‘4 Years Is Enough’ and Other Reforms

Ideas floated at the AHA and MLA conventions aim to rethink doctoral education

Linda Helton for The Chronicle

February 17, 2014

The Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have venerable and distinctly separate histories, but their graduate-student members face a lot of similar problems. Those problems, like elongated times to degree and a withered academic job market, aren’t news anymore. But the efforts of the MLA and the AHA to deal with them are becoming more varied, visible, and creative.

For a long time the AHA and the MLA conventions were like parallel universes that coalesced annually in different cities at the same time. They both stage high-profile conventions during winter break that combine a myriad of scholarly panels with a high-volume, high-tension job fair filled with nervous, well-dressed candidates who generate
heavy traffic to interviews in job centers and hotel suites. But new scheduling policies separated them on the calendar this year, so I pinballed between Washington and Chicago during the first part of January, attending both shows with a few days respite in between.

I sought a sense of how these two learned societies, the oldest and largest in the humanities, are dealing with the high-profile problems that face graduate education in their disciplines these days. For years the annual meetings marginalized the cruelties of the tenure-track market and the lengthening time it took to get a Ph.D., even as the mass media did the opposite. The frenzied employment agora at the conferences has always made for good copy.

The official rostrums aren’t silent on these subjects anymore. The program committees of both organizations now allot space for institutional problems to get discussed in public air. (Activists have also been sponsoring an annual MLA "Subconference" to increase the pressure for change.) The MLA and AHA have even started working together on some of the most egregious employment problems that plague graduate education in the humanities.

Their formal collaboration began last year with a grant to both associations from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to track the placement of Ph.D.’s over the past generation. We’ve seen placement studies before, but they’ve maintained a blinkered focus on who got the professorships and ignored what happened to everyone else. This study is different: It’s dedicated to the nonprofessorial outcomes that were elided before. The data-gathering (from the years 1998-2009) isn’t finished, but both organizations presented preliminary reports at their annual meetings this year. And in an unusual move, an MLA officer presented at AHA, and vice versa.

The coordinated placement study amounted to only a small part of the career-related initiative on display at both conferences. No doubt the placement project will receive more publicity when it’s done, but many thousands of Ph.D.’s remain to be tracked down. The job is as large as it is overdue. Even so, the AHA has published some early findings. Maren Wood and Robert Townsend’s "The Many Careers of History Ph.D.’s" is now on the organization’s website, along with other research and discussion about the range of career paths taken by historians.

It’s hard to generalize when faced with two monster conferences that offered more than 1,000 panels altogether, but I will anyway: The AHA is doing the most creative work in the humanities on alternative-academic careers right now, while the MLA is reflecting more deeply and practically on the problem of time-to-degree.

The AHA’s most noteworthy alternative-career project is called the Malleable Ph.D. Rolled out last year, it showcases careers for historians outside the professoriate. The Malleable Ph.D. threaded together a number of panels at this year’s conference, and placed a range of different kinds of historians on the profession’s biggest stage.

I noticed the audience avidly taking notes as Robert Dalessandro, director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History—and one of the U.S. Army’s hundreds of official historians—explained how he got his job and what Army historians do. Historians are deployed in the field, he explained, as part of a general "outreach" effort to "decision makers and the public."

Other government historians were received eagerly, too. John A. Lawrence, a history Ph.D. who served for many years as Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff until he stepped down recently, said that history departments have "remained far too cautious about encouraging nonacademic careers." They should not just tolerate graduate students whose interests lie outside of the academy, he said, they should actively recruit them. His own skills, he said, have always been relevant to the job he did—and he noted that the most influential public historian of our time is none other than Newt Gingrich. Doctorates, said Lawrence, are "more impressive on Capitol Hill than law degrees," which are "a dime a dozen."

Julia Brookins, the AHA’s special-projects
coordinator, declared that training for alternative or nonacademic careers is not a "diversion from the life of the mind." In fact, she said, such diverse preparation also helps a graduate to be a better faculty member. "This is not a matter of a job crisis," added Jacqueline Jones, the departing vice president of the association’s professional division, "but of individuals and what they want to do."

