Ph.D. Octopus

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Hard Truths and a Heavy Heart for the Humanities

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by David

A Scholar Who Probably Had More Career Options than I do

I love the humanities. I love my discipline of history. I do intellectual history, meaning I use literary and philosophical sources as well. I love literature. I love philosophy. I love art and art history. I see value in studying the humanities for their own sake. I think teaching the humanities can impart important life and career skills, including critical thinking, clear writing, and logical argumentation. I think the content of a humanities education is useful too, and not just for cocktail parties, but for learning the lessons of history, examining moral questions, identifying the aesthetic value of cultural production, and appreciating peoples of different backgrounds.

Despite all this, I support (some) cuts to the humanities at the university level. Not because I want to. But because there is no real choice. Let me explain.

I’ve read a lot of articles about how shitty it is to be pursuing a doctorate in the humanities these days, but none on what that means for professors. Until now. This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education is a must-read for doctoral students and their professors. The gist: graduate programs are shrinking, and with that, professors have fewer doctoral students to train, thus damaging one major reason they became professors in the first place.

“The only place I can really use some of the research I have is at the graduate level, and now I don’t have someone to impart it to,” says Anthony Colantuono, an associate professor of art history at Maryland, whose department held a retreat this month to talk about how to maintain a vibrant graduate program while admitting only a couple of students a year…. “You want to pass that on; otherwise it could be lost for good,” he says. With fewer graduate students enrolling, that loss is a real threat. “We are all terrified by this,” he says, “because as researchers we’re committed to graduate teaching.”….

The history department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison cut its new graduate admissions in half this past fall, to just 21 students. “Why train people if the outlook for professional historians is not nearly as good as it was five years ago?” asks Laird Boswell, director of graduate studies in the department….

[Frank] Donoghue, the English professor at Ohio State, has written a forthcoming article for the journal Pedagogy about the phenomenon. “The privilege of teaching a graduate seminar every year, or at least every two years, long ago came to become an expected perk of faculty teaching jobs at Ohio State,” he says. “It clearly can’t be anymore, but who gets seminars and who doesn’t has become an increasingly significant factor in faculty morale.”

This sucks. And yet, as the article notes, Penn State’s history department has come to grips with this reality and is adopting a new strategy in response. They’ve cut “entire subfields,” and are no longer accepting students pursuing 20th century US history, medieval history, or modern European history.

“This is the way of the future, and we’re way ahead of the curve here,” says Michael Kulikowski, chairman of the history department, which was featured at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association as one of 10 departments doing innovative things. “People have been talking about the oversupply of unemployable Ph.D.’s in the humanities for several decades, and I think we’ve found a part of the solution. We are concentrating on areas where we can place students competitively.”

Furthermore, there are some graduate students who are ok with this, namely, the ones who still get in. I’ve been saying this for a long time, as a member of NYU’s proto-union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, or GSOC, and at history department grad student meetings. The biggest complaint is always always always lack of money, be it summer funding, or money for childcare, or research, or dental insurance. Well if we had half as many history students, there’d be more money to go around, and all those problems would be solved. And there’d be fewer people competing for the dwindling number of jobs.

It’s important to be realistic here, even if it comes off as elitist. From my perspective, as a job seeker in the academy, it’s quite practical. Let’s take a quick look at the U.S. News ranking for top doctoral programs in history (not the best metric, I know, but a reasonable one for this purpose). As a doctoral student at NYU in history, I know that I will have a hard time competing with students from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (and Penn, and Columbia, and Stanford, and Berkeley, and UCLA, and Johns Hopkins, and Chicago, etc. etc.). Students doing a Ph.D. at Florida State will have a hard time competing with me, and students at Duke, and Cornell, and Northwestern, and UNC (and Brandeis, and Georgetown, and UVA, and Wisconsin, etc. etc.).

Even many of those at the top schools either will have trouble getting a university job, or will get a job outside of the academy. So this raises the question: why do Florida State (ranked #101 according to US News), and other lower ranked schools,  offer a PhD in history at all? Whom does this benefit? Are those students coming out of Florida State going to be competitive in an academic job market?

Again, this is not to denigrate any schools, their faculty, or their students. These rankings can be rather arbitrary, but unfortunately they mean something to people on hiring committees. And they mean something in terms of the resources schools have to support their doctoral candidates.

