Post Academic

Time-to-degree, real and reimagined (with poll)

Yesterday, we covered the New York Times covering the take-your-pick-of-crises in academia.  The most stunning thing the NYT reported was that the average time-to-Ph.D. in the humanities was calculated at 9.3 years!  That figure strikes me as a little too high as an average, but, whatever the actual number, the point is well-taken that getting your Ph.D. takes way too long, whether it’s the nature of things or that there’s a certain kind of less-time-constrained personality better suited to academia.

So one of the solutions to the problems facing Ph.D. students, whether it’s with the day-to-day experience of getting by or longer-term issues of an ever-declining academic job market, that’s being floated is shortening the time-to-degree.  One of the most prominent proponents of this idea is Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Prof Louis Menand, who outlines in his book The Marketplace of Ideas some reasons for rethinking the Ph.D. and shortening the time-to-degree, as well as a structural argument on how the long apprenticeship has broader impacts on the humanities.  (Much of what I discuss is reprinted in this Harvard Magazine excerpt.)

Continued, below the jump..

In his brief history of the humanities-as-they-are-now, Menand points to 1970 as roughly the time when the current idea of the Ph.D. took shape, ushering in an oversupply of scholars and a longer course-of-study.  As academic work became more professionalized and isolated, expectations for research changed, becoming more specialized and requiring more training.  In turn, a number of confusing but connected things happened, whereby more people wanted to attain a degree that was more difficult to earn and more obscure in its applications, leading to the current condition of an oversupply of overqualified job candidates clamoring to satisfy an ever-shrinking demand, be it in terms of jobs or interest among students.

One of the most interesting points that Menand makes is that English Ph.D. programs are really now ABD programs, in part because of the neglect of mentoring as well as the need for cheap grad student labor:

The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing PhDs, but when it is producing ABDs.  It is mainly ABSs who run sections for lecture courses and they often offer courses of their own.  The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes.  Of course, the overproduction of PhDs also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor (152).

What Menand doesn’t mention here, too, is that once older grad students becomes a drag on the dept, whether it’s in terms of finances or weighing down the normative time average, they can easily be replaced by the next cohort of students who don’t think this will ever be at least some of their fates.  Ohhh, so the way Menand describes the humanities Ph.D. marketplace is like The Matrix, where the people are really being sucked dry as batteries for the technocracy, while their consciousness is being duped into thinking they’re doing what they want–that’s probably a better analogy to grad school than the TV shows we tried to match up to the grad experience.

Menand proposes shortening time-to-degree, for the following reasons:

1. “Simple humanitarianism”: That’s self-explanatory enough, since, as Menand puts it, “Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process” (152).  You know, academics should have a chance to live where they want, pull a decent wage, start a family if they choose to, rather than live a life of delayed maturation.  And if they can’t have any of these things in academia, at least it might not take so long to find them outside of it.

2. Less overtraining: Menand argues that Ph.D. programs promote overtraining, which not only impacts candidates trying to get on with their lives, but also intimidates prospective students who want to continue with their education even if they don’t want become career academics.  And since Ph.D. students provide the bulk of comp teaching and run sections within their specializations, there’s no need for more pedagogical training.

3. More perspectives: The larger point Menand wants to make is that the long time-to-degree ends up homogenizing points-of-view into an academic commonsense that he describes as centrist liberal.  Whether you fully buy this political argument, you could make a stronger case, as Menand also does, that it is this specialized and often arcane perspective that isolates academia from everything else.  Which, to get back to a point that we’re concerned with here, might also explain why it’s so hard for Ph.D.s who are smart and motivated to transition into a world where they can’t translate their skills and that doesn’t quite get them.

Certainly, the schematic historical account and clear structural argument Menand provides are appealing.  In short, if getting a Ph.D. wasn’t an all-or-nothing, go-for-broke proposition, the process wouldn’t seem so crushing both along the way or at the end of it, especially if non-academic options were better understood and promoted.  Still, I’d raise two caveats as to Menand’s idea of shortening the course-of-study:

1. Structural stubbornness: It’s not entirely clear just how and why the system would change, as Menand concedes when he describes the humanities Ph.D. program as an ABD factory churning out cut-rate labor.  Moreover, if the system were to change, how would you compare the old, clunky 9.3-year Ph.D. to next year’s 5-year Ph.D. model?  When the system is as unwieldy and prone to rationalization and dithering as academia is, structural change is probably the least likely kind of transformation to happen.

2. Grad student self-interest: We covered this last week when I explained how grad student squatters sometimes have a method to their madness.  It’s not always in the best interest of the grad student to finish, if that means losing access to benefits at the same time that student loans begin to come due and you’re without prospects for a job in or out of academia.

“The stopwatch timer is running in the background” by Nokia releases from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

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