Graduate Students

Enrollment in Humanities Ph.D. Programs Declines as More Graduate Schools Slim Down

September 17, 2015

Do American universities produce too many Ph.D.s?

It’s a decades-old question that has intensified in recent years as worries about a stagnant academic-job market, record graduate-student debt, and the often-tough working conditions for doctoral students have grown. The situation has led some university administrators and students to call for a reduction in the number of Ph.D.s, especially in the arts and humanities, where those problems seem most acute.

New data show that such efforts may be having an effect.

First-time doctoral enrollment in history, English, and other arts-and-humanities disciplines fell 0.5 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to a report published on Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools and based on a survey of 636 universities. The small decline caps a steady downward trend in enrollment from 2009 to 2014, when it fell an average of 1 percent a year.

In contrast, doctoral enrollment for all fields increased an average annual rate of 1.2 percent during that time period, and grew almost 2.0 percent from 2013 to 2014. Over all, enrollment for both doctoral and master’s programs grew a combined 3.5 percent from 2013 to 2014, the highest rate of increase since 2009.

Why exactly arts-and-humanities enrollment is declining is unclear.

Suzanne T. Ortega, the council’s president, said student interest in such programs may be waning. Applications have decreased an average of nearly 1 percent each year from 2009 to 2014, with an almost-4-percent drop from 2013 to 2014. The decline, she said, reflects students "voting with their feet" about career prospects in the humanities.

At the same time, many universities in recent years, such as the Johns Hopkins University, have concluded that the best way to improve their arts-and-humanities programs is by accepting fewer people. Ms. Ortega discounted such changes as having a large effect on the enrollment trends, saying that downsizing is "not an across-the-board phenomenon."

It’s a move some say will help institutions treat doctoral students in a more equitable way and also stay competitive among their peers.

That was the case for the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, where faculty members say low stipend levels, in the range of $17,000, were often causing admitted students to go elsewhere.

The department’s faculty voted in 2011 to reduce its typical incoming Ph.D. cohort size from about 22 to 12.

"In the end, it was a pretty straightforward calculation," said Elisa Tamarkin, former director of graduate studies in the department. "We decided we would admit a class that we could fully support with fellowships that were competitive with our peers."

Ms. Tamarkin said students now receive fellowships in the $30,000-a-year range, a move that has allowed the university to remain competitive with its peers. "There’s a greater sense of equity among the cohort," Ms. Tamarkin said. "There’s less anxiety. They feel much better supported."

‘Market-Based Corrections’

Despite such efforts, many disincentives exist to reducing a Ph.D. program’s size.

Doctoral students help teach the growing number of undergraduates on campuses. Universities often measure their research capacity by the number of Ph.D.s they produce. And faculty members often want more, not fewer, students to pass on their knowledge to, arguing that anyone who wants to pursue an advanced degree — and has the ability to do so — should have the opportunity.

That’s the view of Karen P. DePauw, dean of the Virginia Tech graduate school, who advocates for accepting more graduate students. Virginia Tech increased its total Ph.D. population by 36 percent from 2005 to 2014, to about 3,000, Ms. DePauw said, with no intention of slowing down.

"I don’t want to lose the vision of where we should be going," Ms. DePauw said, referring to her desire to see large and vibrant Ph.D. programs so that the arts and humanities aren’t diminished in American society.

When it comes to the question of whether graduates with doctoral degrees in the humanities and arts will be hard-pressed to find a job in today’s market, Ms. DePauw’s thinking lines up with that of groups like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. Colleges, they argue, must get better at preparing Ph.D. students for careers outside of higher education, thereby broadening the job possibilities.

Jerome J. Kukor, dean of the graduate school at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said Ph.D.s in certain arts-and-humanities disciplines are being overproduced. But the fault, he said, can’t all be placed on institutions if students keep applying despite the well-known tales of graduate-school woe. Rutgers, Mr. Kukor said, still receives roughly 10,000 Ph.D. applications each year, makes 2,000 offers, and gets an incoming class of about 800.

"The part that always baffles me," Mr. Kukor said, "is that in my entire 35-year career we haven’t seen much in the way of significant market-based corrections."

In 2010 the University of Maryland at College Park began a plan to reduce the campus’s Ph.D. enrollment by 10 percent over five years, including in some large humanities and social-sciences programs.

The reductions allow programs to offer better financial support, said Charles Caramello, dean of the graduate school. The primary driver was the student’s experience in the program, Mr. Caramello said, while job-market concerns were secondary.

The roots of academe’s Ph.D.-overproduction problem, Mr. Caramello said, go back to the years following World War II. At the time, the United States invested heavily in research, tripling the number of doctorates produced during the 1960s.

The new council data showing a modest decrease in arts-and-humanities Ph.D. enrollment and applications over five years, Mr. Caramello said, "suggests that both the market and institutions are slowly adjusting course in the right direction."

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.