The reality is, unfortunately, that fewer schools need to offer PhDs in the humanities, and those that do need to offer fewer slots for graduate students. Because those jobs just aren’t out there. It’s nice to say things like “No More Plan B,” where American Historical Association (AHA) president Anthony Grafton and executive director Jim Grossman argued that taking jobs should be valued equally to tenured professorships. They ask, “Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors?” People with doctorates in history have gone on to a variety of careers in the public and private sector.

This openness is probably a good idea, as is expanding the training doctoral programs in history provide, so as to make the above statement more true. But Grafton and Grossman still insist that the dissertation must be a book-length project. “In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience.” Yet people will spend their entire 20s (or 30s) on dissertations that nobody will read, or even publish. And this experience will not really provide any more training than a 2 year MA program for all those other non-academic jobs that history PhDs require. As Louis Menand has written, “the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.” This is as true for history as it is for any humanities discipline.

If we are going to be serious about helping the academic humanities survive into the 21st century, we need to make the dissertation (a little) less rigorous, but make graduate schools harder to get into, by cutting the number of slots, even of entire departments. That way, only the very best students  (ideally) will pursue PhDs, but those who do will likely finish and may actually have tenure-track jobs awaiting them. The most committed and most talented students will get a greater proportion of the financial and faculty support universities can provide. Fewer students will be around to teach, but since there will be fewer programs, they will congregate around top faculty, creating very high level intellectual communities. Yes, it’s elitist and “meritocratic,” insofar as any of this is meritocratic and not purely subjective (another debate altogether). But I can’t think of any other good solution.

Again, I say this as a person who loves academic history, who loves the humanities taught at the highest level. In my perfect world, everyone would  go through a Columbia style great books program. But I recognize that the North American jobs of the future are in the technologies: math and science skills are the most useful, as is more technical, pre-professional, career-oriented  training. Because fewer and fewer students are majoring in history, or the humanities broadly, as they rightly realize that there are fewer jobs there (of course, far too many are majoring in business, the most useless of majors, in my view).

I’ll give one example from my own career as a TA that should suffice. As a TA for a history class, I had an excellent student, a young Filipina-American, who did extremely well on all the assignments, and wrote an especially excellent final paper, incorporating primary sources and secondary literature to craft an original argument. Perhaps over-stepping my boundaries, I emailed her, and told her how great the paper was, and that she should consider majoring in history if she was not already, because she had a real talent for it. She responded, and told me that she really liked history, and was minoring in it, but she was in fact enrolled in the nursing school, and was going to pursue nursing as a profession, and that she believed her parents would be angry if she ever said she wanted to major in something like history.

Even beyond the interesting ethnic angle, this incident left me fascinated. Should I have been disappointed? After all, I thought, while nursing is an exceptionally noble profession, there are tons of nurses out there, nurses who don’t need the skills historians have, and this woman might be better suited, or in economic terms, maximize her utility, as a historian. But then, I thought, why would I even suggest history as a career option? Not only is nursing noble, it’s also practical, a path that leads to a job. Majoring in history in college doesn’t necessarily lead to the pursuit of a doctorate in history, and , as we know well, a doctorate in history does not necessarily lead to a tenure-track job. This woman was satisfying her interest in history through a minor, but pursuing a noble, practical career, which she may very well enjoy, and enjoy more than a life in the Ivory Tower. Telling her to pursue history would have been bad advice.

And that’s the problem. Even people who love history, and are good at it, are less and less likely to choose it as a profession. I suspect the same is true of the other humanities disciplines. There’s no use is denying this fact, and I think fighting it is probably futile. In the future, academics in the humanities are going to need to provide their services to more people outside the academy, through adult education and the like. In the present, we need to work to make the humanities more attractive, but also adapt to the needs of the students, undergraduate and graduate. And that means, unfortunately, fewer students, fewer programs, fewer departments. It’s sad, but it’s the only way.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 20, 2012 at 21:57

Posted in Academia, education

9 Responses

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  1. […] “I love the humanities. I love my discipline of history. I do intellectual history, meaning I use literary and philosophical sources as well. I love literature. I love philosophy. I love art and art history. I see value in studying the humanities for their own sake …” (more) […]

  2. A couple of thoughts from ways I’ve seen it done in the UK:

    Splitting the MA and PhD can be immensely useful. People get the training to be historians, but then take that away to jobs in high school teaching, or academic-related fields (or even nothing related – law, finance, etc). I have to agree about the amount of time. By splitting the two programmes here, the MA usually ends up being one intensive year (Sept-Sept) that isn’t necessarily directly leading to dissertation work, cutting down on the overall amount of time invested.

