grad school · hiring · ideas for change · job market · turgid institution

Toward a less laughable PhD in the Humanities

OK, it’s agreed: graduate students are not witless naives and deans are not brutal cynics. But what is it about the structure of graduate school that makes both of those roles recognizable? I want to pick up where Erin’s Monday post and its thoughtful comments leave off, and offer a few ideas for making our graduate programs better.

When you think about the kind of work we academics actually do (solving problems, organizing complex tasks, coaching and mentoring, reading, writing, teaching, learning), it sounds, as Erin points out, like a socially valuable kind of critical thinking. I don’t object to bringing people into a PhD program and telling them, up front, that the job market’s tough: it’s not my place to police other people’s passions, and the last thing I want is to sit on an admissions committee saying, “You want to know more? You’re not done ‘learning’? You have a curiosity that can’t be sated? No and again no: this program is for people with a well wrought, externally funded doctoral project!” Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say.

But I do find it unethical to bring people into a program that trains them in unnecessarily narrow ways for a job market that doesn’t exist.

When doctoral students in the humanities drop out of Canadian PhD programs (and, incidentally, they take on average eight years to quit – roughly the same length of time as it takes to complete the degree), funding is part of the story. But it’s one in a longish list of reasons, most of which are well within our power to change. According to the CAGS survey published in 2003 (old now, but still the most recent material published by CAGS and, to my knowledge, anyone else in Canada), students cite the following as their reasons for not finishing the PhD:

  1. insufficient funding
  2. lack of constructive supervision
  3. inappropriate program design
  4. academic isolation
  5. too extensive a scope for the thesis
  6. lack of readiness for graduate school.

Funding is tough, though it has improved markedly (and, yes, unevenly) in the last seven years. #6, lack of readiness, is similarly hard to remedy – grad students sometimes surprise themselves, their families and their admissions committees by discovering they’re not cut out for grad school after all. So I’d like to bracket those two factors in order to ask whether we can’t address the middle issues.

Lack of constructive supervisi0n/too big a scope for the thesis: It seems to me that these are part of the same issue, because a well supervised student should not be pursuing too big a thesis topic. What does that mean, “well supervised”? Should we pre-assign supervisors/advisors/mentors or let students find their own way? How often should we meet with students? for how long? What does it look like to work “together” on a grant proposal?: it’s normal in some disciplines for supervisors to essentially write the student’s proposal, and it’s not unheard of in others for supervisors to refuse to read a draft. Where do we draw our lines? What about reading a thesis: should we hold out for complete chapters or read “chunks” in draft form? When students don’t want to meet, should we push them? What about when they’re not writing (and don’t want to talk about it)? What’s the optimal use of a supervisory committee? Is our single-supervisor model the best one? Should a single supervisory model work for everyone? Should a single supervisory model work for the same student over time? I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions (though you know me, I have opinions): but I would like to hear frank conversations about them, conversations that include new and experienced supervisors, new, experienced and recently completed graduate students, and academic administrators.

Inappropriate program design: We say a PhD is four years long, we increasingly fund for three, and yet … and yet students take anywhere from five to nine years to finish most PhDs in the Humanities. Why? Is it possible that requirements have accreted? – that we added professional expectations like conference presentations and publishing without eliminating anything else (like coursework or language requirements)? Is it possible that something qualitative about doctoral work has changed (see next point)? Are exams the best way of marking milestones? Should we have coursework at all? Defenses? Theses? Is the way “we” did it, back in the twentieth century, the way students should pursue doctoral studies today? What about Erin’s suggestion of coop programs, pedagogical commons? Or what if we organized around skills instead of areas/documents? In short, how long should a PhD program be, and what, ideally, should it look like?

Academic isolation: “Go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis!” Wait, no, that’s not what we say. We say, “Congratulations on passing your candidacy exam! Now you have time to think, time you’ll never have again, time I never have. Treasure these months: this is the best time of your life. Now, go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis. Oh, incidentally: make it the first draft of a monograph.” And so we banish students to an utterly (well, often) structureless environment where they can watch each rent day come – and go – and come again, while they agonize in silence over a task they a) don’t necessarily understand, b) can’t simply think their way through, and c) haven’t been equipped for, what with our programs’ emphasis on short-term projects (coursework) and performances (exams). My question: is this the way to produce the kind of colleagues we want?

