During my PhD I had a lot of anxiety, took a lot of classes, read a lot, spent a lot of time in the library looking for things (including a functional Xerox-machine), talked all day (accompanied by coffee or whiskey), and I played some basketball (although I was primarily benchwarmer on the philosophy department's IM team, The Leonard Linsky's All Stars). In some respects research has become a lot easier than it was two decades ago. Journals were not easily available online, if at all; if you wanted to read an article you had to find it in the stacks. (In fact, Google did not exist when I started my PhD.) After I completed my qualifying paper (the 'preliminary essay'), it took me four years to research and write my dissertation--at Chicago that was thought to be very rapid. Altogether, I spent seven years in graduate school. During that period I did not learn how to write journal articles (recall). I also failed to learn anything about David Lewis's metaphysics or trope theory (as I discovered when I showed up at Syracuse). If I include my BA, I enjoyed eleven years of higher education.* After all that time, I ended up with a PhD that was basically incoherent (and never published).
Increasingly, in Europe, students can do the whole sequence (BA-MA-PhD) in 7-8 years, and I wouldn't be surprised this is also true of top programs Stateside. Along the way it is now not uncommon for kids to publish several papers in insanely fine journals. How is this possible? I ask myself sometimes.
A few reflections on why this may be possible:
- Selection procedures may have become better during the last few decades, and maybe the pool of would be professional philosophers is just so much better prepared. [I am unsure about this, but wouldn't rule it out because there is a lot more meritocracy now than a generation ago.]
- There is a lot more attention to professionalization during graduate school. [I am confident this is true across the board.]
- Research has gotten a LOT easier. I am a professional scholar and I rarely go to libraries anymore. [Yeah, I have some archive-based colleagues, who consider me a Ballooning, pseudo-scholar; good for them.] It really has gotten easier to find, retrieve, store (and even copy) material. While I miss reading library index cards and their marginalia -- it's an induction in a secret, invisible college of fellow scholars with enduring ethos toward the Good --, I really don't miss wasting my time looking for misplaced books anymore. [At Chicago graduate students would deliberately misplace books so they could have access to them absent a personal locker or cubicle--I never did that, but I know folk....]
- Philosophical specializations have become a lot more focused. That's hard to prove and I have other things to do with my life, but go read the classic papers of philosophy of mind in the 1960s and 70s (Putnam on robots, Putnam on meaning, Nagel on bats, Kim on supervenience, Millikan on teleosemantics, Dennett on intentional stuff, etc.), and you'll note that they say BOTH what you have been taught to remember about them and a hell of a LOT more--these papers are all over the map and discuss all kinds of (wonderful) stuff. Most of the issues of have been sorted into different sub-specializations with crispier distinctions and shared background assumptions.+
So, compared to when I was doing my PhD it is perfectly possible to cut out a lot of wasted time (i.e., the looking for material during the research part) and, ceteris paribus, still come out better prepared, more professional (whatever), etc. Undoubtedly technology and selectivity can make graduate education more efficient than in the old days.
Yet, when PhDs are shortened the ceteris is not paribus. For, if you spend two to three years less in higher education, you are also taking or auditing far fewer classes and you are also giving yourself much less time to read, to talk, and to explore new connections. To put it in economicsy terms: the investment in your human capital is lower. And, once folk hit the job-market and start a job, the temporal possibility for in-depth exploring often gets dramatically diminished. So, while there are undoubtedly gains in efficiency and productivity (as measured by academic output), it is by no means obvious the shortened PhD generates equal improvements in quality (the reader is welcome to exclude herself here).
One bit of evidence that the thrust of the previous paragraph is not wholly silly (and mid-life-crisis-talk), is the existence of extended, relatively-research-intensive post-doctoral positions in the Humanities which are, I think, becoming more prevalent (certainly in Europe). The reason for their existence undoubtedly has to do with political economy (and lab-science-envy). But, in effect, they allow recent PhDs to regain some of the years of research that used to be available. Of course, in practice they tend to generate hyper-specialization and sophistication--but that may be good for all I know. For, in the old days, prior to the wide use of mobile phones and google-maps, if you were late for a meeting, you could waste forever looking for somebody even in the same bar.
*It's true that at Chicago, the average time in graduate school was higher than elsewhere. In fact, I was part of a Mellon funded experimental program to try to speed up completion rates of Chicago Humanities ABDs by making it near-impossible to get another grant after the Mellon grant. To be the rat in somebody else's maze is no fun.
+I have noted that a famous paper (and that I still admire) that appeared during my PhD, "Thinking about mechanisms" by P Machamer, L. Darden, CF Craver in Philosophy of science (2000) [here for direct access], is not especially strong on modality (because, I suspect, HPS types were really not that excited about Kripke or Lewis in those days).