So, stuck as I am in Columbia’s “airport,” I thought I might try to get the ball rolling on a discussion of appropriate “milestones” en route to the PhD. Please feel free to add or amend, and then I’d like the group to think about how these moments in a grad student’s career work, or don’t work, on their own and together.
The summer before
*Choosing a specialization* (added by Eric; see below)
*Career explorations* (added by Russell; see below)
Qualifying exams
Programs of study/the “curriculum”
Choosing a committee
Choosing an advisor
Comprehensive examinations
Foreign language courses/exams
Dissertation proposal
Study abroad Research
Writing the dissertation
Defending the dissertation
Submitting the dissertation
“Publishing” the dissertation
Finding a job
Leaving graduate school
Are there critical moments I’ve left out in my five minute self-brainstorm? Does responsibility for all of these moments lie with the faculty of graduate programs and their universities?

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About George L. Justice

George Justice is Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, Justice is the author and editor of scholarship on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women's writing. His BA is from Wesleyan University and his MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to ASU, Justice taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Marquette University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri, where he also served as Vice Provost for Advanced Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.

9 thoughts on “Milestones

    • Absolutely! We should talk as a profession about how open we are to letting students explore. Many of our admissions processes are based on subfields trying to suss out if an applicant is “really” going to do work in that area. Obviously there are balance issues, and we want to make sure that faculty have access to students. But perhaps the first year curriculum should explicitly encourage students to consider different specialties? And (taking a cue from some of the debate over the past few months) should we require such a high level of specialization from all students?

  1. That last comment George is why I asked it. The periodization/specialization is where the PhD in English (for one) gets problematic, no? Of course there are other things in your list that we might streamline, but this is the big one, imo.

    • Yeah–and it cuts to the heart of the nature of the PhD. Are we expecting a genuinely original contribution to scholarship (in which case we probably need to continue pushing students more deeply into very narrow areas) or are we testing the ability to do original research with the dissertation becoming an exercise? If the latter, what’s the difference between a dissertation and a portfolio of research papers? Or should there be no difference between those two things?

  2. This is an important discussion. Thanks for starting it. Ultimately, the conclusion of graduate study–the capstone, so to speak–a dissertation will give evidence of specialized study. I believe this will soon take the form of a portfolio of papers as an alternative to the “proto-book.” In addition though we need to be careful when we talk about specialization: it can mean the field of study that the new scholar carves out on his or her own, and (I believe) that ought to remain a desideratum. However there is another usage which is more problematic, the notion that we (the fields of literary study) should defend the conventional specialization.

    What’s the difference? We should aspire to a vibrant humanities culture thriving into the future, with original scholars undertaking exciting projects and who are also inspiring teachers. That’s more important than the defense of traditions which (we have learned) were only recently invented.

    But let me add another point to George’s initiating list. Somewhere early on there has to be an opportunity for broadened professionalization opportunities and perspectives. Our students have to understand that they are becoming highly skilled professionals–who can write, carry out research, make compelling arguments, and interpret well–and that while they may have traditionally seen their prospects exclusively in terms of tenure track professorial jobs, they ought to consider the wider horizon of employment options. So the category “finding a job” has to be understood in new ways.

  3. This has been a very interesting discussion. I’d like to argue that a dissertation as most of us have understood it is–or should be–distinct from a portfolio of papers. Whether departments choose to adopt the latter model may be up to them, but it shouldn’t be confused with the traditional, proto-book dissertation. As I’ve understood it, the student dissertation should certainly base the dissertation on years of research and study, or some of the milestones George listed. It should incorporate extensively revised versions of papers the student completed for classes, conference presentations, or early publications, but not consist entirely of them.

    I’ve long believed that one purpose the dissertation served was forcing the student to learn discernment: how to sift through his or her researches, find what served the project best, then replace and supplement the rest with new, better research and writing. As a consequence, the student will learn how better to organize ideas and arguments over and extended project. This skill will be beneficial if he or she hopes to publish work in the future. If the student finds a long-term position at a research-oriented institution in particular, he or she will need to know how to develop a research plan from disparate ideas.

    Of course, these are skills that relatively few students may need in the future. That returns us to the question of whether graduate training should be focused primarily upon academia.

  4. Do we need to make a choice between a dissertation or a portfolio of essays? Both model different kinds of knowledge production. The portfolio model accommodates breadth, while the dissertation accommodates depth–a division that might mirror part of what Kate Hayles has recently called the distinction between hyper reading and close reading. Why must we insist on one to the exclusion of the other? Instead, I’d like to see (and am openly pushing my own students and colleagues toward) multiple possible paths to the the PhD–paths that can better reflect the diversity of skills and talents our students develop.

    I was part of the MLA Task Force on the Evaluation of Scholarship and one lesson I took from my work as the very junior member of that terrific group was that we need to trust ourselves as professionals to evaluate scholarly work in our field (and not just in our sub-fields). In assessing book manuscripts for tenure cases, this means not simply deferring the to the decisions of academic presses. In assessing doctoral students, I think a similar tack is essential so that we don’t replicate the dissertation-as-book model to the exclusion of other kinds of rigorous knowledge production.

  5. Sean,

    Please let me be clear that I do find the portfolio model useful. As more students pursue careers at institutions where they are neither encouraged nor required to establish an extensive research agenda–read: publish books–then a portfolio that requires students to present carefully revised papers might be more practical. Such papers could model the type of work one would submit to journals, or perhaps fulfill other ends.

    My point above was that departments should be very clear that these are two distinct models. Adopting a portfolio format–whether as an alternative or as a substitute–would require programs and their students to be absolutely clear about what they want to do with that work and how it will represent the student on the job market. This means a frank discussion among a graduate program’s faculty about their purpose, careful advising and mentoring for the students, and close job placement guidance.

    As a discipline we seem to be moving slowly away from our established models. The challenge is ensuring that students will still gain intellectually while becoming prepared for employment within or without academia.

  6. Although the quick list of milestones to the doctorate posted above includes most of the ones I passed by on the road to submission of the revised MS, one milestone not listed is the “first time in the classroom” experience, which was an expected part of the PhD program in which I was enrolled. The class was Freshman English, which one might assume would be child’s play in comparison with one’s specialized research interest, but I found that it called upon me to reflect on the deepest matters of the very enterprise of writing, of making meaning, and of fitting literature into that larger context. At the time I didn’t achieve the illumination of the function of the elementary essay by the light of the cultural apogees with which I was working, yet I have come to believe that such an fruitful interaction is more important than ever to offering a stimulating freshman writing experience. I should add that I was not teaching the course in an honors program, in which the reading might be a “great book a week,” which I suspect might promote the synthesis or universe in a grain of sand connection I am thinking PhD’s should aspire to.

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