The Perils of Thoroughness for Ph.D. Students

My close friend who lived to 81 worked on a Ph.D. in history until five months past her 74th birthday.  “June” finished the courses, passed the foreign language test, prepared for the comprehensive exams, picked a dissertation topic, and then decided to stop.  The immediate cause for withdrawing: her mind and body began to slow.  Retaining information was harder—for instance, she would forget the start of a chapter as she read the middle and end.  Breast cancer, spinal stenosis, and intestinal challenges stole time and energy.            

But the deeper cause for dropping out preceded medical roadblocks.  Her thoroughness became a liability.  She wanted her papers to include everything she found.  Diligence, hard work, and boundless curiosity turned each assignment into a major project.             

June started graduate school in a Master of Liberal Arts (MALS) program, not a history Ph.D.  She returned to school at 64 soon after her third husband died.  She sold their house and moved to a retirement community so she could focus on school.  Seminars on film, poetry, gender, literature, war, and art thrilled her.  None of the assignments required extensive research, so her papers were usually five to ten pages.  But the capstone MALS thesis was different.              

June spent an entire year on a biography of a famous actress.  The eleven chapters (193 pages) had 279 endnotes (67 pages) followed by 12 single spaced appendices, including a 40 page entry with quotations on 28 different topics.  The MALS director praised her thesis as the most thorough biography ever written on the screen star.   For June, it demonstrated that she could succeed in graduate school: “the product of some level of monomania, the work is, nevertheless, proof that, once engaged, I am tenacious in exploring any path that leads to a fuller understanding of the subject at hand.”  She had the same horsepower that she said was the best word to describe the actress.             

June was rewarded for her stamina.  The 451 page biography won the prize for the best thesis in the MALS program.   The University’s librarian invited June to give a lecture; she also organized a three-day film festival.  Several friends encouraged her to publish the work as a book.             

What she did instead was submit the thesis as her writing sample when she applied to the Ph.D. program in history.  At 68, she would pursue the dream born at Smith College in the late 1950s, when her advisor, political scientist Cecilia Kenyon, urged her to earn a doctorate.  The Marine Corps, marriage, work, children, and two divorces intervened, but great ambition endured.  Kenyon had encouraged her to write a Freedom Manifesto, the equivalent of the landmark works by Marx and Mao.  June wanted her historical research to improve contemporary life.  That would satisfy her parents who, when she was eight, told her she was a genius and must therefore do something special in her life to help the world.            

A genius probably earns more than a 3.0 grade point average at Smith, scores higher than 380 on the math GRE, and doesn’t struggle with foreign languages.  June qualified for learning disability accommodations when the three doctoral seminars in her first semester overwhelmed her.  A battery of tests revealed significant strengths in several areas (especially verbal comprehension) and significant challenges elsewhere (especially processing speed).  Tutors advised her to change her study strategies—reading to participate in class discussion isn’t the same as reading to take research notes— and shorten her extensive underlining to leave room for summaries and questions.             

That advice was helpful, but the urge to be exhaustive remained.  Her enduring commitment to breadth posed two problems.  First, the topics she selected were vast–Presidential primaries, 17th century English political theory, 18th century republicanism, the modern food industry, and other enormous subjects for which even a long paper would be too short.  Her professors urged her to focus; several insisted on it, to her dismay.  For one course, her proposal sketched five huge topics (the first of the five: “How did the Populists and the Progressives differ?”) that eventually became a case study of one Populist.   In another seminar, the professor told the class to summarize the scholarly literature on one topic, but she decided to write a 94 page research paper (which included eight single spaced appendices).   He gave her an A, but also said “I should not have accepted this paper in its current form.  It is unfair to your classmates that ultimately you pursued an entirely different assignment than they did.”             

What June thought was unfair was the traditional 25 page limit on papers.  “They want me to set aside 75% of what I know is relevant.  That feels like self-rape.”  Thoroughness had won praise in the Marines in 1961—for instance, when she cleaned the toilets, she bought a can of Brasso to polish every metal part—but her academic drill sergeants after 2006 were less pleased.            

