What If We Made Fewer Ph.D.'s?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

December 03, 2012

Whenever a discussion opens about nonacademic employment for Ph.D.'s, it isn't long before someone suggests reducing graduate-school admissions. "The market for full-time scholars has fallen off a cliff lately," this argument goes, "so why not just train fewer of them?"

The strategy to reduce the number of Ph.D. students recurs in those conversations because it's sensible. When there's insufficient demand for professors in the marketplace, the simplest response is to decrease supply.

But is that the only or best response? Before we look more closely, let's first note that graduate enrollments are indeed dropping. As this newspaper reported in March, doctoral programs are admitting fewer students over all, with the most notable declines occurring in the biggest programs, and in the arts and humanities fields. It's too early to track the effects of those cuts, but they will certainly continue as programs seek to "right size," as a University of Maryland graduate dean put it.

But what exactly is the "right" size?

If the goal of graduate programs is to produce only enough Ph.D.'s to fill the hiring needs of colleges and universities, then that number is bound to be pretty small. It's going to be so small, in fact, that it will cause drastic changes in the structure of graduate education.

Consider the recent decision by the art-history department at Maryland to admit a class of just two doctoral students. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in math to see that classes of two can't be supported by the traditional seminar method of teaching. Departments with just a handful of graduate students at the coursework stage would need to devise another method of delivering course credits. A change like that needn't be a bad thing. It might even be salutary, in that it would force professors to reflect on their graduate pedagogical goals—something we don't do often enough.

But the real bottom line here is not a tiny class of entering doctoral students. If professors decided to confer only enough Ph.D.'s to fill vacant professorial positions, the more credible outcome is that lots of doctoral programs would go under. Some observers urge faculty members to take the initiative and start closing Ph.D. programs because of the dismal job market.

Let's keep following this hypothetical scenario. What would happen if most Ph.D. programs in the United States did close?

To begin with, you know which ones would remain: the established, rich, elite ones. That small group of venerable institutions would grant the Ph.D.'s that would supply the rest of the country. Of course those institutions would be selective—we would expect them to be, given that they would be screening a lot of candidates for a small number of desirable jobs waiting in the future. But selective in what way? In the conventional, establishment-oriented way that would befit their institutional histories.

We might, then, expect the problems of inbreeding associated with dynasties. Rare would be the opportunity to take a risk on an "interesting" applicant, because doing so would deprive a more sophisticated student who did all the right things and hit all of his—or her, but more likely his—marks with precision.

Such a straitened admissions system would confer great advantage to the wealthy and the privileged, naturally. Those with the time to work directly with professors (rather than, say, at wage-paying jobs to make ends meet), to acquire languages, even to publish (yes, a small number of undergraduates do publish)—such achievers would benefit not only from their own talent and commendable ambition but also from their head start in the game. And let's face it: Many of those high achievers would hold undergraduate degrees from the same institutions whose Ph.D. programs survived this hypothetical cutback.

The whole scenario recalls the old days, when American graduate education operated on just such a small, elite scale. Getting in depended not on formal application, but rather on the opportunity to be noticed by a well-connected senior professor, who might then reach out to a colleague at another university and arrange for a promising student to be admitted for advanced study. It was easier to be noticed if you schooled in New Haven than Podunk.

The New Haven connection also conferred disproportionate help afterward.

"There really was something of an old-boys network," Paul Lauter wrote to me in an e-mail. Lauter, a Yale Ph.D. who is now a professor of English at Trinity College in Connecticut, recalled that in his job search, in the late 1950s, "I always introduced myself as 'Paul Lauter from Yale.'"

Not until near the mid-20th century did graduate-school admissions take on the bureaucratic system that we now recognize, presumably driven by the increasing numbers of students being admitted. In other words, increased graduate enrollments made it harder to maintain inbred populations of students and professors.

So the future in academe could feature a competition in which a few elite universities culled a small number of elite students from the applicant pool to keep the Ph.D. alive. That possible future bears a certain resemblance to American graduate education's overbearing past.

But that's not the only possible future. Recall the assumption that is guiding our speculation here: The purpose of graduate programs is to manufacture professors. Graduate programs already operate under that assumption in all kinds of ways, such as the still-widespread and stubborn insistence on defining a "successful" job placement as a tenure-track professorship, preferably at an institution with its own Ph.D. program.

That assumption, as the historian Thomas Bender has pointed out, blotted out the longstanding fact that, for many decades, Ph.D.'s graduated to all kinds of work. Only after World War II did the Ph.D.-to-professor career path become the default, when the country needed professors to staff a rapidly expanding higher-education sector that had to accommodate an influx of former GI's and then a generation of baby boomers. The oversupply lasted about a generation, and its beneficiaries are now in their 70s.

It seems high time that we changed our baseline assumptions to reflect the realities of our students and not their grandparents.

What if we reconceived the guiding assumption that Ph.D.'s are supposed to become professors? As the Versatile Ph.D., a Web site dedicated to alternative careers for Ph.D.'s, pointed out in a comment to me, "Recognizing nonacademic placements as legit communicates a much more positive message about the skills and abilities that are nurtured by graduate education. It affirms the value of the entire enterprise."

That affirmation has to begin at the earliest stage of graduate school. Professors need to shape students' expectations before they enter graduate school—which means more transparency about their career options. And we need to shape students' expectations while they're in school about what's waiting for them afterward. Most important, we need to alter their training accordingly, to prepare them for the full range of jobs they will be able to get.

If we do those things, then we can "right size" Ph.D. programs at a level that is both viable and responsible. That level will be smaller than it has been, but not so small as to return us to an elitist past that we escaped once already. And the country—not just the professoriate—will benefit.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at