This year the Department of History made a valiant effort to recruit an exceptional graduate student. The student applied to our Ph.D. program specifically to work under my supervision. My colleagues and I did our best to enhance the department’s offer, realizing that we would be in competition with other universities for this talented young scholar. After many weeks of wavering, the student finally wrote to our Graduate Chair explaining that although his first choice remained Queen’s, he simply could not refuse a comprehensive package from a university that possesses a very strong and well-established Middle Eastern Studies program. Fresh from this disappointment, I learned with utter disbelief that the GSEC had voted for a policy that further undercuts – indeed for all intents and purposes destroys — our ability to recruit top students, particularly in international fields.
Colleagues in the humanities and social sciences have already provided qualitative and quantitative evidence that contests many of the assumptions that prompted the decision to reduce the Time to Completion in Ph.D. programs from five to four years. I am sure that members of the GSEC who voted in favour of this policy view these matters through discrete, disciplinary lenses and on the basis of their own graduate school experiences. I realize, too, that while they extol the virtues of internationalization, most Queen’s administrators and faculty do not routinely conduct social scientific, cultural or historical research in other parts of the world; nor do they require competence in multiple languages to keep up with their fields. They may also project conditions for other disciplines and regional subfields from their own facilities in the applied sciences where there exist the infrastructural and financial resources necessary to conduct “basic science” and train graduate students at the level of other research institutions. Given the fact that these differences are either invisible to or incomprehensible for many colleagues who work on the same campus, I thought, it might be useful to illustrate, through my personal graduate and post-graduate experience, the actual time and resources required to produce one of Queen’s own, internationally-recognized, faculty members in the field of Middle Eastern Studies.
My Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from Columbia University took 11 years from beginning to end, from the M.Phil. (1 year) to the dissertation defense. This was not unusual. Like many North Americans, my formal training in Middle Eastern languages awaited entry into graduate school. Beyond the seminars in history and methodology that were required for all Ph.D. students in History, my regional sub-specialty demanded four years of language courses in Arabic and Persian as well as an intensive summer program in modern Turkish abroad. [Note: Turkish, Persian and Arabic are members of three, distinct linguistic families, Ural-Altaic, Indo-European, and Semitic, respectively.] Research on my dissertation topic (the political economy of the late Ottoman Empire) entailed three years of travel to and residence in England, Italy and Turkey (where almost all primary data is located, with access to facilities often requiring special research permits) which was funded by the university, national and international fellowships. It would take another four years of sorting, translating, evaluating my notes, and writing while I held a teaching fellowship and later, worked as a full time instructor in world history to complete the dissertation.
Was this long haul worth it for my career? Absolutely. In addition to research accomplishments that fundamentally owe to formative dissertation research, in a very competitive job market I have never been unemployed: I have held three tenure-track appointments in interdisciplinary and history departments prior to joining Queen’s as its first world and Islamic historian.
Although a decade or more for completing a Ph.D. in the field was not unusual in the 1980s and early 1990s, time-to-completion rates have been reduced in Middle East Studies programs. Investments in student funding and infrastructure have been essential to improving outcomes. Top-tier Canadian and U.S. universities have expanded their library collections in historical and contemporary subjects (in multiple languages) while ramping up their language teaching in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish for undergraduates and graduate students. Long before they begin field research, Ph.D. candidates in these areas of study have not only acquired extensive training in modern languages but have also mastered specialised skills in the use of manuscript sources and historic idioms, from early modern Persian to Ottoman siyakat (a form of shorthand used in 15th-18th century bureaucratic documents) through summer language consortia and intensive language programs held in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, and Turkey.
Overall, 5 year scholarships for the Ph.D. remain the norm for Middle East-related specialties as well as for most graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. As I mentioned at the top of my letter, the applicant who turned us down this year was given a scholarship package that outstripped our best offer in terms of direct funding and training opportunities. It included $24,000 per year for five years, above tuition and health insurance. Of these fully-funded five years, two are free of research and teaching duties and will allow him to travel for research. The university provides ample opportunities for graduate students to pursue advanced language study in European, Asian and Middle Eastern languages. It possesses a fully equipped, research-level library in Middle Eastern and Islamic subject matter.
