What's worse? Coursework or dissertation?

Today, as I regularly do around this time in my Teaching Practicum, we discussed the job market. It’s not much fun as you can imagine. I think (I hope) that it is illuminating. I mostly do it because I want students to see the relationship between the job market and their development as teachers (as well as scholars). Today Inside Higher Ed also published this little number on how time is spent in graduate school. As the story relates, much of the focus on revising doctoral programs (at least in the humanities) has been on shortening the dissertation process, but study covered in the article indicates that the reason humanities degrees tend to take longer than other doctoral programs is because of the time devoted to coursework (4 years on average). So that’s 4 years to go through coursework and exams and 3 years, on average, to write the dissertation. And that’s down from where we were a decade ago.

This is another wrinkle in the ongoing humanities project of revising doctoral programs, which might rightly strike one as missing the point when the real problem is the lack of tenure-track jobs.  The lack of jobs is certainly a problem, but to say that it is a problem in relation to doctoral programs would require making the presumption that the objective of doctoral programs is to professionalize students and prepare them to do tenure-track jobs. There’s no doubt we are all happy when our students get jobs, and there’s no doubt that programs are at least partially evaluated for their success at placement. But if the point of doctoral programs is really to prepare students to be professors then they certainly have a funny way of going about it.  That is, since most academic jobs are primarily teaching jobs, most of the doctoral preparation (one would think) would be teacher-training. In reality almost none of it is. Most tenure-track jobs do not require faculty to produce books for tenure, so why all this effort put into the proto-monograph we call the dissertation? Honestly, if doctoral programs were transformed to be job preparation, then very little of what you commonly see would remain.

But that’s not really what doctoral programs are about. Instead, as near as I can figure, the graduate curriculum is a tool for creating a particular kind of intellectual, disciplinary, scholarly community. In that community, professors carry out their research and discuss their research with their students in seminars, and students attend seminars and pursue their own research interests under the guidance of faculty. Let’s just postulate that this is a good thing worth preserving, or at least that the community is worth preserving. Maybe there would be a way of supporting this community while shortening the years of coursework and also making the dissertating process more efficient. But then that really points to back to the central disconnect. The reason for making the path to the Phd shorter and more efficient is to reduce the demands placed on students and the risks they take in relation to the job market. But if we want to do that, then we really need to be asking very different questions.

2 thoughts on “What's worse? Coursework or dissertation?

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  1. Hmm, I was on board a few years ago about alternative forms of the dissertation. But, if we can couch this culminating experience in different language, that might be the key. In literary studies, the dissertation is sometimes the result of glorious and unprecedented archival work. It’s the only time a graduate student is encouraged to sit down and really think through his/her first real, massive project. Ideally, it’s the time to screw it up, too, before getting to whatever position where the student will have to perform in the “real world” by running projects (with students, alone, with colleagues, on committees, etc.).

    My dissertation was MASSIVE! But, I needed to do that because it became a passion, and as all passions go, it was out of control when it came time to make the project into something. I spent 10 years in a teaching position trying to unlock the secrets of that project. When I finally produced a print monograph on the topic, it was overwhelming apparent that I knew but a thimble-full about the project’s topics. And because of Digital Humanities, I can shift my thinking about the accumulation of materials, their production/re-production, and scholarly output. Things that I didn’t even dream of 15 years ago are a possibility now that the traditional project is completed. But, I needed the traditional project to be done so I could move forward. It all started from a digital project, by the way, even way back 15 years ago.

    Maybe it should be called dissertation as project management? Writing a grant, overseeing interns, truly collaborating with colleagues — now those are incredibly valuable skills in any potential workforce post-graduate school.

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  2. Thanks Katherine. I took a look at your CV and it seems like you made fairly good progress through your phd program for all that. I agree with you that, at least for the folks who go to graduate school, the prospect of a massive, dissertation-style research project is exciting. It’s what they see their professors doing, and it’s what they want to do. Given their scale, those research projects are resource intensive. As labors of love they often come out of our hides. As graduate students we take out loans to do them. As faculty we spend our unpaid summer months working on them. Especially when one is at a teaching-intensive university where a book is not expected for tenure, such efforts are not really factored into one’s workload (or at least that’s what I discovered). What’s worse though is that at research universities this work is done on the backs of graduate student exploitation and massive adjunctification, which allow the rest of us to teach 2-2.

    It seems there might be a larger question here.

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