I don’t think these are simple issues, and I don’t think they have simple answers. Each has a material component I have glossed over too readily here (for instance: more office space = less isolation). I respect that some of my colleagues find the sole-authored disciplinary monograph a satisfying intellectual life. But I wonder about prescribing it for others, for everybody. If Deborah Rhode’s recent stat – and I’m sorry, I’m writing this post far away from my library and cannot look this up – that upwards of 90% of scholarly monographs are never even borrowed from the library, let alone cited, I just think we oughta ask whether the monograph-style dissertation is still the sine qua non of doctoral education. Above all I want to acknowledge here that we don’t really know how to change graduate education, and homo academicus hates not to know. Still, just because it’s not known doesn’t mean it can’t be known.

Should PhD programs in the Humanities be small? I’m not convinced they should. I’m not at all comfortable with a future that assumes all PhDs are in applied and medical sciences (’cause you can bet that Engineering is not closing the barn door anytime soon). More to the point, I’m not convinced that I want to give up on the vision of advanced study in the humanities – province, after all, of human life and the imagination, language, history, and our conceptual orientation to the world through time and across space. Call me crazy, but these things seem to me … what’s the word … indispensable.

So I’m for rethinking the doctoral degree in a way that makes it broad, rationalized, useful (to students, to society, to the profession) and complete-able in under four years. Who’s in?

8 thoughts on “Toward a less laughable PhD in the Humanities

  1. I love your idea of a less laughable Ph.D. We took a very wrong turn in thinking the humanities had to be somehow outside of the market, outside of change . . . . and then found ourselves whining when students (who need to support themselves sometimes) began equating the humanities with joblessness and then, with our numbers declining, universities began to cut us. It's crazy to me that the humanities are not central in the (duh!) Information Age. Duke University has challenged me and my HASTAC colleagues to come up with a “less laughable” MA degree–yep Master of Arts. We're callint it the Master of Arts in Knowledge and Networks, and it combines deep theoretical and historical knowledge with unthinkable things like community/communications/interface residencies that require business plans, data mining, technology skills all rooted in critical thinking about the role of technology in society as well as collaborative and project management skills. We've posted the MAKN on Comment Press and would love your feedback, anyone's feedback, partnerships, resource ideas, and on and on. Thanks for this provocative blog!


  2. I'm in. For the English Ph.D, I think we should have 5-year (and then CUT OFF) Ph.D programmes that run the way we have them now (I think they work) but with funding all the way through. They will be more selective than they are now. Plus I want a two-year Ph.D with a third-year co-op option in publishing and editing, and another one in creative writing. If students want to drop out of the longer programme, they can go into that one too. My dad got one of these 2-year professional Ph.Ds in Education in the 1960s and it seemed to work for him.


  3. Before my comment, I do just want to say that I loved my English doctoral experience; I wouldn't trade it for anything, and if I had to redo my life all over again, I would still complete that Ph.D. where I did it and with whom I worked. However, I'm not everyone, am I?

    So, I agree with the notion of a re-think of the English Ph.D. There are countless English M.A. programs out there (with/without thesis, coursework only, co-op, creative writing, publishing etc.), and it makes sense for the English Ph.D. to offer some of that flexibility. Also, echoing Dr. Identity's comment about “exit strategies,” in my experience, I think that many English Ph.D.s continue on into their 8th year (either finishing or not) because in years 3, 4, 5… they can't see their way through NOT finishing. How does one explain a 5 year resume gap without a degree at the end of it? How does one justify all that time/energy etc. spent without a degree at the end of it? etc. So they/we push onwards deeper into the rabbit hole. But if we could take a right turn at some point, and still (a) have something to show for our efforts and (b) have something meaningful into which we can put our energies, wouldn't that be a good idea?


  4. I did my PhD in the UK and then worked as an academic there for several years before returning to Canada.

    In the UK there is very little coursework (used to be none, now some methods training) and no comprehensive exams. The PhD is maximum 4 years.

    Yes, it used to take people longer, but the funding councils cracked down and blacklisted departments that didn't have a significant percentage (initially 80% maybe higher now) of their students finishing in that time. That meant no student proposing to do a PhD at a blacklisted department could get doctoral funding from the council. Powerful motivator for universities to do something about it.