Added resources are absolutely necessary but do not totally offset the specific challenges of certain regional fields. As a faculty member in New York University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (a university with a fairly good research-level library in Persian and Arabic) in the mid-1990s, I taught and supervised many graduate students. Most of my Ph.D. students, (who now hold tenure track positions in U.S., Turkish and Canadian universities, from Simon Frasier to Concordia and from M.I.T. to Southern Methodist in Dallas and Bilge University in Istanbul) required 6 to 8 years to finish course work, complete field research, and write their dissertations. The average varied little even for students who had acquired relevant training prior to entering the Ph.D. program, including native fluency in one modern Middle Eastern language. All of my NYU students, enjoyed either university or national scholarships which enabled them to carry out 12 to 24 months of foreign research..
Given the fact that improving the Time to Completion in Ph.D. programs can only be achieved by making important investments in relevant infrastructure and increasing student fellowship packages, the GSEC’s decision to reduce support for the Ph.D. across-the-board by one fifth (effectively offering Queen’s students 20% less training and support than other research universities) seems truly extraordinary. Do those who voted for a policy that is completely out of step with the norms of major Canadian and U.S. research universities believe that Queen’s surpasses them in the quality and quantity of the infrastructure (library, fellowships, number of faculty, courses) necessary for training and research, including what is required for new, international fields like Middle Eastern social scientific and humanities studies? It is true that certain Queen’s departments have recognized the need to hire in international fields and recruit international students. However, our infrastructure remains rudimentary at best and lags decades (and in the case of our library holdings for certain subjects, perhaps a century) behind other research universities. Consider the following:
- After intensive lobbying on the part of students, the principal’s office and FAS funded the hiring of an Arabic instructor to teach two levels of modern, standard Arabic. However, FAS has lost overall foreign language capacity in the last decade, including its Russian instructor. Queen’s offers no advanced classes in Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. We still do not teach other Middle Eastern languages such as Turkish and Persian. As for the languages of more than a half billion of the world’s population such as Hindi, Urdu, Indonesian and Swahili, there are no plans, as far as I know, to add them to our curriculum.
- A late start in building, limited funds for purchasing new materials and the absence of acquisition librarians with training in non-Western fields means our secondary library collections in Middle Eastern (South and East Asian) topics remain vastly inferior to top-tier universities in Canada and, even, to many four-year institutions in the United States. Although we teach these languages, the library does not routinely buy books or subscribe to periodicals in Arabic, Chinese or Japanese. Publications or basic reference works in languages that are required by faculty specialisations are few and far between.
- No real effort has been made to address glaring inequities in research capacity for international fields. Neither the Graduate School nor Research Services has explored innovative solutions to facilitate student training in languages or compensate underserved faculty and graduate students through institutional advocacy and pro forma financial supplements to salary and stipends. One small example: Queen’s (unlike the universities in the GTA) has not reached an agreement with the University of Toronto libraries which would allow our faculty and graduate students free and direct access to their non-Western collections, much less provide us with travel funds.
Given these stark realities, the SGS’s new Time to Completion policy for many disciplines, is woefully out of touch with our needs and the practices of comparable universities. It is a blow to the reputation of our graduate programs and effectively negates the many sacrifices made by faculty to improve the quality of and support for graduate training in the humanities and social sciences generally, but especially for specializations requiring substantial international research. As for the impact of a scaled-back, seemingly “cost-effective” Ph.D. program on next year’s recruitment cycle, one need not wonder. Prominently emblazoned on the SGS website, the new policy sends an unambiguous message to the best, prospective applicants in my field: “If you seek a graduate program that aims at excellence, supports research-university standards of competence, and fully prepares its graduates to compete in national and international academic markets, apply elsewhere.”
Associate Professor, Islamic and World History Department of History, Queen’s University