Whenever I contemplate our current system of graduate education in the humanities, I’m reminded of the definition of insanity often misattributed to Einstein — doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Every year, graduate programs crank out thousands of new Ph.D.s, and every year fewer than 40 percent manage to land full-time faculty positions.
Clearly, we need a new paradigm.
The old one survives through some combination of traditionalism and protectionism. The Ph.D. has always been the primary entry-level qualification for college faculty members, the argument goes, and so it must always remain such, whether or not that still makes any sense. And of course most of the people guarding the gates have Ph.D.s, so it’s natural for them to want to make sure everyone who enters is part of the same guild. To offer membership to those with lesser credentials would be to diminish their own.
The truth, however, is that most of the college teaching jobs that exist today — at least in the humanities — do not really require a Ph.D. That is, although the job announcement might "require" it, the job itself does not.
After all, a Ph.D. is not, or should not be, merely a credential. It was originally designed as a kind of academic apprenticeship, training scholars for further in-depth study in their chosen (and probably rather narrow) field. With a Ph.D., a scholar can teach, certainly; but it is not the Ph.D., with its dissertation focused on one slender branch of knowledge, that necessarily qualifies you to teach. A doctorate prepares you to undertake additional scholarship, which may or may not be directly tied to your teaching.
The market for those who, as their primary job function, do research on obscure topics in the humanities, has been shrinking for years, if indeed it ever was very large. Colleges and universities will hire only a fraction of the many who are qualified, based on their CVs, to explore the nuances of Romantic literature or 19th-century European trade unions. There simply aren’t enough courses on Romanticism or labor history for all of them to teach, and outside their small circle of fellow scholarly enthusiasts, few people care about their research. Perhaps everyone ought to care, but we don’t.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t classes that need to be taught. Most college students are required to take a full slate of entry-level core courses in English composition, American and/or world history, and other humanities disciplines (like philosophy or film). With all due respect to my Ph.D.-credentialed colleagues, you don’t need a doctorate to teach entry-level courses.
And increasingly, colleges are recognizing that and balking at hiring Ph.D.s at doctoral-level salaries. To cover those courses, institutions are instead hiring graduate students or contingent faculty members, the majority of whom do not have a Ph.D. Even when they do hire Ph.D.’s for teaching-intensive jobs that require little or no research, colleges typically pay those hires about the same (or exactly the same) as non-Ph.D.s.
Thus we have created an entire class of professionals who are essentially overqualified for most of the available positions. They have their Ph.D., their scholar’s guild membership card, but they’re not being paid to use it. I mean that in both ways: The work they are being paid to perform often has little to do with their Ph.D., and the pay itself is not commensurate with their qualifications. It’s as if we’re hiring doctors to perform the work of nurse practitioners. Nor, it should be noted, are those people actually admitted to the guild. Teaching four or five sections of composition or world history each semester, with little or no time for research, they are not scholars, except in the broadest sense of the term, and they are not truly recognized as scholars within the academic community.
Given the set of circumstances I have just described, which I believe is a pretty accurate representation, why are so many students still pursuing doctorates in the humanities?
Partly, I think, it’s a result of youthful idealism, not to mention a little magical thinking. By now, many graduate students in the humanities are well aware of the odds of landing a tenure-track job but believe they’ll be one of the lucky ones.
Graduate departments are also to blame. A recent article in The Chronicle reported that "first-time doctoral enrollment in history, English, and other arts-and-humanities disciplines fell 0.5 percent from 2013 to 2014," according to a Council of Graduate Schools report that was based on a survey of 636 universities. But maybe those enrollment figures aren’t dropping fast enough, given the lack of tenure-track jobs.
Too many departments are still producing too many Ph.D.s for the marketplace to accommodate. Why? No doubt it’s partly because they sincerely believe advanced study in their field is important to society. But a more cynical view might be that they need sufficient graduate enrollment to justify the three-course (or two-course) teaching loads of tenured professors. That means having enough doctoral students to fill their seminars as well as enough cheap labor to teach entry-level courses so the tenured professors won’t have to. Meanwhile, they persist in training graduate students for jobs that largely do not exist.
