Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Louis Menand on the market for PhDs in English

Louis Menand, in Harvard Magazine, has many interesting things to say about the Ph.D. in English literature and the market for Ph.D.s in English and the humanities. The Ph.D. Problem: On the professionalization of faculty life, doctoral training, and the academy’s self-renewal

"English was one of the fields surveyed in the two studies of the Ph.D. It is useful to look at, in part because it is a large field where employment practices have a significance that goes beyond courses for English majors. What the surveys suggest is that if doctoral education in English were a cartoon character, then about 30 years ago, it zoomed straight off a cliff, went into a terrifying fall, grabbed a branch on the way down, and has been clinging to that branch ever since. Things went south very quickly, not gradually, and then they stabilized. Statistically, the state of the discipline has been fairly steady for about 25 years, and the result of this is a kind of normalization of what in any other context would seem to be a plainly inefficient and intolerable process. The profession has just gotten used to a serious imbalance between supply and demand."

"The Berkeley study, “Ph.D.s—Ten Years Later,” was based on lengthy questionnaires sent to just under 6,000 people, in six fields, who received Ph.D.s between 1982 and 1985. One of those fields was English. People who received their Ph.D.s in English between 1982 and 1985 had a median time to degree of 10 years. A third of them took more than 11 years to finish, and the median age at the time of completion was 35. By 1995, 53 percent of those with Ph.D.s that had been awarded from 10 to 15 years earlier had tenure; another 5 percent were in tenure-track positions. This means that about two-fifths of English Ph.D.s were effectively out of the profession as it is usually understood. (Some of these people were non-tenure-track faculty, and some were educational administrators. Most of the rest worked in what is called BGN—business, government, and NGOs.) Of those who had tenure, less than a fifth had positions in the kind of research universities in which they had been trained—that is, about 5 percent of all English Ph.D.s. "
"The placement rate for Ph.D.s has fluctuated. Between 1989 and 1996, the number of starting positions advertised in history dropped 11 percent; in art and art history, 26 percent; in foreign languages, 35 percent; and in political science, 37 percent. Yet every year during that period, universities gave out more Ph.D.s than they had the year before. It was plain that the supply curve had completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life. That meant if not quite a lost generation of scholars, a lost cohort. This was a period that coincided with attacks on the university for “political correctness,” and it is not a coincidence that many of the most prominent critics of academia were themselves graduate-school dropouts: Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Richard Bernstein, David Lehman. Apart from their specific criticisms and their politics, they articulated a mood of disenchantment with the university as a congenial place to work.
There were efforts after 1996 to cut down the size of doctoral programs, with apparently some positive effect on the job market. But time-to-degree numbers did not improve. In the sixties, the time-to-degree as a registered student was about 4.5 years in the natural sciences and about six years in the humanities. The current median time to degree in the humanities is nine years. That does not include what is called stop-time, which is when students take a leave or drop out for a semester or longer. And it obviously does not take into account students who never finish. It is not nine years from the receipt of the bachelor’s degree, either; it is nine years as a registered student in a graduate program. The median total time it takes to achieve a degree in the humanities including stop-time is 11.3 years. In the social sciences, it is 10 years, or 7.8 as a registered student. In the natural sciences, time-to-degree as a registered student is just under seven years. If we put all these numbers together, we get the following composite: only about half of the people who enter doctoral programs in English finish them, and only about half of those who finish end up as tenured faculty, the majority of them at institutions that are not research universities. An estimate of the total elapsed time from college graduation to tenure would be somewhere between 15 and 20 years. It is a lengthy apprenticeship."

"... The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own. The longer students remain in graduate school, the more people are available to staff undergraduate classes. Of course, overproduction of Ph.D.s also creates a buyer’s advantage in the market for academic labor. These circumstances explain the graduate-student union movement that has been going on in higher education since the mid 1990s. "

"The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way that knowledge is produced. It lies in the way that the producers of knowledge are produced. Despite transformational changes in the scale, missions, and constituencies of American higher education, professional reproduction remains almost exactly as it was a hundred years ago. Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall. People are taught—more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability—to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently."

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