Graduate Students

Ph.D. Programs Should Change but Not Shrink, MLA Says

May 28, 2014

Humanities doctoral programs are under intense scrutiny. Policy makers, scholars, and the public have questioned whether universities should be producing so many Ph.D.’s in those fields, especially when the job market for tenure-track positions is tight.

The Modern Language Association on Wednesday proposed a path forward for doctoral programs in literature and languages that calls for change but not contraction.

In a document, titled "Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature," the association agreed with critics on one point at least. "We are faced with an unsustainable reality," the report states.

What needs to change, the report says, is the length of time it takes to earn a Ph.D. and the narrow view many hold of the career paths for Ph.D.’s. The median time-to-degree for language and literature doctoral recipients is nine years, which the report says is too long. And the academic-job market provides tenure-track employment for only about 60 percent of doctorate recipients, the report notes.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, the MLA report does not call for fewer or smaller programs.

"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths."

Departments should be more clear with students from the start that tenure-track jobs are becoming harder to find, Mr. Berman said, and should also explain to students what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track, he said, include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector.

"The subject matter may, in fact, be far from literature," Mr. Berman said, "but the rich professional formation acquired during the course of doctoral study can be put to good use."

‘Not Meant to Be Punitive’

With the report, the MLA is taking a stance similar to the American Historical Association, whose executive director has said that history Ph.D.’s are not being overproduced but underused. The history association announced in March that it and four universities had received a $1.6-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to better prepare history Ph.D.’s for a range of careers. The MLA report was partly financed by a Mellon Foundation grant.

In addition to better preparing students for careers outside the tenure track, the report says those choices should be validated, not stigmatized. The report also recommends reimagining the dissertation, and expanding the forms it can take.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said departments should develop Ph.D. programs that can be completed within five years. Programs should keep Ph.D. student teaching obligations to a minimum so they can devote time to finishing, and need to provide financial and intellectual support to students to make shorter degree times possible, she said.

"It’s not meant to be punitive to the students," Ms. Feal said. "It’s meant to be the opposite. It’s meant to say to departments, ‘You need to be concerned about the progress of students to degree.’"

Change Already Under Way

The report provides examples of departments that are adapting in ways consistent with the report’s recommendations.

The department of English and philosophy at Idaho State University, for example, started a Ph.D. program in English and the teaching of English in 2009. The main goal of the program, which is typically completed in four years, is to train graduates for teaching careers at two- and four-year institutions, especially community colleges.

The division of Spanish and Portuguese studies at the University of Washington has revamped its doctoral program in Hispanic studies, which it suspended more than 15 years ago. The program reopened last fall, with significant changes that administrators believe position it to be a model for other Ph.D. programs.

Administrators at Washington hope to reduce the time to a Ph.D. to four years from a master’s degree and five years from a bachelor’s degree by having students start working on their examinations earlier, so they have more time to work on their dissertations, and by more closely tracking and mentoring students. The program also allows students to pursue nontraditional forms of dissertations, such as creating a portfolio of scholarly and creative work, a digital publication, or other forms of work decided upon by the student and his or her dissertation committee.

"The crisis that has beset university presses in the last decade makes the scholarly monograph an endangered species," Anthony L. Geist, the division’s chair at Washington, wrote about his program’s efforts in the report. "It is increasingly difficult to get a book published, regardless of quality or subsidy. While in many ways this is a loss for scholarship, it has led to a questioning and reconfiguring of the forms of production and dissemination of knowledge."