The Chronicle Review

Graduate Humanities Education: What Should Be Done?

Chronicle photograph by Robert McGrath

April 04, 2010

Does graduate education in the humanities need reform? By nearly all indications, the answer is yes.

The job picture is grim. The Modern Language Association is projecting a 25-percent drop in language-and-literature job ads for the 2009-10 academic year, while the American Historical Association announced that last year's listings were the lowest in a decade.

Combine that with the rising levels of student debt, the time it takes to complete degrees, high attrition rates, and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, and the issue of reform seems more urgent than ever. Should graduate programs admit fewer students? Should some programs be eliminated altogether? Or does higher education need to find other solutions to the humanities job-market quandary? Why has reform been so slow in coming when signs of the crisis have been apparent for years? The Chronicle Review asked a variety of scholars to weigh in.

Is the supply of jobs the problem? Or are graduate programs admitting too many students?

E. Gordon Gee: We are talking about two sides of the same coin. Simply put, too many doctorates are being produced for the available positions in certain fields. Whether there are too few jobs or too many graduates, a market-based conclusion is overproduction. Given that viewpoint, as opposed to the perspective that intellectual pursuits are their own purposes, the data clearly weigh in favor of reducing overall doctoral production. That assumes, of course, a social imperative of doctoral education strictly for employment purposes.

Marc Bousquet: There are plenty of "jobs," if you want to call them that—part-time, insecure, second-class positions that amount to lightly paid volunteerism that most people with Ph.D.'s can't afford to accept. Tenure was designed for both research-intensive and teaching-intensive faculty members: In 1970, most faculty members held teaching-intensive positions, and three-quarters of all faculty were tenurable. In the intervening decades, we have shunted hundreds of thousands of teaching-intensive positions out of the tenure system. Today, by some counts, only one-quarter of all faculty are tenurable. On most campuses the majority of teaching is done by faculty outside the tenure system. It should be clear to all responsible observers that movement of a few percentage points toward the tenuring of teaching-intensive faculty members would cause the "oversupply" of people with doctorates to vanish. Instead, a vast, sucking "undersupply" would emerge.

Harriet Zuckerman: All the indicators point in the same direction: Academic jobs are in short supply. Tenure-track jobs are even harder to come by. Entering graduate students and those who have already matriculated are aware of this; if they are not, they should become so. If students understand that academic careers may not be in their futures and elect to study nonetheless, continuing graduate study is their choice to make. I am reluctant to say that too many students are being admitted. However, admitting graduate students without sufficient financial aid, and with no prospect of it for those who succeed, should be done rarely, if ever.

Jon Butler: Academe is scarcely immune from our financial crisis. There are too few jobs. But we also have too many Ph.D. programs enrolling far more students than even a healthy market could absorb. Every institution should examine its admissions numbers. Are students being admitted because a program can confidently predict robust, if not perfect, placement in desired positions? Or are students being admitted to satisfy institutional status aspirations—or a need for teaching, research, and laboratory assistants?

Robert B. Townsend: The decline in the number of academic job openings over the past two years has been remarkable—the largest in the 36 years that the American Historical Association has been tracking such data. But even before the current recession, we have been cautioning students, program officials, and anyone else who would listen that the number of new Ph.D.'s was likely to exceed the foreseeable supply of academic jobs. The history discipline is quite fortunate in that it is large enough to encompass a wide array of professional activities. Unfortunately, very few departments are structured to train their students for those diverse markets or honor students who achieve success outside of academe. To the extent that graduate programs only define their mission as preparing students for narrowly defined academic jobs, they are clearly admitting too many students. And despite the data, each department seems to feel little incentive to reduce the number of students because they tell themselves that other departments are the problem.

Sheila Bonde: The question presupposes that we have the data to answer. While the sciences profit from regular collections of data, such projects for the humanities have been relatively ill-supported. (The American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Initiative for Humanities and Culture is a notable recent exception.) Without more data, university leaders and government agencies cannot make sound recommendations. Coordinated and strategic demographic analysis and planning are required. Decisions to grow or shrink the number or size of graduate programs can only be made within a broad national and international context.

