The Ultimate Exercise in Independence

This Is Why a PhD in the Humanities Takes So Long

It’s no surprise that the dropout rate of PhD’ in the Humanities is so high, writes Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah. ‘No individual can do this eight to ten hours a day.’

As a PhD in the Faculty of the Humanities struggling to finish my dissertation, I wasn’t surprised when I saw the recent article in Mare (‘Alfa’s promoveren trager’, 23 november - see translation below). The article cited statistics saying that only 10 percent of the (university employed) PhD candidates in the Humanities, who started in 2011, had defended their PhDs with five years, compared with the university wide statistic of 40 percent.

As someone who just passed the five-year mark (I started in September of 2012), I can easily see how a PhD could easily take seven or eight years. (Although I should state that I opted for a 0.8 fte over 5 years opposed to a 1 fte over 4 and that I received a small extension as I represented PhDoc on the universiteitsraad from 2016-2017.)

Each time I speak with a friend or colleague in the hard sciences I am reminded of the structural differences between alpha and beta track PhDs. Whereas the beta track is generally centered around a scientific experiment with much time spent in a laboratory, the alpha track is linked to knowledge collection, either through archival research or field work.

Thus, most PhD candidates in the humanities are completely independent in structuring their research and writing as they are not bound to constraints such as lab or equipment availability. Without guidance in how to structure one’s research and writing, months or years can easily be lost wading through archives and academic literature.

Furthermore, as our core task is knowledge transmission through writing, we are regularly invited to contribute to other smaller projects. These collaborations are essential in building an academic network and a credible CV. In the past five years, I have written two single authored journal articles, published two chapters in edited volumes, and written one book review. None of these pieces is exactly the same as my thesis and some of them are completely different. The amount of time spent on these projects when added up could easily equal a year or more of time invested, and yet they are essential if I ever hope to get a job in academia.

Furthermore, I am regularly asked to give talks under the banner of ‘science communication’, however the requested subject is rarely close to my thesis topic. To give a brief personal example, I work on the Jewish community in Baghdad between 1920-1951. In the past six months I have been asked to give lectures on Medieval Jewry in Cordoba (Spain), Jewish Customs in Morocco, and the Jewish community of Yemen.

Although I have some knowledge about each of these topics, and preparing a lecture adds to my knowledge and helps me consolidate certain larger ideas, the reality is that these tasks take away time from my thesis writing. Yet again, this is a necessary task if I want to stay in academia, but a distraction from my core task of writing a thesis.

One major point which I think is often overlooked, is that a dissertation in the Humanities is a significantly longer piece of written work. Whereas a dissertation in the hard sciences is generally four articles each between 6,000 to 10,000 words, unified by an introduction and a conclusion, a dissertation in the humanities is essentially a monograph, which is generally around 100,000 words, easily double the length of a PhD in the hard sciences. This difference in length accounts for part of the delay as every chapter must be read by one’s supervisor and then appropriately revised and resubmitted. The process therefore takes double the time it would for a dissertation half its size.

Overall, writing a PhD on a topic in the humanities is a relatively lonely exercise. Even if one is part of a research project there is often little room for regular collaboration with other people as each project member is working in a different archive or carrying out case studies in different countries.

My current days are spent reading over hundreds of documents and trying to distill them into a coherent narrative which will please my supervisor and contribute to my field. No individual can do this eight to ten hours a day. Therefore, many PhDs in the humanities take on other projects, not only to add diversity to our core task but in the hope of building a more marketable CV. These types of activities include teaching, serving on committees, and organizing PhD events.

From personal experience, PhDs in the Humanities are generally more active in these types of projects within Leiden University as our scheduling is not bound to lab hours. Teaching is extremely time consuming. Unlike PhDs in other fields who run labs or act as TAs, we are regularly expected to design our own courses, which can involve hundreds of hours of reading and research if one wants to teach a compelling and novel course. Again, the material used is generally not directly related to our thesis topics. And yet if we hope to find a job in academia after our PhDs teaching experience is essential for positions in the humanities.

Finally, another issue which is probably overlooked is that as you are completing your PhD there is tremendous pressure to write a Post-Doc project. Unlike the hard sciences where many people find Post-Doc opportunities in other projects, are hired by industry, or are sometimes able to continue with their current laboratories. Post-Docs in the Humanities are few and far between and being able to stay in academia is not a given. Therefore, just as you are working to finish your PhD, a tremendous amount of time is spent conceptualizing and writing a new project in the hope of gaining one of the few grants available.

All of these factors together surely account for the extra year or two that most successful PhD candidates in the Humanities need to complete their dissertation. And in North American universities the majority of PhDs in the humanities at top institutions easily take six or seven years.

However, I do believe that a few things could be done to help PhDs in the humanities complete their dissertations in a more timely fashion. One major issue is the lack of structure in the Humanities PhD programs at Leiden. One possibility would be for institutes to create formal cohorts whereby PhD candidates help each other stay accountable to their project timelines. Additionally, more intensive supervision and mentorship programs would help PhDs stay on track.

In general, a more defined program with quality coursework could help PhD candidates to efficiently organize their research and writing by providing more structure and guidance. Although the faculty and its institutes have been working to formalize the program, too little has been implemented to date, and many excellent initiatives only exist on paper. It is my hope that the Faculty of Humanities will take the findings of this report seriously and work towards building a structured PhD program that will inevitably yield more timely completion statistics to the benefit of PhDs and the university alike.

Now back to finishing my dissertation, working on my Post-Doc project, and planning my courses for next term…

Sasha Goldstein-Sabbah is PhD Candidate, Leiden University Centre for the Study of Religion

Humanities students are slower to get their PhDs

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