some musings on the time-limited PhD

We have so many time-related expressions – we spend time, we take time, we do things just in time, we write something that is timely, we are out of time, time flies, we are racing against the clock…

I recently caught a BBC radio programme that looked at the origins of Western time-keeping. The presenter suggested that time-keeping, as we know it, was developed to make sure that monks got up early in the morning to pray but then still had enough time for a full day’s work. This monastic time clashed with pastoral time. Agriculture was organized to a different rhythm altogether and ran from dusk to dawn as the seasons dictated. Monastic time transcended seasons and their natural rhythms.

The academy is of course derived directly from the monastic system. We work away in our little cubicles developing manuscripts intended to illuminate, we teach others to learn lessons from the great books, and we lecture to the masses on ritual occasions… We are as tied to our clocks as the monks and possibly just as out of synch with seasons.

And perhaps it is this history of time-keeping which makes ‘keeping to time’ such a moral enterprise. We frown on those who are late and who seem profligate with time (idle time wasters) and/or feel guilty when we don’t manage our time according to often unsaid norms.

So what do we academics keep time about? Well apart from the teaching timetable, and the meeting schedule, there are also writing and researching deadlines. We adhere – or not – to set times when we must send texts off to reviewers. But we also impose time deadlines on ourselves – for example we develop research proposals which show when we will do what.

Now I don’t want to argue that having plans and deadlines is a bad thing. They are clearly necessary, given the way that the world in general and universities in particular work. However, there are some academic practices that have very strict time limits where restricting time just might be as much a problem as a benefit.

For example, in the UK and in Australia, we now require PhDs to be finished in three or four years full time equivalent, even though the kind of deep thinking and the getting of new ideas that are involved in research don’t necessarily follow neat linear patterns and deadlines. The aha, or organising idea for the thesis or research report, doesn’t necessarily come to order.

I wonder if the PhD temporal limit is based largely on economic concerns. I suspect it goes together with the shift in thinking about doctorates as some kind of generic research training. The three-four year deadline is about how much it costs to ensure that someone gets a basic research education and toolkit and can demonstrate that they can do a piece of research themselves. A three or four year doctorate can thus be seen to be both efficient and effective in human capital terms.

The fetishisation of the doctoral finish line is not the case in other locations such as the USA, where doctoral researchers can take much longer. This means that they can do different kinds of things in their doctorate – they can for example do the kinds of longitudinal studies that are just not possible within a three-four year time frame. However there are concerns there too, as I understand it, about the non-finishers who stay on forever doing their doctorates.

Now I don’t want to be understood as arguing for doctoral work that takes forever, and/or for people being allowed to drift around, hanging on and on without ever finishing. But I don’t think that this is an either/or situation. I do think that there must be something in between utterly rigid time frames and the drift. These are two ends of a researching spectrum.

A little more flexibility, a little more agricultural-style adjustment to the seasonal variations in thinking and making sense of inquiry could be a good thing for the quality of the doctorate. I’m not sure how this would work administratively, but I do know that it wouldn’t be easy to disrupt the audit driven notion that a short time frame is integral to a quality doctoral education.

However, I remain pretty convinced that too much monastic clock-driven behavior may well work against the production of the very kinds of quality scholarship the time-counters say they want.

Are there any patter readers who have found the time frame has seriously restricted what they are able to do?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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18 Responses to some musings on the time-limited PhD

  1. Pingback: Time… | sucorcoran

  2. In most Canadian universities, 5-6 years is the norm, although there are those who finish earlier and some who are the malingerers you describe. Because these were suggested rather than firm deadlines, some students did go on and on — sometimes for legitimate reasons that were related to the kind of research they were doing or for personal reasons. Lately there has been a significant tightening to 5 years with more hoops to go through if an extension is required. This seems to work relatively well. The fly in the ointment is the increasing number of students who are, in fact, fully employed in very demanding work while doing the research for and writing their dissertation. Some faculties are moving toward a more practice-oriented doctorate with a timeline and program that will accommodate this phenomenon alongside the more traditional theoretical PhD (something that the EdD was supposed to do but seldom did). The use of more technology driven courses, assignments, portfolios, etc., are leading to some innovations that have potential but may have some unhappy consequences in terms of rigour as well.


    • pat thomson says:

      Working and researching is pretty difficult I thin. I see many of my doc students struggling with that. Im just amazed at what those who have really big jobs, like being head teachers for example, can actually get done.