Mark C. Taylor: The job market dried up in 1970, and there have been few jobs ever since. But universities have been reluctant to cut graduate-student admissions because they need cheap labor to teach undergraduates and to assist faculty members with their research.

Joseph Grim Feinberg: The supply of jobs is certainly a problem. But the way it's typically discussed is largely a ruse. We should be careful not to act as if some uncontrollable natural force is causing a decline in demand for professors, when we know very well that the primary cause is a conscious policy shift undertaken by university administrators, who aim to cut costs and weaken faculty power by hiring low-wage adjunct and graduate-student teachers in place of full-time faculty members. This situation is made worse by a concurrent long-term trend, less often noted, to demand increasing quantities of labor from faculty members, which makes it easier to keep their numbers low. If adjuncts and graduate-student employees were paid wages comparable to those received by professors for similar work, and if professors began to work 40 (or even 50) hours per week, we would probably see overnight a shift toward hiring more full-time professors, which would be the most reasonable way to get professorial work done.

Michael A. Olivas: I left graduate studies in English due to poor job prospects after earning an M.A., in 1974, so this situation was widely viewed as a problem at least as far back as that time. There are market forces at work, and the restructuring of the professoriate generally has become a serious problem as well, making full-time employment less of an option in an even greater number of fields, not just the humanities and social sciences. Some of this is self-correcting, as in the case of my own defection. Those left are the most serious, but even the most serious are in for disappointment.

Gregory M. Colón Semenza: Although many programs are admitting far too many students (any program whose tenure-track placement record is below about 70 percent is admitting too many students), programs can't be blamed for failing to anticipate the recession's impact on the supply of jobs. The responsibility of programs begins now—in the current crisis—and it includes making sure fewer students are admitted to Ph.D. programs until there's proof of a recovery.

Heather Steffen: The problem is neither an overproduction of Ph.D.'s, nor scarcity of teaching work, but the lack of secure, full-time jobs in academe. Unfortunately, no reform of graduate education in the humanities can fix that.

Brian Croxall: It is true that there are too many graduate students for the current supply of tenure-track jobs. But if all of the contingent teaching positions in our colleges and universities were converted to regular faculty positions, the problem would disappear. For example, I teach a 4-4 course load as a visiting assistant professor; tenure track faculty members teach a 2-2 course load, on average, in my English department. In other words, instructors do the teaching work of two tenure-track faculty members. Converting instructors to the tenure track, then, would result in the creation of new jobs, since you would need more faculty to cover those same number of courses. Of course, my position does not come with research requirements ... but it also does not come with a living wage. If universities determine that they do not desire as much research to be produced, then there should be different paths to tenure created so that those who do the majority of the undergraduate instruction in the university can be appropriately compensated.

Wallace D. Loh: For more than 25 years, there has been a stark imbalance in the supply of and the demand for humanities Ph.D.'s. The job market has worsened in the past couple of years on account of the staggering budget reductions that most universities have suffered in this Great Recession. The changed economics of higher education is likely to be long term and structural—the new normal—rather than short term and cyclical.

Sidonie Smith: Many doctoral programs have already decreased the number of students they admit; and more are doing so now, due to the loss of endowment and state funds for fellowships and due to concerns about placement. As the economy rebounds, our collective project must be to advocate for a better balance of tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty members, and for better working conditions and more job security for the non-tenure-track faculty. Within our units, we need to rethink doctoral education and secure increased financing in order to decrease debt level and time-to-degree. Before the public, we must advocate for renewed commitment and creative solutions to the funding of higher education.

Should universities cut the number of doctoral programs they offer?

