The Department of English and Film Studies at University of Alberta undertook a major review of its PhD program beginning in 2005. Over the course of four years, the graduate committee reviewed all aspects of our program, researched studies of doctoral programs in the humanities, and consulted extensively with the department. We established a set of principles to guide the development of the new program, which included streamlining the program to facilitate timely completion of the degree (within four or at most five years); increasing the extent, quality, and diversity of the intellectual community and research culture for graduate students; enhancing teacher training; and integrating the program as much as possible, so students experience it as ongoing training, not a series of atomized activities. After considering a number of possible program changes and an extensive consultation process, the department approved the new program in spring 2008, and the first class of students began in 2010.
The key innovations in the program are reduced course work (so that all requirements except those directly related to the thesis would be completed in the first year), increased mentoring for both teaching and thesis writing, and a candidacy exam structured around the thesis proposal. Our main innovations were to the second-year curriculum, which is designed to move students from course work though the candidacy exams with structured support and to help them learn to balance teaching and research. At the end of the first year, students do a short statement of research plan, which is designed to help them decide on the research needed for the long thesis proposal; hence they should begin the second year with a formulated thesis topic. The second year has three components: mentored teaching, the PhD colloquium, and an optional thesis proposal writing workshop. The teaching mentor groups, led by a faculty member, are designed to improve teacher training and to help students manage their time so that they can do research. The PhD colloquium, facilitated by two faculty members, goes beyond the more specialized introduction to specific areas of inquiry offered in graduate courses to a consideration of issues and debates that engage people working in a number of fields and that animate the discipline as a whole; it is designed to help students consider the epistemological, analytical, ethical, and rhetorical choices they must make to do their research. The thesis proposal writing workshop, facilitated by one faculty member, helps students draft each section of the thesis proposal, both by setting deadlines and by discussing strategies for research and writing. The goal is to have a draft of the thesis proposal by March of the second year so that students can complete their candidacy by May. Our research about success in doctoral programs indicated two things that drove this second-year curriculum: time to candidacy determined time to completion and completion rates, and isolation is a key problem facing doctoral students in the humanities. The second-year curriculum is thus designed to offer a variety of professional, intellectual, and social supports, in lab-like atmospheres, to students transitioning to independent research. It is also designed to build momentum on the thesis writing, as they finish their candidacy with a substantial (25–40 page) proposal.