  3. Oh – I totally agree. To add a perspective from Germany: Here one common funding scheme is being employed half (but really full) time as a lecturer during your PhD – which in turn tends to take forever and never be finished. Or you get a scholarship, in which case you need to submit a publishable dissertation within 2.5 years (and if you manage that get another half a year for preparing your defense). Which is quite undoable in many disciplines, such as my own – anthropology: one year to review the literature and prepare for the field, the typical (and in many scenarios still very sensible) one year of fieldwork, and then, what – half a year to write up? 3-4 as in the UK sounds comparatively nice then…


    • pat thomson says:

      Thats interesting. Iw asnt aware that there were shorter time lengths than the three years full time


      • Well – technically they say its 3 years, since the last 6 months for defense preparation are still PhD time. But really – its 2.5. Which leads to many people doing prelim work while on odd jobs before applying for a scholarship – and many more loosing their funding in the crucial last stages…


      • pat thomson says:

        I see. I think the British phd creates similar pressures by putting lots of training courses in year one.


  4. Rosemary Bennett says:

    Thank you Pat! I now feel so much better about my “never-ending” PhD studies. Yes, I am one of those people who spent much time collecting my tool kit of research methods and academic writing skills. I am now ready to sit down and write up my thoughts and contributions to the field, after 10 years of on-again, off-again candidature! I know it has been an essential internship for me to move from a teaching oriented academic, to one who now uses my research to lead my teaching and consequently has a richer and more stimulating learning process for both my students and myself! Incubation time has been an essential aspect of my development as a researcher!


  5. Steve Cooke says:

    Actually, I found the opposite: having a defined end point prevented me from messing about, it helped impose discipline, and it enabled me to plan better. Three years was more than enough.


    • pat thomson says:

      like you the time didn’t worry me personally. I finished ahead of time. BUt I can see a lot of my students need more time than they have and its not because they are lazy…


  6. As i was studying change and also with a sensitive subject area i had anticipated at least two years of data gathering. This suited my PT status. But it was also a factor in choosing where i would study. Australia and an education dept gave me two years PT longer than anywhere i could find in NZ. The time limit has been exactly what my study needed. The word limit i am thankful for; I might never constrain myself otherwise.


  7. galpod says:

    I personally find that having a firm deadline to finish is more focusing, but my supervisor did steer me away from longitudinal research because she doesn’t think it’s a “safe bet” for a student – she said I should do it when I get tenured 🙂
    My problem with the PhD deadlines (either the official ones held by universities or the unspoken ones that are the expectations from you when you are looking for a faculty job) is that they are applied across the board without regard to the type of research you do. So, for instance, my data collection demands that I’ll sit with each participant for at least an hour, in two sessions (they’re kids so 30 minutes is really the most they can do). Now, a colleague of mine, for instance, does research on teenagers and gives them pen-and-paper questionnaires. My data collection will take at least two years, and my colleague’s data collection will take two months, and yet we are both expected to adhere to the same deadlines. Importantly, we will both have a PhD degree in developmental research, so on paper we are equivalent – only she’s finished in 3 years and I will be done in 5 or 6. Who do you think hiring committees will prefer?


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes I think thats exactly one of the issues. Different kinds of research require different times. And different kinds of theoretical work also often take different amounts of time too.


      • Precisely. The additional question is of course: what does the pressure to do “safe bets” imply for the kind of stuff that tends to be investigated – or not? I am not that sad for twenty-year-explain-the-whole-world theses that remain unwritten, but some disciplines, some methods, and some issues and questions really need more time – and thats issues, methods, disciplines which are well worth exploring, and should not be left to the tenure track (especially since it is a myth that you would get more time for research anytime post PhD…)


  8. Kathryn Hinsliff-Smith says:

    I also think that having this set time frame of 4 years full time ‘hanging over our heads’ leaves very little time to think and perhaps have time away, gain head space and work with other researchers on smaller scale projects. Having just secured a one year reseach post it was my ability to juggle and the experiecne I did gain from working on other projects that helped secure me my first research post in addition to the PhD.


  9. Unrestricted time at your disposal makes it easier to go deeper in one idea or subject and come out with something qualitatively new. Therefore I find some conflict between the novelty criteria for the phd and its time frame restriction. Maybe this is not a problem for the efficient people who can cope with both demands. But for less efficient people like myself a restrictive time limit is an enemy to creativity. So far I’ve stayed apart from the PHD precisely because my professional and family commitments would never allow me to pursue it in a such a short time. To have a good and new idea that might advance science it took me more years than the PHD would allow. And after finding the idea there is still a lot of work to be done. A less restrictive time frame for the Phd degrees (at least some programs) would decrease their productivity but eventually lead to qualitatively superior work, the kind of work that requires taking the risk of wasting significant time in pursuing unconventional ideas.


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