The second problem:  it was hard to find a central point in each paper.  “I shouldn’t have to look for your argument,” one professor wrote.  “Decide what’s important and what’s not—use what they say to support what you want to say.”  Another reminded her that writing should answer a question, not  catalog interesting information.  A third instructor observed that she summarized each author’s claim and then said it was persuasive rather than analyze its credibility.  Instead of ripping apart what she read, she was deferential.  June’s footnotes revealed deep respect for The Authorities—she often gave biographical information for the authors she cited, listed the call numbers of all the books in a bibliography, and included conversations with department faculty as interviews.      

Scaling back to one seminar each semester let her continue to write long papers, but it also meant that she was still taking courses after four years in the program, and using winter and summer breaks to finish papers several months after the due dates.  Along the way she passed the foreign language requirement; to do the job well she took a one semester leave of absence, hired a tutor, and audited a class.  The only remaining hurdles were the comprehensive exams.  At age 73, she planned to devote nine months to the four comps.  She compiled massive reading lists which her committee said were too long, and she drafted ambitious questions which they said were too broad. At no point did June seek the shortcuts many graduate students take: do the minimum to pass the language exams, including failing the first time, and assume that your dissertation committee has decided in advance that you will pass the comps.             

The prospect of the comprehensive exams, followed by at least two dissertation years on the history of presidential primaries, convinced June to withdraw from the program in December, 2012. She decided to use her horsepower to travel, see friends, and even take several noncredit courses.  When I stored in my basement a dozen boxes of her course notes, she told me that she never regretted the ten years devoted to graduate school.  I told her that the MALS biography was the equivalent of many dissertations—she had fulfilled the spirit of the Ph.D. even without the diploma, and her 3.8 grade point average was another badge of merit.              

I also said, It’s a shame that American universities don’t truly appreciate masters degrees. That is one lesson of this story.  The coursework and research in a prolonged masters rarely saves time in a Ph.D. program.            

Another lesson:  strength can be weakness.  Throughout her life June was meticulous and well-organized.  She compensated for slow reading by double-checking and documenting important decisions as well as daily tasks.  Her record-keeping was fastidious—checkbook entries to the penny, hard copies of faculty emails, typed labels on manila folders, 18 pages of instructions to the executor of her small estate, and so on.  She appreciated what economist Henry Rosovsky said of graduate students: “talent alone is no longer sufficient…we should also look for passion, preferably even an obsession with the proposed subject” (The University: An Owner’s Manual, p151).  Painstaking vigilance would offset her reading disability.  But too much thoroughness can undercut analysis and creativity.  Fresh ideas and original insights don’t necessarily arise from close attention to detail.  And intellectually omnivorous exertion can become an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which afflicted June in 2016.  The terror of making a mistake, the belief that no one else is properly watchful, the fear that it is dangerous to throw anything away: her conscientious alertness gave way to painful anxiety until her doctors found the right drugs to subdue it.             

And here is a final lesson.  There are many ways to study the past, but most graduate programs focus on one way: dig into primary sources, find something original, and publish the results in either an article or a book.  That was the message June heard again and again.  Her preference for synthesis and summary was a bad habit to change, not a virtue to develop.  With a broader view of the PhD, faculty could have encouraged June to use her formidable organizational skills as an archivist.  Or she might have been an excellent copyeditor—she exquisitely proofread her classmates’ papers.  And the appendices in her masters thesis displayed a gift for creating anthologies of documents, another career path rarely encouraged.   Perhaps we need to prepare several kinds of scholars rather than assume that the traditional program is the route for everyone.     

Dr. Robert L. Hampel is a professor emeritus in the School of Education at the University of Delaware and a historian of education who also studies contemporary educational policy. In December 2017, Dr. Hampel published Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education, a book on “shortcuts to learning” or the legitimate and bogus ways to make education (or its illusion) both faster and easier.