Most PhD students do not enter graduate school with the intention of taking six years (or more) to complete their degree requirements, but the majority of graduate students take at least that long. The average time to completion in our department is 7.5 years, and more widely, the average time to degree in humanities PhD programs is at least 7 years (as many as 9 according to The New York Times and 10.7 in The Atlantic). Unless the academic job market changes dramatically, these numbers will not decrease.
Although five years of funding might be perfectly adequate to complete course work, get a smattering of teaching experience, and write at least some of one’s dissertation, it is not enough time to be a competitive candidate in today’s academic job market. There is little room in such a timeframe for teaching development workshops, language study travel, yearly conferences, archival research abroad, or publishing book reviews and articles in addition to the degree requirements, all of which are necessary to be a stand-out candidate. If Northwestern graduates are to maintain their reputation as some of the most knowledgeable and experienced scholars in their fields, the University must provide more support.
The funding cuts that propose to limit humanities programs to a strict five years are a source of stress rather than motivation to graduate students. Graduate students are three times more likely than the general population to have moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression (Barreira, Basilico, & Bolotnyy, 2018). 45% of graduate students report having emotional or stress-related problems within the last year (UC Berkeley School of Public Health Survey, 2014). Due to the stigma of reporting mental illness, the percentage of graduate students affected is likely over half. Putting pressure on students to complete their PhD in 66% of the time they need will increase strain on mental health, causing a decrease in the quality of graduate student work and of graduate teaching, and thereby hurt both graduate and undergraduate education at Northwestern.
Many graduate students also have familial obligations, such as ailing parents or young children to whom they dedicate much of their time and energy. Juggling demanding academic work with these emotionally-taxing priorities presents a very real challenge. A sixth year of funding would alleviate some of the financial pressure that a graduate worker with uncertain job prospects faces in the tightening job market (45.7% of Humanities doctoral degree recipients have no definite job commitments, according to the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2014).
Therefore, we, the members of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, call on Northwestern University’s administration to guarantee six full years of funding to all graduate student workers.