The 5+2 Solution

Is a faster doctorate a better doctorate?

World's Worst Job Title: "Assistant Adjunct Professor".
What the glamorous life of an assistant adjunct professor may resemble.

Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

“You finished your doctorate really fast!” The office manager of the University of California–Irvine School of Humanities was impressed as I forked over my completed and defended dissertation for their records.

“Not really,” I said. “It’s been five years.” Five long years, if you asked me.

“Exactly,” she said. “Fast.”

Welcome to academia, where five years to finish a humanities doctorate—coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation—is considered speedy. So speedy that a new program at my alma mater has raised hackles for encouraging graduate students to finish in a half-decade. (It also foists upon its postdocs what is possibly the worst job title in academia. More on that in a bit.)

Irvine’s program, dubbed “5+2,” begins with increased funding for five years—about $23,000 per year, including summers. (Traditional fellowships and teaching assistantships vary, but usually pay less, and do not include summer funding.) Once the student has finished the dissertation, she receives a two-year “postdoctoral” teaching position within the university while she at last casts herself into a barren, jobless hellscape with completed Ph.D. in hand. The idea, according to School of Humanities associate dean James D. Herbert, is to shorten the time to degree while lengthening the odds of securing gainful employment afterward. Students have “a three-year window of optimal employment prospects,” Herbert told Inside Higher Ed. “So they’re better off applying from a real academic position rather than being a barista at Starbucks.”

As a graduate of UC–Irvine who finished in five years, secured a prestigious postdoc, and then still failed to get an academic job, I’m torn on whether 5+2 is a great idea or a misguided one. Or, more accurately, I’m fairly sold on the five and increasingly skeptical of the two.

UC–Irvine introduced its program in response to a larger conversation about the future of graduate school in a new landscape where the Ph.D. is often both the beginning and end of an academic career. Among the findings of a 2014 Modern Language Association report on the future of graduate study: It currently takes far too long to complete a humanities Ph.D.—the median completion time is an astounding nine(!) human Earth years.

Between seminars, comprehensives, and the dissertation proposal (which can take a while to be accepted), students often don’t begin their dissertations until they’re four or even five years in. Add in any extras a dissertation needs—knowledge of a new language, archival research—and you’re rounding year seven. Now add in any misstep whatsoever—uncooperative adviser, family tragedy—and suddenly you’re staring down a decade or more. I met people who were “working on their dissertations” when I arrived at UC–Irvine, and they were still “working on them” when I left.

I understand why it works like this, but still. Come on. There is no conceivable reason that medical doctors can go from pimply little undergrads to actual brain surgeons in less time than it takes to write a dissertation on Der grüne Heinrich. Someone who agrees is my former professor David Tse-Chien Pan, who sees many advantages to 5+2. (However, my old program is not one of the two, visual studies and philosophy, that have joined up.)

The new program, Pan explains, aims to change the culture of the dissertation itself from its current stature as perfect magnum opus (the cause of many a doctoral candidate’s downfall) to “the best thing [students] can complete now.” And what about the students who fall behind? “It’s not a tragedy,” he explains: They just go back into the old funding model—modest teaching assistantships, or if they take way too long, the cessation of funding altogether and eventual termination from the program.

That last scenario is every Ph.D. program’s nightmare, so it’s no secret that 5+2 will court students who look like they can finish in time and avoid those who seem like they can’t. However, Pan points out, “the kind of discipline that making the five-year degree standard entails is part of the discipline that we need to be providing to our students. That kind of organization, thinking through, planning—it forces you to contextualize” every step of the process within your long-term life plan. I mean, why shouldn’t Ph.D. programs self-select for students who have their shit together? (That’s my terminology, not Pan’s.)

Well, there’s a few compelling reasons why. I spoke to a doctoral student in comparative literature at UC–Irvine who was willing to exchange frankness for anonymity. This student expressed concern that 5+2 will pressure departments to look only for “normative students,” excluding, sometimes unintentionally, a wide swath of potential scholars: those who speak English as a second language, “someone who looks like they might start a family,” anyone from an “underprivileged situation” who lacks “extra-institutional resources.” (Of course, one might argue that academia is already plenty skewed toward the wealthy and well-connected, and I’m not sure what it changes to hustle students out before they’re 40, whereupon they’ll probably have to change careers anyhow.)

Another concern is that because departments will be “less likely to pick someone who wants to do intensive language study or theory-based work,” the 5+2 model will encourage subpar research. This might be true; it might not. (I wrote my own dissertation in about 2½ years, and it was good enough to be published by a top university press.) Even if it is true, though, this protest is also a product of the culture Pan is talking about—one that pushes the idea of a dissertation as a brilliant, groundbreaking Gesamtkunstwerk. Demanding more time to dissertate glorifies a particular ideal of advanced study that I’m not sure deserves it: the endlessly protracted super-project that is so difficult, so important, and takes so long that by the end its writer feels both entitled to a place in its field and unfit for any other type of work.

But as I said, the chief misstep with 5+2 isn’t the five. It’s the two. Everything about this “postdoc” screams, “Danger, Will Robinson,” to me. First, the title: Participants will be known as assistant adjunct professors, a mystifyingly demeaning nomenclature that conjures images of someone who survives on the bread crusts of the regular adjuncts’ discarded bread crusts. For a position created specifically to bolster the CV, it is flabbergasting how much of a misfire that title is.

The specifics of the “+2” are also worrying. Its very existence is due to a $2.7 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, so you can see why it would be attractive to a cash-strapped public university. But everything comes with a price. In this case, it’s the creation of an adjunct factory. 5+2 is “a model of adjunctification, not one that addresses it,” argue the authors of Needs Attention, an anonymous blog critical of what many identify as an anti-humanities drive at UC–Irvine. Unlike a full-time lecturer position, an assistant adjunct’s time “is capped at two years, meaning that there is no access to even the promise of job-security through unionization. Five-plus-two increases adjunct labor, while assuming that adjunct labor doesn’t already exist.”

The Mellons have been generously trying to save the humanities through private stopgap funding for several years now. In fact, my own Mellon-co-sponsored postdoc aimed to stop me from “leaving the field” (whoops). But their palliative measures are temporary, and the cratering of the labor market is permanent. Nobody asked me, but if I had a couple billion dollars to throw at the humanities, I’d create permanent lectureships at schools like UC–Irvine instead of two years’ worth of assistant Victorian-era child chimney sweep or assistant porn booth swabber or assistant pleb positions. (An email to the Mellon Foundation for comment, and to test out this excellent theory, was not returned.)

So why should anyone outside academia even care about this fight? They shouldn’t! And that’s another reason to resolve it quickly. Despite the issues with the two, there are few good reasons to fight against the five. If academics want to go to the mat for the status quo—to insist on their inalienable right to take as long as they please to write the world’s most important dissertation, with no hegemonic invasion of deadlines and professionalization—they will only widen the gulf between themselves and a world that views them with increasing hostility.

We like to argue that the study of the humanities at the undergraduate level cultivates empathetic, articulate, well-rounded citizens of the world. This argument is correct. But it will become ever more difficult to believe it if doctoral study trains students to deride the utterly reasonable expectations of that world.