Taylor: Major cuts in graduate programs in the near future are inevitable. The financial situation in most colleges and universities is unsustainable. The problems are far worse than administrators or faculty members either realize or are willing to acknowledge. But even if there were no financial pressures, graduate programs should be significantly cut. This can be done in two different ways: First, programs can be simply reduced in size or eliminated; second, different institutions can enter into collaborative and cooperative relationships that would enable them to continue to offer graduate programs on a more modest and efficient scale.

Steffen: Before deciding to cut any graduate programs, we need a thorough count and account of M.A.'s, M.F.A.'s, A.B.D.'s, and Ph.D.'s in the academic labor system. In the humanities, half of all college teachers have only a master's, meaning it functions as the real credential for college teaching. But how many of these teachers have some doctoral training? How many are still enrolled? How does master's education vary across schools? How many master's programs are thinly disguised cash cows or providers of cheap labor for their departments rather than an organic part of them? Because administrators can more easily rationalize and explain lack of tenure and lower pay for these "less qualified" teachers, the proponents of "supply side" solutions to the job crisis need first to fully understand the demographics of the supply they are so eager to reduce.

Butler: Universities must re-examine their Ph.D. programs, looking at two simple measures in particular: attrition rates and the time it takes to get a degree. Attrition in many Ph.D. programs is far too high, and it takes too long to get most Ph.D.'s, including Ph.D.'s in prestigious and well-financed programs. How many four-year colleges or law, business, or even medical schools could survive if parents routinely asked their students (as parents ask Ph.D. students), "When do you think you'll graduate?" The fault here lies not with students but with faculties and deans.

Gee: The issue here may be more reducing the size of any given program than eliminating programs. Too often the discussion goes to "the humanities" instead of specific areas such as history, English, languages, and so on. Matching production to quality placement in individual areas will reveal which programs best fulfill their implied purpose, assuming that placement is one major institutional objective. Another step would be to require that every doctoral program, not just in the humanities, clearly report its graduates' employment data to the public (and potential students). A related issue is institutional assessment of program quality. Simply having faculty members in a given specialization is insufficient justification for also maintaining a doctoral program. We may have a problem of too many marginal doctoral programs producing graduates because such programs are used to recruit and retain the faculty (e.g., good faculty members expect access to doctoral students).

Bousquet: Efforts to fix the employment crisis by tinkering with graduate education rest on magical beliefs and backward logic. The restructuring of academic employment has screwed up graduate school, not the other way around. Graduate schools need any number of reforms, including new programs and cuts in old programs, but all of the real, sustainable fixes require facing up to the employment crisis.

Olivas: I would hope that any contraction in graduate studies does not undermine progress in diversifying the ranks of those who do persist and go into college teaching.

Smith: I am not among those who call for the elimination of doctoral programs at institutions not considered "elite." The excellence of humanities doctoral education lies in the diversity of institutions that offer doctoral degrees—the diversity of their missions, the communities they serve, the applicants they draw, the emphases they place in their vision of an advanced degree, and the kinds of institutions their graduates move to. We will be impoverished as a nation and an academic community if we concede that only elite institutions should be offering doctoral training.

Feinberg: As things stand, there is no demonstrated need to reduce graduate education in any major field. If our goal is to balance the ratio of professorial jobs to job seekers, then cutting doctoral programs and laying off those who run them seem unlikely to help. We would do better to start by looking at the amount of work required to keep current programs going and then considering how many full-time positions should be created to complete that work. The very first budget priority of any university should be to ensure that it pays decent wages to enough employees to do a humane amount of work on a steady, long-term schedule. Instead, every other expense takes precedence, and employees are asked to make do with the workload and salary that the Budget God allows. Until we see such a shift in priorities, which could easily double the number of university employees in all fields, we won't be able to judge whether too many students are entering any given doctoral program.

Zuckerman: There is no easy answer to this question. Universities and departments are not all of a piece. Some research universities and some departments do a better job of educating scholars than others. Those that meet the highest standards of research and teaching should not be eliminated. The continuation of those that do fail in those respects should be carefully considered. It is not acceptable, for example, to maintain graduate programs only to provide a cadre of teaching assistants for undergraduate courses. Assessing quality is difficult, but differentiating departments that are weak from the rest is not impossible. Maintaining graduate programs is not cost-free for universities. Considering cost is, like it or not, a requirement.

