An Argument for Eliminating the Doctorate in Theater

Brian Taylor

January 16, 2013

At the conclusion of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, after the estate and orchard have been sold and the family has departed, the long-suffering, hard-working old servant, Firs, is inadvertently left abandoned on stage to die alone. I am reminded of Firs whenever I consider the condition of the Ph.D. in theater.

It was first created to claim a disciplinary field left fallow by speech communication and literature departments, and to demonstrate the importance of performance to the study of just about everything. Today, the Ph.D. in theater finds itself abandoned on its former estate, at a time when the general public is pointedly questioning the value of producing doctoral graduates in the arts and humanities at all.

But the changing economy is not the major structural problem facing the Ph.D. in theater. Rather, most theater departments have spent the past two decades promulgating a false notion of the fundamental vocational equivalence of the three-year M.F.A. degree (designed to generate a professional qualification in acting, directing, design, or technology) with the Ph.D. (designed to produce an academic qualification that takes an average of almost three times as long to earn).

Recent Ph.D.'s in theater now enter an already saturated academic job market competing directly for positions with candidates who hold an M.F.A., or as it's been called, the "cheaper, faster" credential.

Even in small departments, entry-level hiring committees now routinely seek candidates with "either an M.F.A. or Ph.D." or else a "terminal degree." That is akin to a faculty hiring committee in an English department seeking an assistant professor but not specifying (or caring) whether candidates have earned a Ph.D. in literature or an M.F.A. in creative writing; or else a music department seeking to hire a musicologist with a Ph.D. but constructing its minimum qualifications to include performers with master's degrees—in case an irresistibly stunning virtuoso applies.

The result is that the Ph.D. in theater is not a professional qualification in the strict sense at all. Neither does it presently define or limit the pool of applicants for most faculty positions, nor does it serve to describe a potential faculty member within a well-defined academic discipline.

Sadly, current and prospective doctoral students in theater seeking the folly of an academic career should be advised rather to earn an M.F.A. That way, the six additional years (on average) that it would take to earn a Ph.D. could instead be invested in the professional arena, which is now more valued anyway by hiring committees in theater departments than scholarship.

To be sure, some small theater departments still actively recruit Ph.D.'s, but that number is dwindling as more and more departments replace retiring Ph.D. faculty members with M.F.A. faculty members who then serve on hiring committees, in a perpetual spiral of degree devaluation. (To be clear, I am writing not of the declining quality or talent of M.F.A.'s but rather of the declining career value of pursuing a doctorate in the field.)

Theater education in this country is now dominated by tenured M.F.A. faculty members, even at small liberal-arts institutions that are seeking to emulate larger programs as they compete for students. Many theater programs are increasingly hiring M.F.A.'s with practical specialties in movement, voice and speech, and musical theater, the field's new gleefully exploitative cash cow. At the same time, far too many position announcements now explicitly call for M.F.A.'s to teach courses in theater history and dramatic literature, disavowing the idea that those subjects require doctoral training, let alone practiced scholarship.

In many cases, faculty members with Ph.D.'s in theater are being replaced by those with M.F.A.'s in directing, playwriting, or "dramaturgy"—the catchphrase that renders an academic endeavor into a professional one, and allows for a less-rigorous, less-peer-reviewed brand of wiki-knowledge in service to others' artistic practice.

The once-significant role of the Ph.D. in theater has been waning in the United States for some time. When I began my graduate program, for example, the department had six Ph.D.'s, including the chair, among its faculty of 15 tenured or tenure-track positions (or 40 percent). Now there are four in a department of 20 (or 20 percent), and the current chair holds an M.F.A.

Yet that department is still producing newly minted Ph.D.'s at the same rate as in the past, preparing them for fewer and fewer tenure-track openings seeking their expertise. Prospective doctoral students naïvely enter into theater programs that have devalued the Ph.D. by privileging the more narrowly specialized M.F.A. in their own faculty hiring.

The Ph.D., and the scholarly and disciplinary work that it represents, are now mere supplements to the central mission of most major theater departments: ersatz "professional training," often masquerading behind a patina of the liberal arts. When I looked at the credentials for the chairs of theater departments at Big Ten universities, I found that only one of the 12 department heads has a Ph.D.

It is time for graduate schools and governing bodies to act to close Ph.D. programs in theater, and for theater departments to openly embrace the notion, already functioning in practice, that the appropriate academic credential for all of its faculty is the three-year M.F.A.

They must end an inequitable system in which some academic workers invest substantially more time, effort, and capital (not to mention student-loan debt), only to find themselves directly competing with candidates who hold a cheaper, faster credential in a collapsed academic job market. Doctoral students interested in studying theater history and literature should once again be encouraged to pursue Ph.D.'s from other humanities departments where they can at least compete in the faculty marketplace on more equitable terms.

Alternatively, I suppose schools could stop advertising openings that seek "either an M.F.A. or Ph.D.," thus abjuring the false equivalence of those very different qualifications. But that is unlikely to happen. And it would only further delay the inevitable demise of the Ph.D. in theater, which for too long has been used to buttress the claims of theater studies as an academic and scholarly discipline even as departments have capitulated to professional training as the dominant ideology in their hiring and curricula.

On the future and significance of the Ph.D. as a credential within academe, the disciplinary associations in theater have been meek. A census of unemployed or underemployed doctorates in theater is badly needed to gain perspective on the professional value of the doctorate.

We must recognize that, like Chekhov's orchard, the Ph.D. in theater has already been parceled and resold. It is time to cut and abandon it as well.

Jody Olson is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in theater who has worked in term-appointed teaching positions in academe for the past six years. He is exploring an alternative career in forestry.