Sustaining the Doctorate in Theater

Brian Taylor

February 14, 2013

In a May 2011 essay in the journal Theatre Survey, Marvin Carlson wrote, "It is critical that whatever their future course, American university theater programs must no longer allow themselves to be drawn into the ongoing antagonism between those who study the theater and those who create it." It was, he added, "a very easy trap to fall into when American professional theater moved into the university."

We felt those same tensions emerge again when we read a first-person essay in The Chronicle in January that advocated the elimination of the doctorate in theater. On behalf of the American Society for Theatre Research and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, we would like to respond to three of the most pressing concerns raised in that column—job placement, data-based self-assessment, and distinctions between the M.F.A. and the Ph.D.

Job placement. On the surface, the current academic job market may make it difficult to distinguish the inherent value of the Ph.D. in theater from its marketability. However, the two considerations must remain separate if the discipline is to continue to grow and thrive.

Indeed, market value is a flawed metric for both the M.F.A. and the Ph.D. when calculated only in terms of whether the degree will secure the candidate a job in the professoriate. Neither degree in theater is designed solely to train future professors. That is not an issue confined to graduate programs in the arts. As numerous articles in The Chronicle have observed, departments are embracing the reality that not all graduate students will (or intend to) pursue academic careers.

Many academics—in calling for a rethinking of graduate education and of what constitutes successful jobplacement—have acknowledged that the "crisis" facing graduate programs in the arts and humanities is not a new one. Organizations across those disciplines are working hard to compile meaningful data that can be used to help devise creative solutions to the challenges, and which transcend job-market issues. Additionally, the Council of Graduate Schools is tracking data on subjects including enrollment targets and professionalization.

Demands for immediate action may be pressing, but it takes time to gather the requisite data to enable informed debate, thoughtful planning, and proactive rather than reactive steps.

Data and self-assessment. A 2012 survey of graduate programs by the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) revealed that 53 percent of the participants had made significant changes in their graduate training over the past five years. Not surprisingly, post-Ph.D. career development remains a major area of focus and concern for both faculty members and students.

Nearly 66 percent of the recent graduates in the survey recommended incorporating nonacademic-job-search training into graduate education. That information, along with numerous recommendations, was presented at ASTR's annual meeting and made available to members on its Web site (as were similar reports in 2011).

Indeed, both the American Society for Theatre Research and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education have been in the process of collecting data on theater programs for several years. In 2009 the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sponsored a summit on doctoral programs in theater. One result was the formation of the New Paradigms in Graduate Education Committee, under the auspices of ASTR. The committee circulates monthly mailings to society members on graduate training and career opportunities; it has participated in three national summits on graduate education in the arts; and it has sponsored public discussions on the state of the profession at the society's annual conferences. Findings from the committee's annual surveys have been posted on the society's Web site, as have updates from the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies.

The Association for Theatre in Higher Education—which represents more than 1,500 faculty members, staffers, and students across more than 300 higher-education institutions—also regularly surveys its membership regarding the changing dynamics of the field. In November 2012, ATHE helped organize a summit on graduate education in the arts and humanities, featuring representatives from disciplinary societies in the arts as well as in English, history, and other fields. An overview of the conference is available on the association's Web site, and a publication detailing the group's findings is in the works.

Since the National Research Council's assessments of doctoral programs did not include theater until 2010, the turn toward data collection has been extraordinarily useful for scholarly organizations in our field.

For example, the information compiled for the 2009 summit on graduate education revealed that there were, at the time, a total of 677 students enrolled in 36 doctoral programs in theater across the country. The average time to degree reported for the Ph.D. programs participating in the summit was five to seven years (assuming the candidate had entered with an M.A. or M.F.A.). Participating programs reported that they admitted an average of three to four students a year and graduated an average of three students a year. Data collected by the association show an average of 72 Ph.D.'s awarded annually from 2001 to 2009. Subsequent surveys have compiled data on program structure and content.

Both ASTR and ATHE are responding as quickly as possible to their members' wish for more qualitative and quantitative data. The growing body of information will allow our organizations to engage imaginatively with the changes taking place across the field.

Distinctions between the M.F.A. and the Ph.D. The January 16 column advocating the elimination of the Ph.D. in theater accused theater programs of "promulgating a false notion of the fundamental vocational equivalence of the three-year M.F.A. degree ... with the Ph.D." The Association for Theatre in Higher Education does advocate that colleges and universities recognize the M.F.A. as a terminal degree for the purpose of hiring, tenure, and promotion in faculty positions. And it is so recognized by most of the more than 900 American institutions that grant degrees in theater. Yet that is hardly the same as "vocational equivalence," anymore than an M.B.A. is "vocationally equivalent" to a doctorate in economics. The association has compiled a series of white papers on how faculty members with M.F.A.'s and Ph.D.'s should be assessed for tenure and promotion. That information is available on its Web site.

In fact, while doctoral programs in theater may include a production component, the distinctions in training and intellectual goals between the M.F.A. and the Ph.D. remain intact. Indeed, the large number of M.F.A. graduates who apply to doctoral programs suggests that students themselves recognize the complementary nature of those diverse approaches to the discipline.

The theater Ph.D. who wrote the January 16 column also questioned why so many job descriptions in the field appear to equate the M.F.A. with the Ph.D. But it should be noted that position descriptions often list both degrees as acceptable, not because they are interchangeable, but because hiring committees understand that candidates may have a combination of degree credentials and professional and other experience that would make them attractive. Depending on the expectations of the appointment, candidates may have obligations that incorporate both the study and practice of theater. Job postings reflect that phenomenon.

Few academic fields can, or should, remain static for long. Tracy Davis, a theater scholar and professor at Northwestern University, has written compellingly about the complex genealogies of our field and has underscored the ways in which continuing debates about our critical texts, methodologies, and practices provide the "building blocks of disciplinary change."

As representatives of disciplinary societies, and as faculty members who regularly advise graduate students and serve on search committees at our home institutions, we welcome the opportunity to engage in a public discussion about the many possible career options for students who have completed an M.F.A. and/or Ph.D. We welcome the opportunity to undertake serious and sustained self-reflection about how we might revisit and revise the coursework, production experience, and dissertation research required of our students. And we welcome the opportunity to connect our work, and the work of our students and alumni, with a broader range of communities beyond academic walls.

At the same time, we are concerned about the manner in which such conversations seem often to be initiated with "shut them all down" kinds of sentiments. We prefer not to participate in defensive or reactionary rebuttals and instead look forward to a serious and sustained dialogue about graduate education in theater and performance studies.

William J. Doan is president and Henry Bial is president-elect of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Heather S. Nathans is president and Patrick Anderson is vice president of the American Society for Theatre Research.