why five years for a Phd is both too short and too long

It seems much of the attention on the MLA report has gone toward the proposal to shorten the time-to-degree. Inside HigherEd wrote about this and Steve Krause has a blog post on the issue. Here’s my question: what is the problem that we are trying to solve here? Here’s what the report says, ”

we consider 9.0 years unacceptable, in great part because of the social, economic, and personal costs associated with such a lengthy time to degree. Long periods of study delay full-fledged entry into the workforce, with associated financial sacrifices. For many there is increased indebtedness; for some, delayed family planning. For some students a long time to degree may not be especially disturbing if funding from their universities—through fellowships or research and teaching assistantships—is available. Here, however, there is also a cost at the level of the university itself. Just as colleges and universities are being urged to steward their resources and encourage undergraduates to complete their degrees in a timely fashion, so should they be urged to apply this policy at the graduate level.

None of that argument is surprising. However, one might say that five years is still too long to spend if “full-fledged entry into the workforce” remains unlikely. That is, if we are graduating 1000 phds for 600 jobs now and doctoral programs were successful in shortening time to degree, we’d likely see an increase in the number of graduates. As it is, doctoral students intentionally delay completing their degrees so that they can acquire additional credentials (e.g. published journal articles) so as to be competitive on the job market. It’s the market expectations as much as anything else that drives time to degree. In that respect, five years isn’t enough time.

Let’s return to the question: what is the problem we are trying to solve? One of the most misguided arguments in the MLA report is

Doctoral education is not exclusively for the production of future tenure-track faculty members. Reducing cohort size is tantamount to reducing accessibility. The modern languages and literatures are vital to our culture, to the research university and to higher education, and to the qualified students who have the dedication for graduate work and who ought to be afforded the opportunity to pursue advanced study in their field of choice. Instead of contraction, we argue for a more capacious understanding of our fields and their benefits to society, including the range of career outcomes.

I appreciate the rhetorical move here. It’s quite savvy. I even think it is sincere. We cannot reduce the size of our programs because that would cheat our students out of access. Plus, this stuff is important, and we think that society should value us more highly. I’m sure you do, MLA. I’m sure you do. But we already make economic calculations about cohort size and access. Presumably there is a reason why Phd production and tenure-track job openings moved proportionally with one another, until the bottom fell out in 2008.

It’s fine, in theory, if we want to make the PhD into a degree that opens doors to a wider range of careers. If so, we have to convince those employers that the degree represents has some value. Clearly the first thing we’d have to do is radically reformulate the dissertation. The dissertation is the main thing which reveals the fraudulent claim about doctoral education not being connected with the tenure-track. As a general rule, the dissertation as it is currently composed only makes sense in relation to the research activity of faculty.

But I don’t think that’s what this is really about. There’s a slippery slope in making doctoral programs smaller. What’s the right size? Fewer graduate students means less need for faculty which means fewer jobs which means fewer grad students, etc. At some point it evens out, but where? That’s a scary prospect for departments and the MLA. If you reduced your program by half now your graduate faculty are teaching a grad course once every two years instead of once a year. Not a popular decision. And do you have anything else for them to teach given the declining undergrad major? Yikes. Then maybe the dean wants to revisit our hiring plan, eh? So maybe five years down the road, due to retirement and such we end up 20-30% smaller in terms of faculty, our grad program is half the size, and we can’t deliver on the idealized version of the literary studies graduate curriculum because we just don’t have enough faculty in all  the different areas to run dissertations in every field. What we’d be talking about is the end of English departments at research universities as we know them in the next decade. Don’t get me wrong. Those departments would still exist. They might even thrive on a new set of terms. They just wouldn’t look the way they do now.

Arguing for a larger range of career outcomes though essentially leads one in the same direction, unless one is being wholly disingenuous about it. What are these other careers going to be? Publishing? Higher Ed administration? Public humanities (museums and such)? Technical or professional communication? K-12 teaching? Tell me how that dissertation in whatever literary period makes sense for such a career path? Maybe indirectly the research and writing experience could be helpful for some of these jobs. But if you’re going to spend 2+ years researching and writing, doesn’t it make sense to choose a topic that directly relates to the profession you want to enter? Isn’t that why students write a dissertation in a particular period, so that they can qualify for a faculty job in that period? Furthermore, wouldn’t one say the same thing about the coursework?

In the end, it seems to me that a both/and approach is needed here.

  • Transform the curriculum which means faculty rethinking their graduate courses and mentoring for purposes other than reproducing the discipline;
  • Shrinking doctoral programs but maybe increasing MA programs by making them more valuable workplace credentials (which requires transforming the curriculum);
  • Reducing time to degree by making the curriculum more pragmatic and fitting it better to the outcomes we are imagining for our students.

The humanities have insisted for decades that their curricula are not practical, that they are not meant to be career-oriented. We have even insisted on that for graduate education, which is barely practical preparation even for a faculty job. I’m not entirely sure, but that stance doesn’t seem to have much viability left in it.

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4 thoughts on “why five years for a Phd is both too short and too long

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  1. An interesting point here because as I read this, Alex, I think what you’re saying is in making these recommendations– especially in terms of time to degree and size of programs– the MLA is kind of painting itself into a corner. That is obviously not the intention, but then again, anyone who has ever literally done something like paint themselves into a corner wasn’t intending that. The problem is you find out that you’ve made a horrible mistake too late.

    I guess the cynical me though says this won’t be the demise of PhD programs in literature. It’s not that lit PhDs are going to come rallying back in the next decade– far from it. Rather, it’s just that most PhD programs will probably do what they’ve done with previous calls for these kinds or recommendations, which is ignore them.

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    1. If you are suggesting that many doctoral programs will not be capable of making the kinds of reforms suggested in the MLA report, then I agree. Either they will be unwilling or they will try but be unsuccessful. Demise is an extreme word. I won’t go that far, but I will say forever transformed, either because departments will directly change their curriculum significantly (maybe) or the scale of programs will shrink to such a degree that curriculum will unavoidably change (more likely).

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      1. I think this is right, but what I mean by the painting into a corner thing is if (or rather when, voluntarily or not) PhD programs in lit downsize too much, they will become unsustainable. These programs are relatively small as it is; in the current climate on most campuses, it’s hard to justify sustaining a graduate program that routinely teaches courses of eight students or fewer. Fewer students means even smaller classes, and at some point, those programs would fold up.

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  2. A college administrator circa 1880: “So, here’s how it works: there’s a PhD program with a few faculty. Each one of these faculty needs to get a certain number of students to join up for a minimal fee—I’m sorry, in exchange for a small stipend—so that those students can then move on, find another program, where they, too, need to find some students to join up for a minimal fee—I’m sorry, in exchange for a small stipend. This is perfectly sustainable as long as there are students willing to join up and other programs where they can then go to find other students to join up. What could possibly go wrong?”

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