Doctoring the Doctor of Philosophy

imagining a clean bill of health for the phd job market.

X-posted from HASTAC blog.

The yearly conferences in the humanities–MLA, AHA, and others–have brought an onslaught of handwringing over the purpose of graduate education in a collapsing academic job market (not that it was ever that good, even during the bubble years).

William Pannapacker, a.k.a. Thomas H. Benton, Dean Dad, Tenured Radical, and others have weighed in on what graduate students, potential graduate students, and graduate programs should do. Basic message: don’t go! Do something else!

Tenured Radical has some particulary intriguing recommendations for humanities graduate programs, her overall point being:

While I don’t think PhD, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways.

Lots of valid points made in these critiques, reflections, and comments, but there is one thing that always bothers me about them. We seem to pretend that the job market for intellectual work in the “public sphere” is robust compared to academia. Curating? Working in a library? Not so easy to get jobs in those fields, even if you train directly for them. Journalism? Not doing so well lately. “Content providers” on the Internet? Business isn’t exactly booming like it was in ye old digital revolution days.

Perhaps the larger problem is not that the academic job market is collapsing, but that the “public sphere” of “intellectual life in the twenty-first century” itself needs reimagining.

I don’t mean that everyone should start twittering and blogging and chattering away right now. What I mean is that the problem of the academy is also an opportunity to imagine a “public sphere” and an “intellectual life” whose institutions, economies, and values are not dominated by neo-liberal ideologies of efficiency, productivity, and profit, but also thought, interaction, care, deliberation, reading, and time-consuming investigations. Less banking, more seminars!

Maybe the answer, weirdly, is not that graduate admissions should be limited, but actually that more people should be going to graduate school rather than fewer.

They should be spending more time studying, and part of this study should be about developing a robust graduate education that connects the time-honored traditions of scholasticism–specialization, mentoring, arguing, getting a bit lost in a corner of a discipline–to the reimagining of the public sphere as a place in which the peculiarities of the academia and the general good intersect.

This would mean a dramatic turn in the kind of institutional work of academics, universities, and others. It would mean building a counter-movement to the corporatization of everything that for so many people now feels like the only path. It would mean a lot of struggle. But maybe if things keep getting worse, this struggle will make more and more sense.

Instead of all the banter about how liberal-arts training is the key to finding employment, let’s start talking about how we could imagine the kind of employment that would suit people with a liberal-arts orientation.*

For intriguing takes on the PhD job situation, see:

*Admittedly, this kind of talk occurs more at the undergraduate level, but it’s part of the same mindset that dismisses PhD training as pointless and irrelevant.

2 thoughts on “Doctoring the Doctor of Philosophy

  1. Louis Menand considers a similar change in the way graduate students in speak to the public “intellectual life.”

    “The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.”

    1. Jeffrey –

      Who is this Menand guy and how come he stole my idea?!

      Kidding. Menand’s new book is on my list to read, and I thought he might have something to say on this issue of graduate school in the humanities given the topic of his book (it’s about undergraduate education too, yes?).

      I agree with much of the idea in the quote. My only caveat is that my alarm bell always goes off at words like “focus” and “efficiency,” which have the danger of slipping humanities education back into a neoliberal market model.

      Not that I’m against focus or efficiency. But I think we should be critically engaged with what we mean by these terms. To paraphrase Robert Lynd, efficiency for what? How defined? Focus on what? For what ends?

      Just to be clear, I’m not calling for inefficiency or lack of focus, but I think we need to construct an alternative sense of these terms since they underpin the very logics and forces that now threaten intellectual life and advanced humanities training alike.

      Thanks again for your comment. Very much appreciated.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *