Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
The Relationship between Funding and Time to PhD
(Updated September 2015)

The extended time-to-degree for humanities PhDs has received considerable attention in recent years, with a substantial focus on the relationship between particular types of funding (such as assistantships, loans, and personal earnings) and progress toward the doctorate. Drawing on data from the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the indicators below show the variation in time to degree by the primary type of funding reported by doctorate recipients. Please note, however, that these indicators can only show a relationship between particular types of funding and time to degree. Determining whether that relationship is causal will require additional research. A particular type of funding may signal factors that cannot be identified from the SED but are more significant in determining time to degree—such as the quality of the student or the time he or she has available to work on the degree.

Findings and Trends

  • For each funding type, recent PhDs in the humanities took longer to complete their degrees than did graduates in other fields. Humanities majors who relied on personal sources of income took longest of all (with a median of 8.7 years for graduates from 2011 to 2013; Indicator II-24a). When compared to the life and physical sciences, the median time to degree in the humanities was at least a year longer for every type of funding. That difference fell to below a year in comparison to the social sciences only for graduates relying on fellowships, scholarships, and assistantships.
  • Recent PhDs who relied primarily on their personal finances or an employer’s support reported the longest median time to degree in the humanities and every other broad field of study. Looking at all academic fields together, the median time to degree for 2011–2013 graduates was 7.2 years among those who relied on personal sources, as compared to 6.7 years among those who relied on either loans or support from a spouse or partner. Graduates who relied primarily on fellowships, scholarships, grants, and assistantships spent an even shorter time in their programs, with a median of 5.7 years.
  • From 2002 to 2013, the median time in program for graduates relying on personal sources of support declined slightly in every field except the physical sciences (which remained essentially static; Indicator II-24b). In the humanities, the median time to degree for these students fell from 9.1 to 8.7 years, while among graduates from all fields, the median declined from 8.2 to 7.2 years.
  • When time spent on coursework and exams is separated from time spent on the dissertation, variation across fields in time to degree becomes less distinct (due in part to the way the SED asks students to report this information; for details, see “About the Data” for Indicator II-24c), but the data do reveal that, from 2011 to 2013, humanities and social sciences graduates had a median time of four years in the coursework/exam stage, regardless of the source of support, while graduates in the life and physical sciences had a median of two years.
  • Among PhDs graduating 2011–2013 who relied on personal sources of support, humanities graduates spent more time in the coursework/exam stage (five years, as opposed to four for graduates in other fields). Among PhDs who had relied primarily on fellowships, scholarships, grants, and assistantships, humanities doctorate holders also took longer than students in other fields. Only in the case of students financing their education with loans did students in another field, social sciences, spend longer in the coursework/exam stage of their doctoral program.
  • At the dissertation-writing stage, almost no difference was observed among the fields on time to completion, with a median of three years for almost every field and source of support from 2011 to 2013 (Indicator II-24d). The only exceptions were among those who relied primarily on loans (where the graduates in the life and social sciences had a median of two years) and among those who relied on support from a spouse, partner, or family (where social science graduates had a median of two years).
  • Among the individual humanities disciplines, the time spent at each stage of doctoral study fell within a year of the median for all funding types among 2011–2013 graduates (Indicator II-24e). PhDs in history stand out for having among the shortest median times at the coursework/exam stage for every type of financial support except one—personal/employer resources. In contrast, graduates in languages other than English had among the longest median times at this stage for three out of five types of support.
  • Only history PhDs reported a median time in the dissertation stage of four years for all funding types (except Other; Indicator II-24f). The median time for all other humanities disciplines was three years for most funding types. The exceptions were philosophy students who relied primarily on loans and students in philosophy or languages other than English who relied primarily on personal or family support, each of whom had a median overall time of four years.
II-24a: Median Years to Doctorate,* by Primary Type of Financial Support and Broad Field of Study** for PhDs Graduating 2011–2013

* Time in doctoral program is measured as the difference between the month and year the doctorate was granted and the month and year the student started his or her doctoral program (or most recent master’s degree program, if the master’s was earned at the same institution as the doctorate).
** Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
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II-24b: Median Years to Doctorate* for PhDs Reporting Personal Savings/Earnings or Employer Support as Their Primary Type of Financial Support, by Broad Field of Study,** Graduation Years 2002–2013

* Time in doctoral program is measured as the difference between the month and year the doctorate was granted and the month and year the student started his or her doctoral program (or most recent master’s degree program, if the master’s was earned at the same institution as the doctorate).
** Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
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II-24c: Median Years Taking Courses or Preparing for Exams for the Doctorate,* by Primary Type of Financial Support and Broad Field of Study,** for PhDs Graduating 2011–2013

* The median estimated time in coursework and exams cannot be directly compared to the total median time in program used in Indicators II-24a and II-24b because the questions about time in particular stages of doctoral study are worded differently. (See “About the Data” for details.)
** Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological, biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indII-24c.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-24c_1.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-24c.pdf
II-24d: Median Years Working on the Dissertation,* by Primary Type of Financial Support and Broad Field of Study,** for PhDs Graduating 2011–2013

* The median estimated time in coursework and exams cannot be directly compared to the total median time in program used in Indicators II-24a and II-24b because the questions about time in particular stages of doctoral study are worded differently. (See “About the Data” for details.)
** Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indII-24d.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-24d.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-24d.pdf
II-24e: Median Years Taking Courses or Preparing for Exams for the Doctorate, by Primary Type of Financial Support and Humanities Discipline,* for PhDs Graduating 2011–2013

* The median estimated time in coursework and exams cannot be directly compared to the total median time in program used in Indicators II-24a and II-24b because the questions about time in particular stages of doctoral study are worded differently. (See “About the Data” for details.) “Letters” encompasses English and American languages and literatures, as well as creative writing and comparative literature.
** Differs from the “other humanities” category used in standard Survey of Earned Doctorates publications in that it excludes philosophy, religion/religious studies, and Bible/biblical studies.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indII-24e.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-24e.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-24e.pdf
II-24f: Median Years Working on the Dissertation, by Primary Type of Financial Support and Humanities Discipline,* for PhDs Graduating 2011–2013

* The median estimated time in coursework and exams cannot be directly compared to the total median time in program used in Indicators II-24a and II-24b because the questions about time in particular stages of doctoral study are worded differently. (See “About the Data” for details.) “Letters” encompasses English and American languages and literatures, as well as creative writing and comparative literature.
** Differs from the “other humanities” category used in standard Survey of Earned Doctorates publications in that it excludes philosophy, religion/religious studies, and Bible/biblical studies.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

About this DataRelated Indicators
../cmsData/xls/indII-24f.xlsx../cmsData/ppt/indII-24f.ppt../cmsData/pdf/indII-24f.pdf