What Will Doctoral Education Look Like in 2025?

Predictions and hopes for the future of Ph.D. training

Dan Stiles for The Chronicle

January 03, 2016

When I imagine the future of graduate school, I envision large cohorts of students finishing their Ph.D.s in four or five years. Most would choose to teach. They would decide what part of the country they preferred to live in and would field multiple offers from colleges and universities there. Then they would go off and live happily ever after as professors.

Oh, wait a minute. I miscalibrated the settings on my crystal ball. That’s not the future. It’s the past. And only a brief past instant at that. The Elysium I just described lasted for about one generation, funded by the Cold War and stocked by huge numbers of students enticed to college by the GI Bill and new federal student-loan programs. It ended in the 1970s.

We’ve been emptying the stores ever since, waiting and hoping to recover that lost time of plenty. But the scales have fallen from our eyes in recent years, so it’s a good time to think about what the future might really hold for graduate school.

The problem is that I’m a lousy futurist. As a freshman, I remember proclaiming more than once that I would never, ever go to graduate school. No one was trying to persuade me to go, understand, but I was resisting anyway. I understood my feelings as ambivalence only later in college, after I read Freud.

But you don’t need to be a futurist to prognosticate about graduate school. It’s actually better to be a geologist because the changes in graduate school are typically measured in geological time.

Higher education has always changed slowly, and that’s not a bad thing. We shouldn’t expect the university to be blown about by fads. But graduate school changes slowly even by academic standards.

Today graduate school is gripped in a vise. One jaw of that vise is the ever-tightening academic job market, and the other jaw is the increasing corporatization of the academy. Their squeeze is hardly new. It’s built up over the years so that the institution can hardly breathe.

Graduate programs (and all of higher education) have a bad habit of adding features but never letting go of any.
Robert C. Holub, a professor of German at Ohio State University, summed up these pressures in a talk at a recent conference at Penn State on graduate study. He cited public disinvestment in higher education and a "distorted" view of its costs. Public research universities, he said, are now called upon to be "economic engines for the state," generating economic development (in terms of patents and other marketable discoveries) while providing "cheap education for the work force."

Holub also noted a move to a "different sort of leadership" in higher education. The faculty no longer sets the values of the institution. Instead, university leaders now see themselves as agents for the board of trustees, and at public institutions, the legislature. The naming of the businessman Bruce Harreld as president of the University of Iowa is good recent example of that shift.

In any calculation based on the bottom line, graduate school will fare poorly. It is, after all, an investment in the future — not just of the academic profession, but of the society to which academe contributes. Moreover, education is hard to value. Figuring out what part someone’s education played in her success is like trying to unbake a cake.

Geologists try to predict catastrophes like earthquakes. The seismic pressure on graduate school these days might lead one to wonder whether it’s in danger of being crushed.

It seems likely to be compressed, at least, in the decade to come. I’ve asked a lot of people in recent weeks about what the future will hold for graduate school. Almost all of them said it will be smaller. If we’re speaking of doctoral education, that’s a hard prediction to argue with.

Master’s degrees are another story. Graduate schools everywhere are trying to increase the size of their master’s programs, and there’s a concerted push to develop professional master’s degrees that graduates can take straight to the workplace.

The number of Ph.D. students, on the other hand, is already going down in the arts and sciences. But there is more than one way to grow smaller. Here’s what I hope: that doctoral programs learn to shrink gracefully.

In the humanities, that means we’ll have to question how we deliver doctoral education. We need to "aerate" our assumptions about what we teach and how we teach it, said Sidonie Smith, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Speaking at the same Penn State conference, Smith called on humanists to collaborate more, to move from the intransitive "think" to the transitive "think with." Digital technology should make such work easier — its continuing importance is a simple prediction.

Scientists are already used to collaboration, but they’ll have to question the lab-centered, grant-driven model that finances their work. Labs need money to run, so scientists publish papers in order to get grants, which they use to finance research that will lead to further publications and help them get more grants — and so on.