As R. Darrell Meadows, director of research and interpretation for the Kentucky Historical Society, put it, "I didn’t leave the discipline. I took it with me."

The MLA is also actively contemplating the employment problems facing humanities Ph.D.’s, but not as coherently. Perhaps that’s because there aren’t as many "public literature" positions as public-history jobs, or maybe because the glow of digital humanities at the moment is eclipsing other possibilities on the MLA horizon.

But the association is reckoning with another deeply disturbing problem: the interminable time it takes graduate students to earn a Ph.D. in English and other humanities fields. And the group is tackling that issue in a way that acknowledges its complexity. Throughout the MLA conference, presenters observed in different ways that excessive time-to-degree—the median time currently stands at nine years in the humanities—is deeply rooted in the structures of Ph.D. programs themselves.

That led to some lively questioning of the format and parameters of the dissertation, among other things. Nick Sousanis, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, offered an unusual example. He displayed excerpts from his thesis, which he has written in the form of a comic book. He used that new format to argue that the old format of the dissertation amounts to "an argument in large part about itself."

Many speakers at the MLA noted the built-in flaws of a system that essentially creates Mini-Me’s out of the senior scholars at research universities who direct dissertations, even though most available teaching jobs aren’t at research universities.

Graduate students have responded to the need to become accomplished researchers and high-powered teachers by doing, well, both. Shane Peterson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in German at Washington University in St. Louis, identified that particular elephant in the room when he questioned having graduate students both do more and finish faster. Peterson’s panel was, appropriately, dedicated to "Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education."

Russell Berman, a former MLA president, is spearheading the organization’s official response to these ethical deficits as head of its task force on doctoral study. Berman wrote sensitively about these problems as president, and he has continued to do so at Stanford University, where he is a professor of German and comparative literature. (Some of his ideas are contained in a well-circulated white paper that I wrote about here in 2012.)

The task force will release its final report soon, but it’s already clear that Berman and his group see time-to-degree as inseparable from a tangled web of problems facing graduate education, including not only the dissertation and the job market but also graduate-student debt, and access to doctoral education for members of disadvantaged groups.

"How do we design a Ph.D. based on nonreplicative principles?" asked John Stevenson, dean of the graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stevenson, speaking on a panel organized by Berman, described the new four-year Ph.D. program piloted by the German department at Colorado. It’s a return to the old days, when a doctorate comprised two years of coursework followed by a year of research and a year of writing. The beginning premise of this experiment, said Stevenson, is "that four years is enough."

Lots of MLA members are rooting for that new program to succeed. If it does, it will be because its students embrace the possibility of diverse career outcomes early on, and because professors embrace the achievements of those graduates.

Ethically speaking, a four-year Ph.D. is much easier to justify than a nine-year slog. The current rate of tenure-track placement of Ph.D.’s in history, English, and modern languages hovers just a bit above 50 percent. That those Ph.D.’s have invested a decade of their lives in doctoral training makes that outcome a lot worse.

David Laurence, the MLA’s director of research, said that if graduate students feel that they have choices, they’ll do better. They’ll be "energized" rather than "paralyzed." It’s time, he said, to "naturalize this approach in graduate education."

But if time-to-degree is going to drop, then hiring committees need to give a fair shot to job candidates who finish sooner. Daniel Purdy, a German professor at Pennsylvania State University who spoke on the ethics panel at the MLA, said that the rooms where hiring committees meet is where ethical decision making has to take place. And that’s not happening yet. If committees look with skepticism at a candidate who has finished a degree program quickly, then what is the value of helping students finish faster?

During a discussion at the MLA, Berman called the issue of hiring ethics "the third rail" of the debate. Maybe it is, but we have to risk the electric shock. Current time-to-degree is morally untenable, but we can’t sustain the decision to speed it up unless we respect the graduates we produce. The choice to honor the shorter path to the degree lies before the teachers, not the students. Individual professors, hiring committees, and departments must choose themselves whether to hire Ph.D.’s who finish quickly. For what good would it serve to promote a tightened, shorter degree program that we ourselves disrespect?

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at