A doctoral degree from an elite school is now priced at luxury item levels.

Administrators at Stanford University are looking for ways to trim back costs for their scholars. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has the details.

Complaints about doctoral education in the humanities — it takes too long, it’s not leading to jobs, it’s disjointed — are rampant. So too are periodic calls for radical reform.

But Stanford University is encouraging its humanities departments to redesign humanities doctoral programs so that students could finish in five years (down from the current average of seven at the university and much longer elsewhere), and so that the programs prepare students for careers in and out of academe. While the university is not forcing departments to change, it last week gave all humanities departments a request for proposals that offered a trade: departments that give concrete plans to cut time to degree and change the curriculum will be eligible for extra support — in particular for year-round support for doctoral students (who currently aren’t assured of summer support throughout their time as grad students). The plans would need to be measurable, and the support would disappear if plans aren’t executed.

While some Stanford faculty members in the humanities have been speaking out about the need to reform humanities programs for some time, and while a few universities elsewhere have experimented with one or two programs, the Stanford initiative could shape up to be the broadest yet to encourage substantial change in humanities Ph.D. education.

And faculty members there say that by putting money on the table, the university has many thinking that a five-year Ph.D. is possible in the humanities — and that it’s worth the effort to try to make it work. Because Stanford is a top research university, faculty members there hope that their efforts could inspire other institutions to act — or risk losing their best prospective graduate students. After all, five years in Palo Alto beats nine years (some of it building up debt) just about anywhere else….

Cutting Time-to-Degree in Half

The discussions at Stanford have been closely connected to national debates about the humanities doctorate. Russell A. Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, used his address as Modern Language Association president in January to call for humanities Ph.D. programs to have their duration cut in half. “In light of the rate of educational debt carried by humanities doctoral recipients, twice that of their peers in sciences or engineering; in light of the lengthy time to degree in the humanities, reaching more than nine years; and in light of the dearth of opportunities on the job market, the system needs to be changed significantly,” he said. The MLA has been studying the way dissertations are structured in languages and literature programs, and will be discussing the issue at its annual meeting in January. Berman also joined discussions back on his campus about how to promote change.