The Multi-Track Ph.D.

Brian Taylor

September 30, 2012

The crisis in humanities graduate education is coming to an end. But don't take out the party hats yet, because the situation in the trenches hasn't improved much. Academic jobs are still few and far between, and graduate education remains on shaky ground both institutionally and socially. Nevertheless, two generations of "crisis thinking" are finally giving way to the idea that we're not in a crisis—because no crisis would last this long. Instead we're confronting a new normal, and we have to adjust accordingly.

The most recent sign of collective awakening is a white paper titled "The Future of the Humanities Ph.D. at Stanford." Written by Russell Berman, a professor of German studies and comparative literature (and immediate past president of the Modern Language Association) together with five other Stanford faculty members, the document presents the latest and best proposal for more-flexible doctoral instruction, with different tracks aimed at different career goals.

The paper focuses on two of the most egregious shortcomings in humanities graduate education. First, there's the unconscionably high time to degree (now over nine years in the humanities), and second, the failure of graduate schools to prepare students for a "diverse array of meaningful, socially productive, and personally rewarding careers within and outside the academy."

In other words, graduate school needs to prepare students not only to be professors but also for other jobs—and the whole process needs to move a lot more quickly. There's demand for "efficiency" and "broader professionalization opportunities" at the same time, Berman told me. The new plan is designed to bridge the gap between "faster" and "more."

The authors want to reimagine the whole graduate curriculum. If their proposal is approved—and that's a big if—then students at Stanford will submit a ranked list of their career preferences to their departments at the end of their second year of doctoral study. The rest of their time in graduate school would then be customized according to those preferences, with the remaining requirements (such as the comprehensive exam) prepared with their particular career goals in mind.

The most important requirement, the dissertation, would also be included in this practical calculus. The Stanford document doesn't traffic in details, but it envisions "alternatives to the traditional dissertation format" that would serve a student's individual career goals.

What does that mean? Jennifer Summit, a professor of English and one of the authors of the paper, suggested that students might turn in a "suite of essays" instead of a monograph. That idea has a lively recent history. The phrase itself is borrowed from Sidonie Smith, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who invoked it when she was president of the MLA, in 2010. But David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, campaigned for a version of the same thing much earlier, in We Scholars (1995).

The dissertation is the most sacrosanct of doctoral education requirements, and some distinguished observers of American higher education argue that we should be careful when we mess with it. Anthony T. Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University and a frequent commentator on higher education, counsels caution. He advises that reform-minded humanists learn "how to combine the rigor of tradition with experiment and innovation."

One model for alternative paths to the Ph.D. involves dividing "scholars" from "teachers" by granting them separate versions of the doctorate. Because most graduate students won't get jobs that emphasize research, this argument goes, why should they write esoteric scholarly dissertations that take years and years to finish? Let them get some kind of "professional doctorate" that will prepare them faster for the teaching that will occupy more of their professional lives. Psychology, which grants both the Ph.D. and the expressly clinical Psy.D. (a three-year degree), already does this. Why can't other fields?

Perhaps they can. But not so fast.

Balancing the practical appeal of dual Ph.D. tracks is the model's heavy reliance on binary thinking—the "us" and "them" problem. It's easy to imagine this bifurcated model of scholarly and clinical Ph.D.'s creating not different paths but different tiers, with one distinctly higher than the other. Put simply, the danger is that it would enshrine a caste system. (More than a taint of caste already pervades psychology, but because most Psy.D.'s go into clinical practice, there exists an escape valve of sorts that keeps the Ph.D. and Psy.D. populations separate.) Moreover, a two-tier model would reduce the time to degree only for those who choose the teaching-intensive option. It would do nothing to speed up the progress of would-be scholars.

It's to the goal of reduced time to degree that the Stanford proposal coheres. Its authors note that the new plan would require a "substantial buy-in" by the administration and the departments that adopt it. Put simply, professors would work harder under this new regime. Pre-thesis advising would surely become much more involved (and thus time-consuming), in contrast to the perfunctory form that it often takes now in the years before students choose a dissertation topic.

In the new model, the dissertation adviser would take a much more active role in setting and maintaining a student's completion schedule than we usually see these days. Advisers would become taskmasters. Progress toward the Ph.D. would be assessed every year (with "benchmarks") as students, professors, and administrators aim together for faster graduation.

One of my favorite features of the Stanford plan is the timing of the choices contained within it. Why should students self-identify as scholars or teachers before they have even entered graduate school? It is more sensible for them to make an informed choice based on a few years' experience in a Ph.D. program.

The Stanford proposal consequently requires that all students be admitted according to the same criteria—no tiers there. Once admitted, they wouldn't have to decide on their career paths within the Ph.D. program until they got a close look at the scholarly option (their own professors would serve as role models). They would also have the time to look into other career tracks—and one presumes, or at least hopes, that the departments would make information (and role models!) available about the nonfaculty options, too.

The Stanford plan has received some criticism from those who have argued that Berman and his co-authors need to pay more attention to issues of contingent labor within the academy—that is, the way that many graduate programs exploit their students as a source of cheap, fungible labor for undergraduate courses.

In response, Berman pointed out that the white paper is a Stanford document, not a blueprint for the whole country. Stanford graduate students, he noted, have modest teaching obligations and thus don't qualify as "labor." At Stanford, he said, "it's not a labor problem but an education problem." If universities need staff, he said, they should hire people in permanent positions. Stanford's wealth enables it to sidestep a problem that most other graduate programs will have to reckon with.

But Stanford's elite status provides a corresponding benefit: It's useful for changes like this to emanate from the top of the food chain. When top-ranked institutions make policy that might be attacked as less rigorous—say, by making the Ph.D. appear less scholarly—they give cover to everyone else to do the same.

But the Stanford idea isn't less rigorous. (Indeed, I can imagine Stanford graduate students working harder than most of their peers at other institutions to finish their degrees ahead of their fellowship deadlines.) Instead, it's more realistic. Let's hope that Stanford's departments and administration give this one a long look. And while they do, the rest of us should, too.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories—including descriptions of the kinds of new policies described here—at