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MechE limits degree time

By Lakshmana Rao

At its Feb. 4 meeting, the Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty passed a motion that effectively limits the length of time graduate students can take to complete a master's degree in mechanical engineering. It is the first department at MIT that has sought to place limits of this kind.

The mechanical engineering faculty overwhelmingly passed a motion which stated, "A typical master's degree in mechanical engineering should not take longer that one and a half years." The motion also stated that the faculty would strive to achieve that goal.

Dean of the Graduate School Frank E. Perkins '55 praised the move, hoping that other departments would set similar time limits.

Perkins said, "This is a small but a significant step in the right direction." He added, "We hope that the other departments come up with similar statements regarding the duration of their graduate programs. `Job owning' the responsibility of implementing certain goals is the best way that things can change at MIT."

Professor of mechanical engineering Ain A. Sonin, who is also graduate coordinator of the department, said, "There is a consensus opinion among the [mechanical engineering] faculty that this is a real and an achievable goal."

Sonin added, "The motion will motivate the faculty to structure the master's program and to provide close supervision. At MIT, if the faculty agrees to do something, it will be done."

Currently, only 38 percent of the master's degree candidates in the mechanical engineering department complete their degree within one and a half years.

A study conducted by the office of the dean of the graduate school in 1987 revealed that the average time for MIT graduate students to complete doctoral degrees was 10.3 semesters -- approximately five years. This data was collected over the period 1984-1986. The number represents an average increase of nine months compared to data taken over the period 1975-1977.

Doctoral evaluations


For doctoral students, Perkins recommended that departments make a periodic evaluation of the progress made by a candidate in his doctoral program.

Although the evaluation is expected to be filled out by students as well as faculty, "it is difficult to get a frank and an open assessment from the students," Perkins said. "In cases of dispute, the student is always at a disadvantageous position."

Perkins added, "In institutions like MIT, the reasons for the increase in time for completion are slightly different. Most of our students are supported by research assistantships or fellowships and hence, teaching load is not likely to be the main contributing factor.

"One of the reasons is the increasing complexity of the problems themselves. Departments that are based on experimental programs, such as biology, show a higher increase in time to graduate than the departments which conduct research on data that is already available, such as economics. This is probably due to the fact that it is taking longer time to set up the experiments now than what it used to take a few years ago," Perkins said.

Sonin said, "It is difficult to force the PhD program into a common mold and to insist on a certain time to graduate, and hence we must expect a wider tolerance in the time to completion," Sonin said.

"Many times we do not know the specific reasons for the increasing trend and hence there is no specific way by which we can enforce a time to graduation for PhD candidates" he added.

Nationwide concern over

duration of doctoral program

There has been nationwide concern over the time students take to complete graduate programs in American universities.

A policy statement issued by the Association of Graduate Schools in November 1990 noted, "Many students [who enroll in doctoral programs] are taking too long to complete their degrees. In 1988, the median registered time to degree was 6.9 years."

The report further estimated that the average attrition rate in the doctoral programs is 50 percent.

The report identified "excessive teaching" as a major contributor to the prolonged time for completion of doctoral degrees. The report noted further that "graduate students become caught in a financial vice, with teaching as their sole source of support.

"The emergence of new and specialized subfields may lead to an accumulation of new `options' in graduate study. If unchecked by faculty counsel, the students can postpone their advancement to candidacy through a real or perceived need to demonstrate mastery of several subfields," the report stated.

The AGS report was circulated at a February meeting of the Committee on Graduate School Policy (CGSP).

Perkins said, "The contents of the report and the relevance of their recommendations to MIT will be discussed in detail in our [CGSP's] subsequent meetings."

Studies indicate that the time for completing doctoral degrees has increased by one year at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan over the period 1984-1986.