    Accepting more part-time MAs and PhD might also help. Again, here there is more of a focus on part-time students doing these programmes because they find them interesting, or they supplement their careers, or they ultimately want to move into a history-related career but are keeping options open.

    Even though graduate programmes are generally smaller here, since students only study their ‘major’ in undergrad, you don’t end up losing that high quality of research-focused teaching, since they do some pretty research intensive and training-focused work in their third (final) year special subjects (for example: You were right to tell your nursing student that she was good at history. It’s good for people to be well-rounded and understand how other people have lived, etc. In a liberal arts system, it’s great that she could excel in a number of different fields. In the English system, my friends who majored in history have gone on to be 1) a solicitor, 2) a banker, 3) a tea expert/marketer, 4) a civil servant/NGO/think tank director, 5) a financial journalist, 6) a high school teacher, 7) a barrister. In other words, university does not necessarily have to be job training, but history skills really are pretty widely transferable (okay, not to nursing!).

    And two things about the sustainability of the humanities generally:
    People thought that with the introduction of fees here, no one would choose a humanities major anymore, since they’re not ‘useful’. What has happened in actual fact is that, while overall applications are down, history has done pretty well, while more ‘practical’ majors related to business (like economics) are drastically down. I guess because if you really want to do business and aren’t interested in anything else, there really isn’t any point in paying £9,000 a year to do it. Just go get a job (and then maybe get them to sponsor you for a course!)

    And lastly, also with the introduction of fees, it becomes clear that humanities majors are the ones that will be suddenly supporting the sciences, not the other way around.

    Bronwen Everill

    March 21, 2012 at 05:06

    • Really interesting Bronwen. I guess the biggest difference is the cost of tuition in the UK versus the USA, at the undergrad level. Even with British fees, it seems like American schools are much more expensive, and thus it’s becoming less and less worth it to get a humanities degree.

      As for the graduate training differences, also very interesting. But an honest and serious question: is the English PhD as highly regarded at the American one? I’ve heard in some cases it isn’t. Obviously it depends on the school, of course, with Cambridge, Oxford, Kings, UCL, LSE valued more than other “lower ranked” places.

      Also, do you have a sense that the British PhD is less rigorous, but perhaps in a good way? Like fewer administrative and logistical hoops to jump through, fewer requirements, less teaching etc? Certainly it takes less time, typically. And that is probably a good thing. On the other hand, we have a professor at NYU who got her degree from either Oxford or Cambridge, and she said that she did NO teaching as a doctoral student. That can’t be good either.

      I think the English model is probably better than the American model, but that will probably take a lot of convincing on this side of the Atlantic. But really there’s probably a middle ground that would be better than both.

      David Weinfeld

      March 21, 2012 at 18:25

      • I guess the things to bear in mind are that
        1) the UK undergrad degree is generally understood to be waaaayy more rigorous than the US one (particularly at Russell Group schools Ask any Oxbridge graduate about finals, for instance…. Again, this is because that’s all they do for 3 or 4 years (no liberal arts) so it’s very focused and intense.

        2) In terms of rigor, I’d say that it’s not less rigorous, but it has different aims. Effectively the purpose of the PhD is to write the dissertation. There’s an ‘upgrade’ or ‘transfer’, which is similar to the prospectus defense, so that’s a hoop to jump through, I guess. Because not everyone in a PhD programme expects to go into academia, teaching is less of a big deal. Everyone I know who wanted to do teaching as a grad student has been able to, and there is standard teaching training at all UK universities for grad students and for new lecturers (variously called GCAP, PGCAP, PCAPP, etc, but all fundamentally the same). But this also means, again, that if you’re not interested in teaching, there’s the possibility of doing a PhD and then moving easily out of academia without (as much of) the guilt of having invested all this time in basically training to be a professor.

