This article purports to offer advice on how to fast-track a Ph.D.–in three years! Let’s take a look.

I devoured my college’s grad programs handbook and strategized. After a year of coursework, I would take the required candidacy exam during the summer. I would also take courses during the summer, so that I could finish the coursework in two years. In my second summer I would take comprehensives and combine the comps defense with the dissertation proposal meeting. Then, I would take papers I had written on the same theme throughout the two years of coursework and make them over into chapters, creating a final dissertation. Though there were a few mishaps, my strategy played out in just that way. I really was able to complete my Ph.D. — coursework, comprehensives, dissertation, teaching requirements — in three years. I entered the program in August 2001, and was hooded in May 2004.

Impressive, and good advice to boot. If you’re aiming to get out quick, you gotta have a strategy. On the other hand, the idea of taking the qualifying/candidacy exam while taking summer classes, and combining the oral exam with the diss proposal? I guess it’s a good gig if you can get it, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it.

Then there’s her anecdote about how she actually wrote the diss. Here’s where my skepticism really kicks in:

Another crucial piece of the puzzle involves working on the dissertation as part of your coursework. I was able finish the bulk of the work while I was taking classes because I chose my classes with the end project in mind: my goal was to use class papers as eventual chapters in the dissertation. This worked much better than I could have hoped; I seemed to choose just the right seminar classes with research paper assignments that would allow me to cover the different facets of my topic.

I suppose this might work in communications, but I can’t imagine this working in English or history. Even if your aim was to become hyper-specialized, you’d most likely be meeting some distribution requirements. In my program, for example, I’m pretty certain I’d have been flunked out if I’d written papers about eighteenth-century satire in seminars on Chaucer or modernism.

To be fair, the author admits that her advice doesn’t apply to some fields. But I wonder: in just how many fields is this kind of advice applicable? It sounds a bit too much like the “git’r done” advice that’s so casually tossed around. Sure, in retrospect most grad students would admit that they probably could have shaved off a bit of their stay. Likewise, every program has some lifers, and every program has that one legend who finished at warp speed. But in statistics, we call those people the exceptions that prove the rule.

It’s also especially hard to comment on the dean’s remarks, from the beginning of the article:

He cautioned us about losing our way; Ph.D. students took an average time of six years at the college to finish their degree. He acknowledged this was not a good trend. It wasn’t that students couldn’t finish earlier, they seemed to want to stay here because they had “set up housekeeping,” so to speak. In the most memorable line of the orientation, he advised us to learn from “the corpses along the road”: grad students who had stalled in their quest to finish and were content as “ABDs.” “Don’t become a corpse,” he warned.

Granted, he’s ultimately right: the system is what it is, and you’ve got to game it if you want to finish and get a job. But it takes a special kind of administrative asshole to inform the incoming grad students that their funding has been slashed, but then to tell them that the real problem is grad students “setting up housekeeping” and “becoming corpses.” At a big state university, no less, during the meeting where you’re introducing yourself to the people that you’ve hired to do the job of the faculty lines you’ve been whittling down for decades. Let’s give it up for heroic leadership like that. Is it possible to be a bigger wanker? Yes, but it takes uncommon skill and perseverance.