Doctoral students provide the labor to turn that giant wheel, but their dim employment prospects — both inside and outside of academe — have already led many labs to admit fewer graduate students and to rely more and more on postdoctoral labor. That’s the scientific equivalent of adjunctification, and it’s just as casual and cruel to scientists who hope for a faculty career. Meanwhile, grant funding is getting tighter and tighter, and the system is stressed like an old tree in a hurricane.

All of which leads to another hope of mine for the next decade: that doctoral programs in the sciences replace more research grants with training grants (which emphasize teaching) as they redesign their system.

But teaching has its own problems. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that baby-boom faculty members will continue their slow march toward retirement during the next decade. But no one (including me) is expecting a wave of new tenure-track openings. The academic job market will remain straitened, but it won’t face the kind of crisis that might trigger systemic change. Perhaps that change will happen when the retirements are complete, in about 2035 — or we might just continue to decline.

One current development that will surely expand in coming years is the continuing rise of the full-time, non-tenure-track faculty member. The numbers are clear: Tenured and tenure-track faculty have already been marginalized by the growth of this new category. What shall we do about it? The answer: something. Because right now we aren’t doing much at all.

Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in their new book, The Humanities, Higher Education, & Academic Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), that we must create a second, teaching-oriented tenure track. Should we? My hope for the next decade is that we start that conversation. Because we need to have it, both publicly and within departments.

Tenured or not, more of us now teach online. Colleges rely more and more on distance learning, and much of it is prefabricated. The historian John Larson, of Purdue University, worries that such courses are incompatible with graduate training. "We teach graduate students to generate original content," he told me, but they are asked to teach multiple online courses in all different areas. To do that, he said, "You need off-the-shelf materials."

"You don’t need to write a dissertation" to teach prefabricated courses, says Larson. "If you study for six years to get a Ph.D. and your job is a continuation of graduate-school TA work, that does not produce happiness. And if your teachers are discontented, that won’t recruit the next generation."

A lack of coherence in teaching throughout the university is nothing new. Even for an incompetent futurist like me, it’s a safe bet that the incoherence will persist. But still I hope for more. Teaching, after all, is part of the graduate-school mission. In the humanities, observes Larson, it’s "our way of delivering scholarship."

I talk with a lot of graduate students these days, and most of them would appreciate more focus on pedagogy in their training. They want it integrated into the curriculum, not just as an add-on. Graduate students also want their education to acknowledge more career paths. A graduate student at a state university recently told me that she wished her teachers wouldn’t make these alternatives "shameful to contemplate."

Such concerns point toward the possibility of a more flexible dissertation requirement, which can bend to suit different student needs. The students want it. Their teachers aren’t so sure. So, will there be a change in the dissertation in the next decade?

(Pause. Writer clears throat, looks out window.) I can’t predict that.

Do I hope for it? Yes, cautiously. Graduate schools move slowly, but they’re beginning to stir. Larson points out that foundations and grant agencies are encouraging such changes. A case in point is the recent announcement of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ "Next Generation" grants to reconsider graduate education and "promote greater integration of the humanities in the public sphere." Such rewards nourish my cautious hope.

But we have a long way to go. For one thing, graduate programs (and all of higher education, for that matter) have a bad habit of adding features but never letting go of any. We need to say "at the expense of" more often than we do.

Strong graduate-school leadership is another hope. The budget of a graduate dean is typically among the most overstretched in the university. If we want graduate schools to meet the future and not get overwhelmed by an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or some other geological disaster, we need to empower their deans in tangible ways.

Here’s the greatest cause for hope: The conversations about changing graduate school are finally happening. The problems I’ve described here have been with us for a long while, but for years we weren’t ready to face them. Yes, things have gotten worse — especially since the recession of 2008 — but we haven’t collapsed yet. Let’s fix our house before it falls over.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes "The Graduate Adviser" column for The Chronicle. His new book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.

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