        3) The UK system was set up in a time when basically, once you finished your PhD, if you wanted to stay in academia, you just got a junior research fellowship somewhere (one of the Oxbridge colleges, presumably) for one to five years (typically three), which acted as a sort of ‘apprenticeship’ for becoming a senior fellow or a professor somewhere else. You’d do some tutorial teaching, put on a few lecture series’, organize some seminars, and publish your book. It acted as the intermediate step between the (faster, leaner) PhD and full-on academia. Although there are far more PhDs than JRFs these days, postdocs, teaching fellowships, and VAP positions have filled the gap, and it’s still unheard of for anyone to get the equivalent of a ‘tenure-track’ position out of a UK PhD (with the exception of a hand full of Americans who go back to the US market right away, I suppose). It’s not a perfect system, but it does make it easier for people interested in policy, school teaching, economics, law, etc to get a PhD without the feeling that they have to go into academia at the end.

        4) Finally, in terms of the reputation of English PhDs…..well, I think it’s a matter of understanding the system, really. I think there’s a feeling in America that because it’s shorter it must be inferior. But I think if you take the whole system into account – the intensive undergraduate study, the MA training year, and the expectation of a postdoctoral period, and not JUST the 3-4 year PhD part of it – then it’s set up to be similarly rigorous. Maybe we Americans who drop in after undergrad could be seen to have skipped out the first part, but I feel like we got pretty rigorous undergrad training at Harvard, so I don’t feel too bad about that myself. And like David Nye says below, at a certain point, the burden of proof is on you to publish, not your school’s good/bad name.

        Bronwen Everill

        March 22, 2012 at 05:21

  3. Interesting piece. I disagree about the value of writing a dissertation, however. as I think it is immensely valuable to learn how to put together a sustained argument that is not just the length of an article but of 8 or 10 articles. It requires a different level of effort. I think every dissertation should be conceived as a book, and it the History Department’s job to make sure this is so.

    There is one other thing worth thinking about to. Rankings can be pernicious in all sorts of ways. I know a terrific historian who went to a low ranked university, but who has written his way up in the profession to hold a named chair at a good university. And I know any number of people who went to terrific places but never produced an important publication. People get their first job based on where they went to graduate school, but after that, it becomes more and more important what you have produced since leaving.

    David Nye

    March 21, 2012 at 19:11

  4. Bronwen and David, thanks again for the comments.

    David, I agree with you that writing a dissertation CAN be valuable. Unfortunately, for many, it’s not. For those who don’t finish, for those whose dissertations are completed but never see publication, or are published but never read, that don’t contribute to scholarship, that are flat out wrong, etc. etc. History department’s should think of them as the first book, but the reality is that they don’t and they can’t given the number of dissertations being written, and so many are uninteresting or unoriginal or both.

    As for rankings, this pertains to both comments, I completely agree that relying on them can be pernicious, and that after graduating it’s publish or perish and you can write your way to the top. And some do. But most don’t. Most (or too many) graduate students end up having spent their 20s or 30s in near poverty, with nothing to show for it. But those from the top-ranked schools, for whatever reason, are less likely to end up with that result (though many still do!) The whole game is unfair, but it’s really unfair to students at “lower-ranked” schools, which also have fewer resources to provide their grad students, thus stacking the deck against them even further. I think about students at CUNY Grad Center, an excellent school that requires an absurdly arduous teaching load, which makes it harder and harder for their students.

    As for the UK vs USA comparison at the undergrad level, Bronwen I think you’re right that in general UK schools are likely more rigorous than US schools, though at the more elite end I think you’re also right that the difference shrinks. From what I’ve heard, if you just want to pass, it’s pretty easy to drink and party 5 nights a week at Oxbridge and write your papers at the last minute (I know some students who went on exchange, where it was pass/fail, and did exactly that). But the British schools require much more self-motivation, but it seems easier to work yourself to death there too, at least in the humanities (I presume sciences are hard in both countries).

    I think the biggest difference is the tuitions. Even with hikes and fees, British schools are still cheap compared to American ones. So in the US, students go into huge debt and come out with little, especially in the humanities. England’s more subsidized education system, like Canada’s, is certainly better in this regard.

    As for grad schools, I’m not sure. I think each system has their advantages. I certainly think coursework was very useful for me, though I probably had too much of it. Same with teaching. Ironically, the woman at NYU who never taught as a grad student at Oxford is an excellent teacher here. I think splitting MA and PhD are a good idea.

    Actually, on FB, Liora Halperin had a great suggestion, which is PhDs should sort of be like med school: most people at “lower-ranked” schools do 4 year PhDs, with the final product a short, publishable paper, along with some comps, that prepare them to work at similar schools, or leave academia without too much guilt or time “wasted.” A smaller number do 5-8 doctorates at “elite” schools that basically train them to be professors at the same elite schools. They have to write full dissertations. This would make a lot of sense to me.