Croxall: Since a doctoral program is, in many cases, especially in the humanities, an explicit training program for working as a professor, it is unconscionable to continue to admit students—or worse, to expand the number of programs—when a significant majority of students will be unable to find a position in the field for which they have trained. It is certainly possible to move outside the academy with a Ph.D., but it is a path that is seldom discussed adequately in any graduate program.

What reforms, if any, would you propose?

Taylor: There is no short answer to the question of what reforms should be made. While scholarship remains important, it is time to give more attention to teaching. The fact of the matter is that very few faculty members are doing original research, and even fewer remain productive throughout their careers. Teaching requirements should be increased. In addition, it is necessary to redesign the curriculum to reflect the world in which graduate students will be living and working. New programs should be cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and focused on concrete practical problems.

Townsend: Six years ago the American Historical Association offered a number of reforms in doctoral education, such as clearly articulating and assessing the mission of each program, assuring fair and equitable financing for students, and improving mentor services for students at every stage of the process. Those reforms would make the experience more humane, to an extent. But doctoral study will still be a long and often lonely process, ending in an often harrowing job search.

Gee: Well-targeted reduction of doctoral admissions would deal with two problems at once. First, it would limit future production to more closely match demand in each specialty. And if structured properly, it might also provide the smaller number of doctoral students with higher levels of support. In addition, one might accommodate the faculty desire to have access to doctoral students and resolve the oversupply issue by forming more consortia arrangements, in which multiple universities participate in producing a doctoral program of study.

Smith: I am urging colleagues to reimagine doctoral education, especially the dissertation. More-flexible forms of the dissertation will prepare our students to navigate a scholarly environment in which the modes of collegiality are increasingly collaborative, the vehicles of scholarly dissemination increasingly interactive and mobile, the circulation of knowledge we produce more openly accessible, and the audiences for which we write and compose purposefully varied. And I like to believe that a more flexible concept of the dissertation and the doctorate might help us to attract more-diverse cohorts to our programs, more students of color, first-generation students, and returning adults.

Steffen: To make graduate school more psychologically manageable and to reduce time-to-degree (though it won't solve the employment problem), reforms need to happen first at the nitty-gritty level of program requirements and financing. First, abolish the 25-page term paper; gear writing toward the shorter genres of the profession—book reviews, review essays, calls for papers, abstracts, proposals. Second, require research tutorials: close work with a faculty mentor to turn a paper or dissertation chapter into a full-length article over a semester. Third, get rid of the language requirement and replace it with the option to learn a methodology or professional skill (more humanists fluent in reading budgets and statistics might help us better understand why we need reform in the first place). And fourth, financing should match the time departments really expect Ph.D. students to take and should meet or exceed the living wage. If a program consists of two years of course work, a year for exams, and another for a prospectus (not to mention the actual dissertation), four years of guaranteed financing guarantees nothing but anxiety and structural discrimination against less-well-off students.

Bousquet: The core question we have yet to face in connection with 40 years of restructuring is real: Should more teaching be done by faculty members in tenure-track lines? Most of the evidence says yes, and a host of diverse voices agrees, including E. Gordon Gee, the United States's highest-paid university president. Gee concurs with the American Association of University Professors that if we're going to have a very teaching-intensive faculty, we need to tenure people. That means, as Gee puts it, individuals will enjoy "multiple ways to salvation" inside the tenure system. Rebuilding the consensus that tenure is also for teaching-intensive faculty members is a quick and relatively painless fix for most of what ails us: It'll cut down on cutthroat competition and out-of-control publishing expectations. It'll improve teaching by leaps and bounds. It'll bring a modicum of honesty about who's really doing research. It'll reduce the service load for the current minority of tenured faculty.