    There was much discussion about the scope of the PhD and many universities instituted policies (and training) around graduate supervision. When I worked at University of Birmingham students were entitled to see their supervisor fortnightly. I usually recommended monthly to my students but reminded them that they had every right to come and see me more frequently if needed.

    A supervisory committee structure came into practice with the explicit goal of annually reviewing progress (against the 4 year completion), identifying issues, and fixing them.

    There was also a lot of discussion of what a PhD was. If it is going to be a 4 year degree we have to recognize that it is an entry ticket. It is a training project. Yes, it should be publishable (though not necessarily as a book). But it is basically a transition from student to independent researcher and should indicate the capacity to work as a researcher.

    Personally, I found supervising graduate students — helping them develop and execute their projects — very rewarding. That experience was an important influence on my decision to pursue my current role as a career coach for academics.


  5. Having just finished my doctorate, I'd like to add one further idea to the above comments regarding “exit strategies”: the fear of finishing. My PhD-earning friends and I have discussed the fear (and dread) that comes with contemplating the end of our degrees. While we may have been semi-miserable writing our dissertations, we still recognized the warm, cocooning calmness of a graduate program with set goals. Our fear comes from the lack of structure that lies on the other side of the degree.

    I really have no idea how to counteract this fear. Not everyone has it, of course, but for the percentage who are overwhelmingly happy to finish their degrees, I think there is also a corresponding percentage who are absolutely terrified to finish their degrees, and to rethink their identities inside the academy (or in the larger work world).


  6. Hm. Very interesting. Here are three ways I can see into these issues:

    Supervision / Isolation: our grad committee at Waterloo has been working on creating meaningful milestones in our PhD, so that there is some structure after the exams. There's a biiiiig gap between ABD and PhD, that seems really … amorphous. So now we're working on a common timeframe–and a deadline with consequences–for 'have dissertation proposal approved,' for example. We've also written up our sense of what other, non-graded (if you will) milestones students should aim for: when you might propose and present at a conference, when you should be applying for external funding, when you should have a draft of a chapter done. We also now specify how often to meet, minimally, with supervisor and committee, to clarify everyone's role in this process. As a faculty member, frankly, I risk being at a loss as to my responsibilities and scope of activity, and I really like this milestone document for being explicit about who does what, when, and in consultation with whom.

    Scope: I tell all my graduate students, the ones that I supervise, the ones whose SSHRC apps I review, the ones I teach, that it seems like a big part of my job is to tell them their projects are too big and baggy. Everyone attempts too much. I think that's part of the process. It's less awful if you know everyone does it. I try to model that the process of narrowing or expanding or altering or refining a project's scope is part of the process — not part of failing the process.

    Jobs and Money: I knew going into my PhD that the market was terrible for profs. I knew this going into my MA. The deal I made with myself then was that if I had to go into debt to do my degrees, I wouldn't do them. That way, my grad degrees were my job: maybe not the best paying job in the world, but not the worst, and doing something I enjoyed. I tell my own students, and prospective students, that they shouldn't do these degrees (esp. the PhD) if it costs them money–you can't go in for that many years and just hope for a payoff. At worst, with no job in hand, I would have come out of my PhD like any other worker shifting from one job to another. Not a huge amount of savings, but not desperately underwater and feeling like the world should be ready to pay for it.


  7. Dr ID–Does the idea of of a “junior” PhD for creative writing and/or publishing relegate those who choose such a degree to second-class status in job/funding applications? I am in year 6 of PhD, working like to mad to finish. But I have been working more than full time for $$ since year three — teaching three, four, and five courses per term (plus spring and summer sessions) spread over 3 institutions, working outside the academy, doing service work inside and outside the academy, scraping together publications, raising a family, etc. etc. The usual. The fact is careerist ideals and perfectly-structured academic programs do not always match the necessary conditions (and constraints) of living in the world. Is a PhD laughable? Only to those who have a vested interested in laughing. Is it bankable? Probably not. Am I complaining? No — I spent too many years in the “real world” of corporatism. Insert cliches here: You have to roll with the punches; keep your head up; turn a bug into a feature; luck equals preparedness meeting opportunity; etc.


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