In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that the Ontario government had released a discussion paper on postsecondary education in the province. Following this release the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities, Glen Murray (MPP for Toronto Centre), has been seeking feedback on the ways in which Ontario should change its PSE system.
What kind of feedback is the Minister seeking? Well, here’s one query that hit a nerve on Twitter:
I admit I was somewhat taken off-guard by this. Assuming the Minister is familiar with the doctoral education process (in North America) and what it entails, he already knows that it’s longer here than in European countries, for example, where length is more like three to four years and there is no coursework. Coursework alone tends to last a full year in the Canadian PhD, and can extend into a second year if anything goes “wrong”.
Depending on the program and area of study, after coursework students must complete comprehensive exams, a dissertation proposal, and then the dissertation itself; the time can start to add up. In some U.S. doctoral programs, including at prestigious institutions, “standard” times to completion can be seven or more years given that there may be requirements to work in multiple languages (depending on disciplinary area). In Ontario six years has become an optimistic maximum, but have we really examined how and whether (and which) students are finishing their degrees in this amount of time?
Speaking of things “going wrong”, even if we set aside the academic requirements–which are demanding–we cannot assume the “ideal” conditions for students’ completion. For example, my coursework time was extended because of a three-month strike at York University (and for other reasons as well). In the PhD “schedule” there’s already little or no room for illness or accident, for mental health issues, a divorce or a death, the birth of a child, a bad or wholly inattentive supervisory relationship, vicious or destructive departmental politics, or any of the other serendipitous twists and turns that affect all levels of education but which are so poorly accounted for in much of our policy.
Another, related question I would ask is this: does the Minister have access to Ontario’s doctoral attrition rates, and if so, is he asking questions about those as well? PhD non-completion rates are notoriously high in the United States and the few numbers being batted around suggest that rates may be similar in Canada. We need to start taking a hard look at these numbers and ask, in which programs are students graduating and why?
We should also think about the fact that some of the most helpful feedback could come from past students, those who graduated but also–perhaps more importantly–those who didn’t. I don’t know of any PhD programs that use exit interviews with the students who didn’t complete their degrees. Yet this information is invaluable in assessing policies and practices in doctoral education. We need to know what can go wrong as well as what “works”.
Apart from the qualitative information, we also lack recent and comprehensive quantitative data. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Canadian government has either suspended or cut the major surveys such as the Survey of Earned Doctorates (the last cohort represented in this Ontario report, graduated in 2005).
Most of all, we need to take apart the idea that PhD outcomes are the result of selecting the “right” students who have enough “merit” and who work hard enough. There is research, mostly from other countries (again: we need more Canadian work on this), that suggests these aren’t the main determinants of PhD completion–but that faculty often assume they are. It’s not as if students don’t want to finish or lack the intelligence and stamina; but there’s more to it than just wanting, and that’s the part we need to figure out.
If one goal is to reduce the time it takes to complete a PhD, then clearly there’s a need for governments to engage in close consultations with PhD students (and former students), graduate program directors and faculty, and deans, in order to get a sense of what kinds of interventions and policies might help. I hope that’s what will happen before changes are made to Ontario’s approach to doctoral education–and this will be especially important considering the ongoing increases to graduate enrolment in this province. Otherwise, we are shooting at a moving target–in the dark.