At the New Faculty Majority’s national summit in January, an administrator from the University of Cincinnati told the first panel of speakers that she would like to see the summit address “the 850-pound gorilla in the room,” which is the overproduction of Ph.D.'s. If there weren’t so many English Ph.D.'s, she said, then English adjuncts could make more money, find more secure jobs, etc. Basically, she was saying that we are flooding the market with Ph.D.'s when there aren’t enough jobs in academe for people with that credential.
As some in the room applauded, I felt very uneasy. I kept thinking to myself, “So there are a lot of Ph.D.'s. Is it possible to overproduce a degree?” If I trace my sense of unease, I come up with a fundamental difference of opinion I have with this person from the University of Cincinnati, one that brings up an age-old debate: What is the purpose of a Ph.D.?
I need to make it clear that I don’t have a terminal degree. Just an M.A. in English for this professor. When I got my M.A., I never saw it as a means to a career. I studied English because I loved the subject. I’m currently considering pursuing an M.F.A. or a Ph.D., but because I love the subject, and because I crave the intense pressure of scholarship and the wonderful community of like-minded peers. I’ve considered a terminal degree for a long time, long before I found success in academe (small as that success has been so far), but I have never thought of a terminal degree ... or any degree ... as a means to a career.
Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for anyone with a terminal degree. Anyone who’s gone through the rigors of in-depth research or the soul-baring process of a creative thesis has earned my admiration. And the degree (and title) confirms that a person can do certain things, does have a certain depth of knowledge, does have a certain ability to contemplate things fully. In that sense, a terminal degree gives someone an edge on the academic job market; it’s proof of ability.
But this doesn’t mean we should think of degrees as means to careers. If someone tries to get a Ph.D. solely because it will give them an edge on the job market, that person will probably never get that Ph.D. I think my response to this administrator from the University of Cincinnati -- the one who mentioned the overproduction of Ph.D.'s -- is that people get Ph.D.'s because they are in love with their chosen areas of study. They get Ph.D.'s because they want to cultivate knowledge and ability. They don’t get Ph.D.'s to become professors; they become professors because they have Ph.D.'s.