Study says Humanities Ph.D. Candidates Should Drink More Coffee

November 29, 2014, 12:30 pm


Ok, I lied. But you clicked on it, didn’t you?

Today we focus on yet another study, this one by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The AAAS injects new life into a tired conversation (one that has been going on intermittently for about five decades) about whether humanities Ph.D.s spend too much time in graduate school. What are they doing there? Should they do less of it? More? Should they do the same things — only faster? No one seems to know much, except that the median time to degree is 6.9 years.

As Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed noted last week, in a follow up to the MLA’s 2014 report that recommended a five-year Ph.D. clock “with wiggle room” (perhaps two years of wiggling?), AAAS is suggesting that humanities graduate students might benefit more generally from a shorter time to degree.

Among the key findings is that the median time is longer in the humanities than in any other field, at 6.9 years in 2012, compared to a 5.9-year average for all Ph.D.s. That won’t surprise anyone following the national time-to-degree conversation, but just where in their studies humanities Ph.D.s are stalling might. It’s been largely assumed that students accrue extra time during their dissertation phase, once they’ve finished their course work, and when their efforts are overwhelmingly solitary and funding is harder to secure. According to the academy’s new data, however, humanities graduate students spend more time studying before starting on their dissertations than their peers in other fields – about four years, compared to two for physical and life sciences students. Social sciences Ph.D.s spend about four years studying, too.

Humanities Ph.D.s also spend less time on their dissertations than their course work – about three years. That’s the approximate average for all disciplines.

Read the rest of the article: it actually gets more interesting than this, I promise you. There are also star turns from Robert Townsend, director of the AAAS Washington office and Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, both of whom have been scrutinizing graduate education in history for some time.

I am not a traditionalist by any means. However, the question of how much time it takes to complete a Ph.D., while it raises interesting questions like how quickly humanists identify and focus on dissertation research, rarely seems to grapple with two basic issues:

  • what is the point of graduate education in today’s higher ed environment; and
  • what structure for Ph.D. programs would prepare graduate students to be competitive for a range of jobs, and/or to imagine humanities jobs that may not yet exist?

Some programs, where faculty teach whatever they like at the graduate level and presume that every student will become some kind of college professor, on or off the tenure track, don’t seem to have been rethought since the Pleistocene Age. Other programs have undergone rigorous reshaping in the past decade. Some graduate students enter the teaching pool instantly; other graduate students don’t teach at all prior to going on the job market. Some graduate students are supported by their universities well beyond the degree; others are not. And so on. Aggregated data that blurs important distinctions between fields, programs and institutions seems like the conversational equivalent of throwing cooked spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks, and then leaving it there while you go eat dinner at a restaurant.

Granted, there are too many programs that offer too little intellectual direction and support, and that allow students to drag on as ABDs, virtually untended, for years. But there are also too many unexamined assumptions about graduate school that we might want to reopen when considering the factors that ought to shape time to degree. Here are a few.

There’s a lot to learn in graduate school — is 7 years really too long? I don’t think so. There’s a lot to accomplish, depending on what each student brings to the table. Mastery of a field and a subfield is one biggie. The knowledge acquired in coursework lays the basis for examination fields, a teaching career and for writing a dissertation that is truly original. There is often a second, or third, language to learn; there are methods to learn and choose; there is a whole digital world opening up; there is a process of professionalization; and ideally, graduate students should learn how to teach. That said, any graduate program that has not knocked formal coursework down to two years either has not thought through its curriculum or is not admitting students that have the proper background for graduate study.

Would anyone care how long graduate school was if there were no job crisis? I think not. Hasn’t anyone noticed the trend? Suddenly we want to make law school and medical school shorter too: graduates are not pulling down the salaries that they used to earn and they can’t pay back their loans either. We want to make college shorter, and cheaper, so we create high school classes pretending to be college level work taught by people who often don’t have a  B.A. in that field. When in doubt, don’t figure out how to finance education to make it affordable! Just require less of each person, let them double dip for a small fee, and churn more students through the same seats at the same price!

Do Ph.D. programs really need to capitulate to this bargain-basement logic? Whether the time to degree is producing people who are properly trained to be historians is a different question than guilt-tripping Ph.D. programs into awarding a less meaningful degree because we can’t figure out how to finance graduate education and create good humanities jobs.

If time to degree is shorter, we need to ratchet back the expectations of what we expect from humanities job applicants, and ratchet up our expectations of what they will learn on the job. Ask anyone who went on the job market early to “test the waters,” then actually got a job and had to finish a humanities dissertation in six months, what that experience was like. It’s a nightmare, and the ramifications of finishing the Ph.D. in a rush can be serious. There’s often a lot of shame about a dissertation that feels unfinished (only because it is); worse, these candidates often do not learn critical rewriting and revision skills that take them to the next stage of writing a book. They also often have to finish the dissertation and prepare classes at the same time, making those first years of teaching more difficult than they need to be. New colleagues end up teaching what these quick finishers should have learned in graduate school.

Why aren’t we studying what it means for young people to make an informed choice about going to grad school in the humanities in the first a place, one that won’t make them feel like they have wasted their time if they don’t get an academic job? Too many young people, when I ask why they are going to graduate school, tell me some version of: “I’ve been out working for a while, and I think it’s time for me to be in school again” or “I think it would be good for me to read for a few years.” I will admit it: this is why I went to graduate school (against the advice of my college dean who, way back in 1982, advised me to become a lawyer instead.) But in my own defense, I also never thought I wanted an academic job until I actually got one. Young people have to be dissuaded in the strongest terms from making this choice without being told clearly that an advanced degree in the humanities, while enriching in all kinds of ways, requires a great deal of ingenuity, flexibility and really hard work if it is to result in better and more satisfying employment.

Here’s an idea: what if programs decided on time to degree depending on what prior experience prospective students brought to the table? Someone with a law, science, archives or media studies degree, or who has worked in public history or journalism, might take a single year of course work prior to the year of studying for comprehensives. What if we told applicants to history programs that unless they already had demonstrable proficiency in a language other than English, they would not be admitted? That’s something a person could do to prepare to enter graduate school, all the while having extra time to contemplate whether it was the right step.

Why shouldn’t a Ph.D. be a serious commitment of time? And why shouldn’t Ph.D. programs do their best to ensure that this commitment is worth it? We are talking about the future of American scholarship and literary life, the future of higher education, and the future of uncounted numbers of undergraduate educations. Do we actually want people who are less committed to excellence in charge of American culture — or do we have the fantasy that shorter time to degree will just shake out the chaff, leaving better, fewer scholars in place?

Are we ready to acknowledge, and commit to, a two-tiered system of Ph.D.’s and a growing population of ABDs who can never be securely employed at anything for which they have studied? This seems to me the not-so-hidden outcome of the shorter Ph.D. Schools with less funding, who are also the ones who rely on graduate programs for teaching muscle, will churn them in and out, cutting off funding and fellowship money, and leaving graduate students high and dry to finish, or not finish, on their own. Except in rare cases, the quickie Ph.D. will have no publications, and a less polished dissertation, when she goes on the job market. The big schools with the big endowments will do what they have always done: offer post-docs, and keep their students on as instructors and lecturers, giving them the time they need to compete for the best jobs.




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