    David Weinfeld

    March 22, 2012 at 20:34

  5. […] Hard Truths and a Heavy Heart for the Humanities « Ph.D. Octopus […]

  6. […] formulation, is not really necessary to teach at the college level. I made a similar observation in this sad post on the fate of the humanities in American […]

  7. There is an analytical problem in some of the reasoning here. If the problem with academic positions vis-a-vie the number of doctoral students is that there is too much phd supply and too little phd demand, then the solution cannot be to decrease the number of schools that offer X programs or to reduce the # of graduate students at these schools, for both of these actions would actually decrease demand as well as decrease the means by which demand is produced. This would in turn create an increase in the cost of attaining a PhD, as the number of schools and programs participating in and producing academic research would decrease, and along with that reduction would follow further reductions in the ancillary staff associated with those disciplines, positions like academic press editors and the like, as well as reductions in the positions at those schools who now require positions to be filled but would not require them to be filled after said cuts, places like the Florida example cited by the author. I believe therefore that the more elite structure the author describes would not solve the problem it seeks to solve. The only real ways to deal with an issue of excess supply are with a downward price revision or an increase in demand. The former is not an option, as the rate of pay for most academics and would-be academics is already minimal, especially in relation to other members of society with similar levels of education. The latter option, increasing demand, seems to be the only real option that would not induce a further, spiraling reduction in demand.

    There are many ways to increase demand, but one of the best ways is to increase markets, and that is what I think PhDs need. I am a phd student in the non-quantitative humanities (meaning, not econ, psych, social science, etc.) at a Big Three Ivy (HYP), and I will be honest and say that I am preparing very enthusiastically to look outside the university market for work, in the field of consulting, but also in teaching positions at elite, private high schools in the US and abroad, as well as in positions that may seem entirely out of the box. It seems to me that one of the biggest things that graduate students suffer from is a general unwillingness to pursue options that do not “look” like what they think they deserve, or what they believe they are entitled to. The fact is that we have to go out into new areas of society, bring the excellent skills and training that we all have – analysis, languages, critical thinking, public speaking, communication, focus, discipline, and many more – into those places, and increase demand for ourselves. That is the only real way to do accomplish an expansion in opportunities. I would support changes in graduate school structure that would allow for this, including that suggestion about gearing grad school more toward publishing and less toward the fairly useless dissertation. But I would also support curricular changes that the current regime of academics might find insulting and beneath them, like intensive summer training program options for students in the humanities to help them to attain the quantitative skills they might need in order to get a consulting position, or like developing a “Track” system within phd programs that would allow for students who want to work outside academia to pursue research options that might allow them to do so, perhaps something like an pragmatically modified (read:Americanized) version of the German system that requires post-docs to write a Habilitation in order to advance to consideration to a professorship. In this system, those attaining a phd for more academic reasons could be weeded out naturally, as they are in the German system, by their willingness to take upon themselves a further significant research project. It would also allow for those interested in a phd for reasons other than to attain a professorship to get an advanced degree in a single field but not have to force themselves into a model designed to create university professors. In this system, demand for the 5 year phd would increase, and so would the ability to finish it in five years, as the degree could be a more focused one, absent teaching requirements, or at least with those requirements decreased. One could envision a phd in this scenario as someone with an advanced set of research skills, the ability to write short, high-quality, publishable academic work, excellent analytical skills, and a solid foundation from which to build industry specific skills, like those quantitative skills I mentioned above. I think it would be much easier to attract students in a system like this, and to then funnel them into the types of opportunities appropriate for them, in stead of creating so many students with nowhere to go, as we are currently doing. An anthropology phd or an English phd or a Comp Lit phd or any number of other phd’s who were better prepared for the working world, but who still attained the skills that a phd student needs, would increase demand for PhDs simply because of the high value they would bring to any number of workplaces. One can envision a PhD of this sort, in anthropology for example, running an HR company at a large company, as well as in other places. A big problem is that this tiered system would turn some aspects of the phd, namely the more functional tiers, into something much more akin to a very intensive kind of professional school, and much less like the Academy we would like it to be. Is this the academia we are used to? No. But I think it’s better than turning the whole thing into merely a ever-increasingly smaller boutique exercise. The fact is that humanities PhDs do have excellent skills and could make excellent workers. Perhaps we need to start letting them be.


    July 24, 2012 at 01:59

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