Nor will it be particularly expensive: The overhead for hiring, firing, and supervising cheap teachers has turned out to be costly. Teaching-intensive full-time faculty members are the fastest-growing segment of college instructors today; making them teaching-intensive assistant professors will actually produce savings across the board. Turning college teaching into volunteerism is one of the main reasons we have abysmal retention and graduation.

Bonde: We need to re-examine the structure of fellowships and teaching assistantships and recognize that while much of humanities scholarship is solitary, much is also increasingly collaborative. The National Endowment for the Humanities should have a budget to support research assistantships, borrowing the model that has worked to stimulate research in the sciences. The Council of Graduate School's Ph.D. Completion Project provides good data and best-practice examples for monitoring the completion, attrition, and placement of graduate students.

Croxall: Given the longstanding difficulty of finding academic employment, every doctoral program should discuss and encourage other career opportunities. The culture of graduate school needs to change so that it becomes possible to recognize other options outside the tenure-track position. Students should be required to do an internship with a campus entity outside their home department or—better yet—a business, nonprofit organization, government, or cultural-heritage institution. I also believe that it is time to reconsider the nature of the dissertation. The temptation has been to make earning the Ph.D. more and more difficult in response to a narrowing job market. If, however, we broaden the job market through graduate-school experiences that suggest alternative paths, it becomes possible to reconsider the dissertation and time-to-degree.

Various thinkers have put forth ideas to reform the Ph.D. Why have they failed to change the situation?

Zuckerman: Most suggested reforms fail to take hold because they ignore graduate education's complexity, its vulnerability to exogenous influences such as the poor job market, conflicts between faculty members' academic values and the proposed reforms, and the diversity of objectives and programs of institutions engaged in graduate education. One reform will not fit all or even many.

Butler: Many proposals to reform the Ph.D. have failed, in part, because the "tenured radicals" alleged to make up the professoriate deeply resist change. At the other end, proposals to eliminate the dissertation or turn it into a master's thesis devalue the deep research the Ph.D. epitomizes, and which can, in fact, be accomplished efficiently under the right structure and guidance. The issue isn't the Ph.D. itself, which sustains and propels original research and scholarship, but scaling back program bloat added in the last 30 years.

Taylor: Few institutions are more conservative than colleges and universities. As a lifelong faculty member, I am saddened to say that the chief reason significant reform of higher education is not possible is because of the resistance of faculty members. Their protection of entrenched interests makes change virtually impossible.

Olivas: Despite the surface attractiveness of any reforms, they are generally a bad idea. If one insists upon working in a field, even in the face of poor academic prospects, doing the traditional doctorate is still a necessary task. At the end of the day, however, fewer should do that. We may not need more Goethe scholars, but we need more people of color to study Goethe and Neruda, and we need more Chicana poets.

Semenza: Reforms fail for one simple reason: Humans are curious, knowledge-seeking beings, and, naturally, a large number of them wish to pursue a career that has traditionally offered them intellectual freedom, academic resources, and schedule flexibility. So long as people are curious, and so long as universities continue to follow corrupt corporate models centered on cheap labor, there won't be enough jobs out there for extraordinarily well-qualified Ph.D.'s.

Townsend: The power to enact reform is too widely dispersed throughout the higher-education system. Administrations rarely want to pay the costs associated with reform, department chairs (serving brief and often harried terms) have little motivation to take on such issues, and individual faculty members tend to consider their own students a sufficient burden. Meanwhile, students take their cues from the gossip mill about what they need on the job market, which spurs them to write longer dissertations and to pack their CV's with additional articles and conference presentations. Taken collectively, this distribution of incentives makes it very difficult to enact reforms in a sufficient or sustained way.