As an aside, when graduate programs provide adequate financial support for the students they recruit, then at least those students are getting something in return for their time and effort. But when students must pay exorbitant tuition for the privilege of pursuing a degree that will likely not lead to a faculty job, borrowing thousands of dollars they might never be able to repay, then it seems to me those programs are little better than the for-profit institutions academics love to excoriate.
Clearly, this system is not sustainable. We keep doing the same thing year after year, somehow expecting a different result and always slightly baffled when the numbers don’t change except perhaps to get worse. That, I would submit, is not entirely rational. It’s high time we did something different.
Accordingly, I would like to renew my call, which I first made back in 2013, for a new, teaching-focused graduate degree specifically designed to prepare people for the teaching-focused jobs they might actually get. Taking a page from our colleagues in K-12 education, we could call it the "College Teaching Specialist Degree in (fill in your humanities discipline)." It would be more than a master’s degree but less than a doctorate, requiring, say, another 30 semester hours of coursework beyond the master’s — at least half in discipline-specific pedagogy — with a teaching-focused capstone project in lieu of a dissertation.
The advantages of this new degree would be many and widespread. For most students, it would take much less time to complete than a Ph.D. — four years beyond the bachelor’s, at most, which is enough for dentists and pharmacists, and more than enough for lawyers, and quite frankly ought to be enough schooling for just about anybody. That means students could get their degrees and start their careers while still in their 20s. By comparison, according to the National Science Foundation, the average time-to-degree for Ph.D. recipients in the United States is between seven and 10 years, depending on the discipline, and the average age at completion is early 30s.
Less time-to-degree means less borrowing for educational and living expenses. Plus, teaching specialists could start their careers much earlier than Ph.D.s, and could easily be years ahead, financially, of where they might have been if they’d stayed to earn a doctorate. And remember — those teaching-focused jobs are the same ones most Ph.D.’s are getting, anyway, if they get any job at all.
In order for this proposal to work, colleges and universities would have to buy in at both ends.
At one end of the pipeline, graduate departments would have to agree to offer teaching-specialist degrees as an alternative to the Ph.D. Doing so wouldn’t harm tenured professors; students in the TS program would still have to take graduate courses. But the departments might need to adjust their admissions standards, admitting fewer students to Ph.D. programs — only those who show truly exceptional promise as scholars — while steering the rest into TS programs.
Financial-aid models might also have to change. By admitting fewer doctoral students, perhaps departments could afford to support the ones they do admit for five or six years, thus helping to alleviate some of their debt. Departments could offer research assistantships for the Ph.D. students, and teaching assistantships for the TS students — further preparing both groups for the slice of the faculty market they will pursue.
On the other end of the pipeline, colleges and universities would have to invest in this new paradigm by actually hiring TS graduates in full-time, more-or-less permanent positions. Ideally, those positions would be on the tenure track, but even renewable lectureships would be better than what most new Ph.D.s can expect these days.
Institutions might actually be inclined to do this because: (a) With fewer graduate students teaching lower-division courses (remember, the doctoral students are all doing research), they’ll need people to cover those sections; and (b) they won’t have to pay them Ph.D.-level salaries (yes, I’m assuming a two-tier pay structure to reflect the different education levels). I’m guessing that small colleges without graduate programs would be open to hiring highly capable teaching specialists who could take on heavy teaching loads for a somewhat lower salary than would be paid to a Ph.D. And of course, teaching specialists are a natural fit for community colleges and other access institutions.
Obviously, there are many other details that would need to be fleshed out, such as how teaching-focused faculty at research institutions would be evaluated.
But I think the best thing about this proposal is that it would create a better educational environment for all of our students. The teaching specialist degree has the potential to lower the number of adjuncts at all levels of higher education. That means students are more likely to be taught by full-time instructors who are accessible to students on the campus. In addition, more of those instructors will be expert teachers, thoroughly trained not only in their discipline but also in the latest pedagogical approaches.
Is this proposal actually practical?
I think it’s worth a try. We can’t just keep doing graduate education the way it’s always done it. That would be insane.