Prodding along the Ph.D.
A commitment agreement pushes doctoral candidates to finish
It can take a Ph.D. student years to finish his or her degree. Between outside employment, teaching positions and a rigorous workload, it is easy for the completion of a final dissertation to be postponed for months or even years.
For doctoral students working toward a Ph.D. in the humanities, however, a new incentive has been formalized that allows those who qualify for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Dissertation-Completion Fellowship to reach the graduation finish line by having them sign a consent form promising they will not seek outside employment.
The Fellowship is a useful resource for those who do not wish to linger in academia for too long. According to an article the Chronicle For Higher Education published in July, Brandeis Ph.D. students take a median average time of seven years to complete their degrees, but there are large variations in completion time between different departments.
In order to qualify for the fellowship, students must be in their sixth year and writing a dissertation in the humanities or that takes a humanistic approach in the social sciences. It is therefore open to students in 10 different Brandeis graduate programs across multiple departments including Music, Politics and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.
Offering helpful opportunities to speed students through their programs is important to Prof. Mick Watson (PSYC), the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator on the Mellon Fellowship, responsible for negotiating the terms of the fellowship with the foundation.
The purpose of the fellowship is to "give [the students] an entire year to dedicate to their dissertations so that they have enough funding to survive," Watson said in an interview with the Justice.
The current funding each fellow receives has increased from previous years and now stands at $35,000.
The Mellon foundation has been a partner with Brandeis in this offering for four years. "The [Mellon] Foundation is very interested in seeing humanities students not linger on ... this is almost like an experiment to see if this will help students graduate in a timely manner," said Watson.
As Watson emphasized, the idea that students should not take outside employment while on the grant is not a new concept but has, in fact, always been part of an unofficial understanding that was only this year made into a commitment form.
Watson admitted that there are challenges to living comfortably on $35,000 a year, but said that "it's a pretty good amount compared to anything else graduate students are going to get."
The need to formalize the agreement comes from the behavior of a minority of students who took the grant but still failed to finish their dissertations on time. "The whole purpose of this is to keep people motivated," said Watson. "Most students that got it, [the fellowship] were perfectly good at handling it but some people got the money and still did not use it to work on their dissertation."
For Paul Herron, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Politics department, receiving the fellowship meant dealing with certain inconveniences.
Herron's passion for teaching made the fellowship's strict stipulation against outside employment somewhat disappointing. "I love to teach and though I wouldn't say it's a sacrifice, you don't get to teach that year so you are giving up something," he said.
Even though Herron is disappointed he won't be teaching this year, he says he understands ultimately that if he for a time refrains from outside work, the ability to dedicate all his efforts to his dissertation is invaluable. "It is ultimately a very freeing situation because you're just able to concentrate on your own work ... there's a trade-off but I think it is ultimately well worth it. I simply wouldn't be able to finish my dissertation in the same amount of time if I were teaching a class," he said.
Herron went on to say that "the nice thing about Brandeis is that you can get teaching experience before you enter your sixth year."
Herron hopes to finish his dissertation by the end of this year. His work focuses on southern state constitutions and American political development in the period between seccession and the turn of the 20th century.
The first round of fellows that will be affected by the new commitment agreement will be selected sometime in the late fall or early winter of the 2013-2014 academic year.
It remains to be seen how much the commitment agreement will help Ph.D. students get their degrees in a more timely fashion, but that is the goal. Borrowing a common phrase from the doctoral student world, "the best dissertation is a finished one," Herron said.