How to Complete a Ph.D. in 5 Years

Spending a very long time in graduate school is expensive and impractical, writes Keisha N. Blain, who describes how to increase the likelihood of finishing faster.

January 11, 2018
 
 
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When I embarked on the journey to obtain a Ph.D. in history, I set a goal to finish in five years. Despite my initial doubts that it would be possible, I successfully defended my dissertation five years later.

Many factors helped make that happen, including an excellent funding package and a strong support network. But I also made certain strategic decisions along the way that aided in my ability to finish faster than most of my colleagues.

At a moment when funding is scarce and jobs are few, the idea of spending a very long time in graduate school is a dismal one. It's also not very practical. As I learned along the way, graduate students can take the following steps to increase their likelihood of finishing faster -- even given the many factors that may impede one's progress along the way.

Pick your adviser carefully. Doctoral students often place great emphasis on ensuring their adviser is well-known in the field. That is certainly important, but too many students stop short of assessing a potential adviser in a way that is beneficial to their own needs.

Before deciding on your adviser, be sure to consider these key questions: Is this person a good fit for me? Can I get along with them? Do they embrace the vision for my project? Are they supportive of my working timeline? Do they have a good track record of working with students?

It is impossible to identify the best adviser without doing your due diligence. Before agreeing to work with someone -- and even before applying to a graduate program -- you should ask around about them. Consult your undergraduate professors and mentors for advice and also contact current and former graduate students who have worked with this individual.

Once you have made a final decision, you should share your working timeline with your adviser and discuss your plans for completing your degree in a timely fashion. They will no doubt have ideas and suggestions for how that might be possible -- be sure to listen carefully and plan accordingly.

As you advance in the program, work toward building and cultivating a strong relationship with your dissertation adviser as well as other faculty members who support your work. Seek out their advice, keep them updated on your progress and always ask for help when you need it.

Create a five-year plan. As soon as you begin graduate school -- and even before you officially begin -- you should develop such a plan, working backward from the year you intend to finish. As you create it, be mindful of your program’s expectations and requirements. The five-year plan will make it easier for you to plan ahead and avoid deviations as you progress in the program. For example, if you’re expected to take comprehensive exams in the third year, do not wait until that year to begin planning or preparing. In consultation with your adviser, select your comprehensive fields early and tailor your courses around those fields. If you’re intending to work with specific professors, make every effort to enroll in their courses.

Once you are clear about the major milestones that must be accomplished in order to meet the five-year goal, your next step is to transform those larger goals into smaller, manageable ones to keep you on track. For example, if you must complete the first draft of chapter one by the end of year three, carve out time in your weekly schedule during year three (and sooner, if possible) to work on that chapter. Keep yourself accountable and be diligent about meeting your writing goals, working within the time frame you’ve established in your plan.

Take careful notes. Early in graduate school, develop a system for taking notes that works best for you. Take notes on everything you read in your courses. Do not, however, simply rehash arguments and ideas. As you critically engage with texts, document your own thoughts -- especially what you perceive as weaknesses and strengths in the author’s arguments, methodologies, sources and so on. The notes you take during your classes will be useful during comprehensive exams and dissertation writing. They will also prove to be invaluable later when you begin writing your book and teaching courses in your field.

Begin writing early and never stop. As soon as you begin to formulate ideas for your dissertation, begin writing -- even if you’re still doing research. While those early drafts may never end up in the final dissertation, the process of writing daily will help you refine your ideas, identify gaps in your own arguments and pinpoint blind spots in your knowledge.

As I learned from Kerry Ann Rockquemore of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, writing daily -- if only for 30 minutes -- is the key to completing major projects in a timely fashion. As a graduate student, writing daily will help you develop a habit that will move your dissertation forward. That is especially true when you’re juggling a lot of other commitments, such as teaching. Be sure to add writing blocks to your calendar -- the same way you add blocks for teaching, office hours and the like. Treat writing (and rewriting) as an essential part of your academic career -- one that will help you accomplish your goals.

This approach proved especially beneficial for me as a graduate student. By the end of the third year, I had drafted a few chapters of my dissertation, which I continued to revise and refine as I conducted more research for my project and developed a better command of the secondary literature.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Obtaining a Ph.D. in any field is difficult, and the process can be unpredictable. However, you can improve your chances of finishing in a timely manner by setting your eyes on the prize. Never lose sight of why you chose to attend graduate school in the first place. Work diligently toward your goals and make wise decisions that will help propel your professional career forward. In the end, you cannot control the process. But you can -- and should -- take tangible steps that will help to expedite the time it takes to complete your degree.

Bio

Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the co-editor of Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism and Racial Violence (University of Georgia Press, 2016). Her forthcoming book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2018.

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