Higher Education

02.21.13 10:34 PM ET

What's the Use of a PhD?

Can we remake the humanities PhD to have better job prospects?

I read with great interest a column by Michael Berube on rethinking the role and structure of the humanities PhD.  This is largely an internal discussion about fights in which I have no dog (except that I think that Berube and I are agreed that people shouldn't spend ten years toiling in poverty for a degree that leaves them with little earning capacity or job security when they are done.)  

So I read it mostly the way I read Derek Lowe's blog: with an outsider's interest in an insider's discussion of his own world.  

However, in one place Berube touches on a subject that I do know a bit about: the job market outside of academia.  It seems that in the absence of enough academic jobs for their students, graduate programs are talking about "alt-ac" (alternative to academic) routes for the people they train:  

The alt-ac option, as it is widely known, has generated much debate in the humanities, but so far little sense of what the viable "alternatives" to academic employment might be. The situation is vastly different in the arts, where M.F.A. or Ph.D. holders typically expect to find employment in a far wider array of cultural institutions than humanists—orchestras, dance companies, design companies, museums, theaters, nonprofits. But of course, the cultural institutions to which degree holders in the arts aspire are often in states of distress similar to those affecting universities, albeit for different structural reasons.

So here the debate stands: We need to remake our programs from the ground up to produce teachers and researchers and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven't begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly. (Anyway, we're not trained to do that! All we know how to do is to be professors!)

I am hesitant to dive in here, because I know from experience that Professor Berube, if he reads this at all, will probably experience this as a hostile right-wing attack on pointy-headed academics.  Which is not my intent.  I'm a pretty fierce critic of the academic labor market, but not because I think professors are useless parasites busily indoctrinating our children into Socialism.  As an outsider who knows a fair number of people who have passed through this system, or work in it at varying levels, I happen to think it's the most cruel, abusive labor market in America, doing terrible things to bright and idealistic kids who want to be scholars.  And I wish it would reform itself.  At the same time as I am aware of the terrible collective action problems and institutional imperatives which make reform unlikely short of some sort of catastrophic collapse in enrollment.  

But this is not because I think that scholarship is wasteful, or academics are useless.  The best part of my job is interviewing smart academics who tell me about all the stuff they're expert in.  I understand why professors love their jobs, and why graduate students want them (and, by extension, why those jobs are so hard to get.) And I applaud any effort by programs to deal with the disastrous financial, social and emotional reckoning often faced by students who have invested 10 years in a PhD and then find themselves without a tenure-track position.   

Disclaimer issued, let me start by asking a question: what, exactly, does this alt-ac vision entail? 

Are they merely saying that they should try not to socialize graduate students to believe that a job in academia is really the only worthwhile goal, so that the majority of those students won't be completely emotionally shattered when one of those jobs fails to materialize?  If so, I agree heartily, but it seems rather cold to simply settle on better warnings on the lottery tickets you are selling.  

Is the idea that programs should acknowledge that most of its candidates will not find stable, long-term jobs in academia, and will therefore almost all be worse off than they would have been if they had done something else--and then do more to help the stranded majority salvage what they can out of ten years labor?  Again, yes, please!  But is that really all?  

I don't think that this is what they envision.  I hope it is not, because that seems like a pretty terrible way to treat your students.  Rather, I think they have a third vision:  that alt-ac will make these PhDs valuable.  That somehow, through alt-ac, they can create a system where all those holders of humanities PhDs will be be better off than they would have been if they'd just done something else with the last decade.  And that does not (she said gently) seem very realistic.  

From the outside, a humanities PhD does not seem likely to ever be a career-enhancing move, for the simple reason that a PhD is a lengthy apprenticeship designed to teach you the skills needed to do exactly one thing: be a professor.

Graduate students learn to write, but not like other professions do, and in fact the writing habits that make you a good academic often make you a very bad writer of journalistic articles or corporate reports.  There are certainly professors who switch effortlessly between the two--Professor Berube seems to be one--but that's not the norm in my experience, or in the experience of people I know who edit a lot of academics.  The ponderous, jargon-filled style of academic articles, constantly multiplying out the caveats and contraditions to their very last implication, fills a real purpose in scholarly discourse.  But no one else will wade through it.  So if PhDs want to be writers, they often have to unlearn what they've learned.

Graduate students learn to do research, but not like other professions do (with the sometimes exception of quasi-academic groups like think tanks and historical societies--but it's not as if lucrative jobs at these places are going begging.)  Masterful command of a narrow(ish) scholarly area has zero economic value outside the academy.  Nor does the ability to spend months or years working on a single problem, or small group of related problems.  I reiterate that I am not arguing about whether it is valuable, only pointing out that in most cases, no one but a university will pay for it.  PhDs that rely heavily on quantitative methods do better, of course.  But is the PhD really necessary to gain--or even signal--those skills?

Graduate students learn to teach, but they mostly learn to teach students at large research institutions, which is not necessarily great practice for teaching many other groups.  To be sure, I would love to see more subjects taught by PhDs instead of ed majors, but are the PhDs themselves really better off than they'd have been if they'd gotten a master's and spent the intervening eight years learning on the job (and gaining seniority)? Indeed, I have heard anecdotal reports that a PhD can actually be a handicap if you want to teach high school, because many school districts offer mechanical salary bumps for higher degrees, which means that a school district might rather hire someone cheaper.  

By the time you've rejiggered your program so that it can produce, as Berube puts it, "teachers and researchers and something elses" you sort of have to ask, "Why are we bundling all these things into the PhD?"  A course of training to be a something else is probably going to be fairly specific to the something else, and not much like the very exotic enterprise that is modern scholarship.  From the outside it seems like maybe you're trying to build a fail-safe into the degree so that you can keep having all of these graduate students.  But from the outside it also looks like that is an effort doomed to fail; the better you make the degree serve "something else", the worse it will serve the things you are trying to preserve.

And there are some powerful forces fighting against you in the job market. Unfortunately, in many cases a PhD sends a negative rather than a positive signal.  Some employers are suspicious of people they figure will be a smartypants pain in the ass with no real skills (I'm not endorsing this view, just reporting it).  But a bigger problem is that employers know why people get a PhD in Comp Lit or Religious Studies: so they can be a professor.  If you go on the job market with that degree, they know that it's almost certainly because you failed to get a job as a professor.  

Now, most potential employers don't know about the state of the academic job market: that there were only two jobs even offered in anything close to your specialty last year and one of them went to the son of a famous professor and the other went to the top candidate from Harvard.  Many will just think of you as someone who couldn't cut it in academia.  (This is not specific to PhDs, by the way; employers have the same reaction to a lawyer or an MD who suddenly decides not to practice a profession they've spent years studying for.)  

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If you want a meaningful alt-ac track, you need to somehow overcome this--to convince employers that a PhD is a general purpose degree.  I think that this is a very tough row to hoe, an a transformation that will take place over decades if it happens at all.  

So if humanities programs are genuinely worried about what is happening to so many of their graduates (as I think they are), I hope they will not simply salve their consciences by hoping that alt-ac will somehow restore the value of these degrees.  Alt-ac is not a good substitute for cutting down on the enormous oversupply of graduate students in many (most?) humanities fields.  

To his credit, Berube is aware that professors aren't necessarily particularly suited to figuring out how vocational training for professors might be used outside of the all-embracing world of academia.   And as I say, I am sympathetic to the instutitional imperatives which lead to the current situation; I know that I am really asking professors to be better than human beings ever are.