Why We Need to Remember the Doctor-of-Arts Degree

Any doctoral reform has to happen under the Ph.D. banner to avoid being demeaned as a second-class substitute

Roger Mommaerts / Creative Commons

September 09, 2015

I’ve been getting some physical therapy lately for a rogue calf muscle, and in the course of conversation I learned that my physical therapist has a doctorate. Not only that, all physical therapists will have doctorates pretty soon. Master’s degrees in the field are disappearing, and the doctorate — a three-year, clinical degree — is becoming the entry-level credential.

Physical therapy is a booming field, and its practitioners are looking for more respect. Maybe they’ll get it this way. The risk, of course, is that by expanding the prevalence of the credential, the doctorate will get watered down.

The arts and sciences faced the same problem once. Universities increased in numbers and size during the early 20th century, and the Ph.D. emerged as a symbol of pure intellectual inquiry. At the same time, the Ph.D. had an accompanying practical application: Its holders also had to teach. In the view of many traditionalists then, college teaching was like a tin can tied to the tail of research. As far back as the 1930s, the increased size and scale of graduate education led to calls for a separate "professional doctorate." It would meet the demand for college teachers without tainting the mission of scholarly researchers studying for the Ph.D. The idea of professional doctorates was not new even then. For generations, medical schools and law schools have been turning out professional doctorates, although we’re no longer accustomed to thinking of the M.D. or the J.D. in those terms.

In arts and sciences, the three-year doctor-of-arts (D.A.) degree was first suggested in 1932, but it didn’t gain traction until the 1960s. During that period of unprecedented academic abundance, baby boomers crowded into universities, which were themselves enlarged and enriched by federal money — targeted at research — that the Cold War made flow. Ph.D.s were badly wanted for teaching jobs during the 1950s and 1960s, hence the renewed interest in that era in the D.A. And it caught on. The first ones were offered in math, English, history, and fine arts by Carnegie Mellon in 1967.

Intended as an alternative to the Ph.D., the D.A. was designed to cut time-to-degree (which even in the 1960s was thought to be excessive, even though almost everyone back then finished within five years). Supporters of the D.A. argued that the lengthy and specialized nature of Ph.D. dissertation research ill-prepared students for teaching undergraduates. The new degree would take only three years because it would eliminate the dissertation.

Defenders of the traditional Ph.D. and proponents of the new D.A. agreed that Ph.D.s should be shifted out of the undergraduate classroom and replaced with professional D.A.s who knew what to do there. Unimaginable as that suggestion seems today, we should remember that during this time of prosperity there was an actual shortage of professors. The D.A. was envisioned as the solution to that shortage. The new degree would, declared one advocate, prepare its holders to become "well-trained and informed collegiate teachers" at undergraduate institutions, and thus allow an elite minority of Ph.D.s to concentrate on research.

The Council of Graduate Schools endorsed the D.A. early on, and suggested that its standards ought to be as rigorous as those of the Ph.D. But here we see a glimmer of concern. The council must have been worried that observers might view D.A. standards as less demanding, or else the subject wouldn’t have come up.

The D.A. gained a lot of ground for a brief period. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provided seed money in the 70s for the programs. During the degree’s 15-year peak, according to Stephen R. White and Mark K. McBeth in their 2003 book, A History of the Doctor of Arts Tradition in American Higher Education, nearly 2,000 D.A.s were awarded at 31 universities.

Flash forward to the present. The D.A. is virtually invisible today. Its capital as a teaching-centered alternative to a Ph.D. was decimated by two related developments. First, the academic job market tightened, reducing the demand for college teachers that had brought the D.A. into being. Second, the increased competition for the professorships that remained led Ph.D.s to become less fussy. After haughtily claiming that undergraduate teaching was below them, defenders of the Ph.D. now claimed that same teaching as their due.

D.A. recipients dwindled in number as Ph.D.s — who were now being trained to teach also — outcompeted them in the undergraduate teaching market. True, many Ph.D.s still saw their true calling as research, even if its price was undergraduate teaching. Nevertheless, most Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, now incorporate some form of teacher training.

The case of the University at Albany shows how the D.A. was pushed off the plank. Albany administrators canceled the university’s last D.A. program in 2004. They noted that the D.A. "is not usually a competitive degree for positions leading to tenure at research institutions" — but D.A.s were never supposed to compete for research-focused jobs in the first place.

The extinction of the Albany D.A. shows how the degree wound up looking like a second-class Ph.D. That had been a concern from the start, and scarcity revealed the caste system lurking beneath the degree’s architecture.

That specter of lower status has attended every two-track alternative proposed to the traditional Ph.D. — and for good reason. Alternatives to the Ph.D. have always looked like thin gruel: second-class, second-choice fill-ins, and poor substitutes for first-class education.

We have to reform doctoral education in the arts and sciences — that fact is plain. Its prolonged time-to-degree is simply unethical, and it socializes graduate students to focus on the kind of research-centered jobs that are in short supply. But for Ph.D. reform to work, it has to take place under the aegis of the original, genuine, first-class article.

Reforming the Ph.D. offers us a socially conscious opportunity to recognize the importance of teaching and research as two sides of the same enterprise. There’s evidence for that in this very story, in fact. Idaho State University’s "Ph.D. in English and the teaching of English" — recently cited by the Modern Language Association as a salutary innovation — is an overhauled version of a D.A. program. Under the Ph.D. banner it evidently sells better. History shows that to be common sense. Any reforms of the Ph.D. will have to happen under that banner — so we can avoid creating a second class that no one will want to enter.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His new book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is coming out this fall from Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at . Twitter handle: @LCassuto.