Feinberg: Proposals for Ph.D. reform are typically limited because administrators make all the fundamental policy decisions, and faculty members, students, and staff members help put those decisions into effect. This arrangement ensures that reform will never take the interests of faculty members, students, or staff members as its starting point, but will always be tailored to the interests of administrators who, however well meaning, are ultimately answerable only to trustees. Meanwhile, nonadministrators are asked (or pressured) to give countless hours of unpaid labor to administrative committees whose predetermined function is to undermine their own interests—all in the name of "faculty governance." The whole formula needs to be inverted: Faculty members, students, and staff members should set all policy priorities, as would be the case in any democratic system. Administrators should be paid decent wages to put those policies into effect. This is the basic political node of academic-labor troubles, and any proposal that doesn't take that into account seems unlikely to have much chance of effecting long-term change.

Gee: Making substantial change is impossible unless you recognize a problem and accept responsibility for creating a solution. Some faculty members have treated doctoral education as being independent of market issues, arguing that the pursuit of scholarship, not ultimate employment, is the primary focus. Others have assumed that doctoral programs are at the core of what they do and will always be there. When those are the prevailing perspectives, it is not surprising that little is being done to change the status quo. If the concept of shared governance is to have any meaning, faculty members from every discipline must be active participants. Their engagement will ensure that universities develop creative solutions that best meet the needs of academic programs, their students, and their graduates.

Bousquet: The thinkers in question have made a simple but seductive error. They've been putting the cart of graduate education before the horse of the employment crisis. It's understandable that we've bought into this, and encouraged failed thinking for 40 years now. It's ever so much easier to fiddle with grad programs—or demand that someone else's program be closed—than address the structural transformation of academic work. If we want a better teaching faculty, we have to build better jobs for them. The ideal graduate education for those better jobs will swiftly emerge on its own.

Croxall: It is very difficult for individual institutions to change how they train graduate students. "If Harvard, Princeton, and Yale aren't changing," asks the regional research university, "why should we?" There is, moreover, very little incentive for reform to happen, since people continue to apply to graduate school. As such, any reforms to the Ph.D. will come as individual disciplines decide to change as a whole, or as elite institutions decide it is in their interest to change. Neither seems likely at the moment.

Steffen: If the situation that reform seeks to change is graduate education in the humanities taking too long, paying too little, damaging confidence and psyches, and ending with joblessness or underemployment, then previous ideas for reform have failed for two reasons: First, reformers do not offer concrete suggestions for how to streamline degree programs or to make them more humane. The reason for this may be the snail's pace of institutional change or that most curricular decision makers are too far removed from the realities of 21st-century graduate student life to see what changes would be most useful. And second, most proposals are aimed at the wrong target. How students are trained is not what will change the academic labor system in the near future. The solution to the root problem lies only in escalated struggle for control of our labor and its conditions, and these struggles may in themselves teach us how to improve graduate education.

Loh: It's been said that changing an academic curriculum is about as hard as moving a New England graveyard. The same can be said about reforming doctoral programs today. The professional identity of faculty members is tied to their doctoral programs; the culture of universities rewards faculty members for training many Ph.D. students and then placing them in tenure-track positions at peer institutions or top colleges—even when large numbers of students don't complete the degree and relatively few secure such jobs. Many faculty members and administrators won't agree on which reforms are most appropriate. However, there probably is agreement about our responsibility for the success of students; our commitment to academic renewal; and today's economic and institutional realities. Those are catalysts for thinking anew.

Forum participants

Sheila Bonde, dean of the graduate school and professor of archaeology, and history of art and architecture, Brown University

Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English, Santa Clara University

Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University and professor of American studies, history, and religious studies

Brian Croxall, visiting assistant professor of English, Clemson University

Joseph Grim Feinberg, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, University of Chicago

E. Gordon Gee, president, Ohio State University

Wallace D. Loh, executive vice president, provost, and professor of law, University of Iowa

Michael A. Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law and Governance and professor of law at the University of Houston

Gregory M. Colón Semenza, director of English graduate studies and associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut

Sidonie Smith, professor of English and women's studies, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Modern Language Association

Heather Steffen, Ph.D. candidate in literary and cultural studies, Carnegie Mellon University

Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia University

Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the American Historical Association

Harriet Zuckerman, senior vice president, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation