Post Academic

The New York Times feels y/our pain

On Sunday, The New York Times published a piece titled “The Long-Haul Degree” which basically addressed the structural problems with the humanities that we know so well and that have been discussed ad infinitum by professional publications like the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, along with ad hoc operations like our blog.  While there’s really no new news in the Times write-up, it is kind of a big deal that such issues are being examined in a mainstream publication.  The article revolves around one data point that is shocking enough to career academics, not to mention the uninitiated who might be reading the piece: normative time for a Ph.D. in the humanities is 9.3 years.

If you want to cut to the chase and skim the data, check out the “multimedia” pop-up graphic linked on the left-side of the page:

* Over 1/3 of Ph.D.s in the humanities from 2008 have “No definite part- or full-time employment,” along with about another 10% with “Employment outside of academia”

* Normative time: 9.3 years in the humanities

* Median age of Ph.D.: 35 years old

* Average loan debt: $23, 315

The exegesis of the NYTimes article after the jump…

Considering the NYTimes‘ stature and readership size, it’s also important to see how they cover the various crises facing Ph.D. students in the humanities, be it in terms of the job market or even finishing the degree.  Beyond just a little bit of unavoidable snark (the data chart is tagged “How many Ph.D. students does it take to screw in a light bulb?  One, but it takes 9.3 years”), the article gives a relatively good overview of the obstacles encountered by Ph.D. candidates–though interview at least one actual grad student instead of deans and academic celebrities might help.  One of the main conceits of the article is compare getting a humanities Ph.D. to earning a M.D. or a J.D.:

First- and second-year Ph.D. students in, say, English literature may not face the same aching course load or backstabbing competition as their friends in medical and law schools, but they have a longer haul ahead. Doctoral students are expected not only to master a wide swath of material to pass general and oral exams, but to produce a nearly book-length dissertation of original research that, depending on the subject, may ultimately sit on a shelf as undisturbed as the Epsom salts at the back of the medicine chest. These students must earn their keep by patching together a mix of grants and wages for helping to teach undergraduate courses — a job that eats into research time. Third-year medical students may be bleary eyed from hospital rotations, but at least the work goes toward their degree.

Also, it’s fairly descriptive about the realities of the situation Ph.D.s face after completing the degree, and how many are funneled into the adjunct life when there aren’t any tenure-track jobs at the end of the line and there isn’t enough support for/acknowledgement of non-academic careers.

The article goes into some possible solutions to the normative time problem and how it affects both degree finishing and job seeking  For instance, it addresses the still-very-conceptual idea of shortening Ph.D. programs promoted by Louis Menand in his new book on U.S. education and others, as well as some of the seemingly practical reforms that the MLA is proposing to streamline the process; we’ll cover this issue of time-to-degree at greater length very soon on the blog.

And the NYTimes also shows a some particular traits of intellectuals well-known to those of us in academia and probably the basis of some of the caricatures outside of it.  First is the notion that academics are full of ideas and even possible solutions, just not big on actually realizing them.  Which piggybacks onto a second, that getting professor-types–not to mention university admin–to agree to anything is like herding cats:

Despite high-level support for reform, educators say that wholesale change is not likely any time soon. For one, any meaningful transformation in doctoral requirements must be adopted universally, says Richard Wheeler, interim chancellor and former dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Who would want to attend a program that another university — and potential employer — doesn’t recognize as valid? “It hasn’t reached enough of a crisis point yet,” Dr. Wheeler says.

“It’s very hard to get through the graduate student experience,” he adds.

Those last couple of quotes suggest a third–and least flattering–characteristic, huh, that of academics being cluelessly out-of-touch: If the “Worst Salary Year” (especially at a furloughing state system like UIllinois) matched by the “Worst. Job Market. Ever” in the literature–and probably humanities-wide–isn’t “enough of a crisis point yet,” maybe Wheeler can tell us when we get there.

“The Long-Haul Degree” by Patricia Cohen [NY Times]

“Detail of New York Times advertisement-1895” by “EP” from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

One Response to 'The New York Times feels y/our pain'

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  1. Len said,

    That’s a superb commentary. I wonder if the slowness of change, or the cat-herding effect, has to do with a lack of ways to share and disseminate information. My best students all want to go into PhD programs, too, and I never know how to send them to good sources about the backlog of grad students without implying that I am deeming them unworthy. In a lot of cases I do think they would make great grad students, but where to send them for info? To Post-Academic, of course! Contrast blogging with the MLA, which is extremely poor about spreading the word; they do a lot of studies but never draw any conclusions or endorse any positions without a lot of handwringing and eons of debate. And so, of course, while I was at MLA, I had no idea about Pannapacker’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” protest! Sounds like an accurate account of the state of the profession to me.

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