Dr. Richard Wheeler
of the Graduate College
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Most graduate deans who are about my age received their doctorates in the late sixties or seventies after four or five years of study, sometimes less, including the dissertation, whether or not they were in the sciences or the humanities. Many of us are at least a little puzzled by exactly what has happened within graduate education to have extended so considerably the average time to degree in the years since we received ours.
I don't think there is an easy way to reverse the trend, and probably it should not be entirely reversed. Certainly doctorates in English are taking away from their graduate education a much deeper and more nuanced historical knowledge about literary practices than I did in 1970, and they have become much more fully professionalized than I even dreamed of being at that time. The first of these is an intrinsically good development, and the second is now so tied to the performance expectations of tenure committees that it is probably necessary for practical reasons.
Still, when one is in a graduate program for as long as many students now are, something happens to one's sense of time and of the place of graduate education in the longer rhythms of education and learning and, for that matter, of life. Doctoral education comes to feel less and less like a transitory stage, with one's approaching exit from that stage always a part of one's thinking about it. It becomes easy to forget, or to put away somewhere in the back one's mind, that an exceptionally important goal of every dissertation project is to finish it.
So, my advice is simple. Build into all your thinking about your dissertation a realistic assessment of a completion date, and keep that goal in the forefront of your thinking about your dissertation at every phase of work you do on it. If you like baseball metaphors, think like a closer - the pitcher who comes in for the late innings, whose goal is to get the game over while holding on to the victory.