship, but these are competitive and there are numerous challenges to ensuring sufficient funding. FIU’s chronic staffing issues also make it difficult to access funding from external grants. Getting the answer to a simple question like “Will you reimburse me for this?” or “How do I apply for this fellowship?” can take weeks, several emails and political pressure from faculty or administration. UGS has tried to support graduate students in their pursuit of external funding by hiring Dr. Alla Mirzoyan , but hiring one person to support a few thousand graduate students is not enough.

The truth of the matter for many PhD students at FIU is that they are unfunded for a significant part of their Candidacy. FIU has a few internal grants like the Dissertation Evidence Acquisition Fellowship and the Dissertation Year Fellowship that support Candidates during research and writing their dissertations, but there are a limited number of fellowships and Candidates often need more than one semester for research and two semesters to write their dissertation. 

Claiming that FIU’s goal is to have PhDs complete their studies in 4-5 years is both unrealistic and detrimental to the PhD process. Instead of trying to rush students through this rite of passage, the university needs to implement policies that make accessing funding, both internal and external to the university, easier for its graduate students. Another solution would be to fund graduate students for a duration that matches a realistic time to degree instead of trying to claim that time to degree should match funding. 

If you think that the situation facing FIU’s graduate students is untenable, please consider signing this petition calling on the FIU administration to examine and implement policies that would support our student body.

If you are a current or former FIU graduate student and you would like to share information about your experience as a graduate student, the hardships that you face(d), or recommendations for improving university policies that impact the graduate student body, please consider submitting an article to Panther Now with Gabriela Enamorado (gabriela.enamorado@fiusm.com)

DISCLAIMER:

The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community

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