Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
Years to Attainment of a Humanities Doctorate
(Updated November 2014)

Obtaining a doctoral degree in any field involves a significant investment of time, energy, and monetary resources (to cover the cost of tuition and supplies; foregone earnings must also be considered), and in recent years, reformers in the humanities have focused on decreasing time-to-degree while preparing graduates for an array of career options beyond academia.[1] As data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates show, the road to the Ph.D. is longer in the humanities than in other academic fields.

Findings and Trends

  • For each of the graduation years 2003 to 2012, the median time humanities Ph.D. recipients spent in their doctoral programs (measured as the difference between the month and year the doctorate was granted and the month and year the student started in the program) was 6.9 years or longer (Indicator II-15a). The median fell from 7.5 years for 2003 graduates to 6.9 years for students graduating in 2011 and 2012.
  • Over the 2003–2012 time period, the median number of years graduating doctoral students in all fields combined spent in their programs was consistently at least a year less than the median for graduates in the humanities. The median for all fields considered together ranged from 5.7 to 5.9 years.
  • Among the humanities disciplines, graduates from doctoral programs in history had the highest median time in their programs, although the median fell over the 2003–2012 time period from 7.7 years to 7.2 years (Indicator II-15b). Declining time-to-degree was not unique to the discipline of history. In the disciplines of letters (essentially English language and literatures) and languages and literatures other than English the median dropped to 6.9 years in 2012 (from 7.2 and 7.7 years respectively). The median for other humanities disciplines declined from 7.3 years to 6.8.
  • Humanities Ph.D.’s take longer to reach the dissertation stage of their programs than graduates in other fields (except the social sciences), and this discrepancy accounts for humanities students’ longer time-to-degree over the nine-year period examined here (Indicator II-15c). The median number of years humanities and social sciences graduates spent taking courses or preparing for exams was four years, as compared to medians of two or three years in the natural science fields. The median time spent working on the dissertation after coursework and exams (non-course-related preparation and research, writing, and defense) was similar among the fields. With the exception of the 2006–2009 period (in which the median for the social sciences was two years), graduates in each of the fields examined here spent a median of three years at the dissertation stage.
II-15a: Median Number of Years Spent by Ph.D. Recipients in Their Doctoral Programs, by Field, Graduation Years 2003–2012*

* Time in doctoral program is measured as the difference between the month and year the doctorate was granted and the month and year the doctoral program was started, including the most recent master’s degree if earned at the same institution.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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II-15b: Median Number of Years Spent by Humanities Ph.D.’s in Their Doctoral Programs, by Discipline, Graduation Years 2003–2012*

* Time in doctoral program is measured as the difference between the month and year the doctorate was granted and the month and year the doctoral program was started, including the most recent master’s degree if earned at the same institution.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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II-15c: Median Number of Years Spent by Ph.D. Recipients in Their Doctoral Programs, by Field and Phase of Program, Graduation Years 2004–2012*

* Estimates include years in master’s degree program if part of the doctoral program. Respondents were directed to report years taking courses or preparing for exams as whole, rounded years.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
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Endnotes

[1] MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (New York: MLA, May 2014); and Scott Jaschik, “A Broader History Ph.D.,” Inside Higher Ed, March 20, 2014.