Those Humanities Ph.D.'s

Those Humanities Ph.D.'s

November 11, 2009

Did you hear the one about the humanities Ph.D.?

Last month, Inside Higher Ed reported on the Graduate Education Initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an effort to reform the humanities Ph.D. from being a decade-long hellride -- OK, OK, I'm paraphrasing with great liberty, here -- to being an appropriately-funded six-year experience. Over a 10-year period, $85 million was spent on improvements -- including more generous aid packages -- at doctoral humanities programs at 10 research universities. Researchers then tracked those students through their degree progress, following up on what happened to them when they left their programs (regardless of whether they finished the PhD or not). The findings of the research appear in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities.

Great experiment, right? How many of you have fantasized about being able to finish your damn degree, if only money wasn't this constant monkey on your back? Well, it turns out that money is only one factor of many that determines how long it takes to finish. Instead of rocketing through their degree programs, participants in the study only made minimal improvements (and in some cases, extended typical completion times). Completion rates and time to completion saw such modest improvements, in fact, that researchers were doubtful a six-year degree "could be achieved in any general way in the humanities."

This is kind of surprising -- money, the great panacea, not solving all our problems? And yet, given all of the other pressures graduate students face while working on their degrees, it's hardly surprising at all. There are a host of other factors that genuinely impede degree progress, which the commenters on the Inside Higher Ed article ably point out. Most notably, getting stuck in the adjunct track -- a track that cash-strapped colleges are only too happy to use -- is a major problem.

But commenters on the post also reveal some beliefs that humanities students themselves cling to, which in turn keep them trapped in Ph.D. programs far longer than they could be. For example, the belief that a humanities Ph.D. (unlike a social science degree) genuinely only limits students to careers as teachers is absurd. A teeny bit of time spent with Google and talking to professionals in various professions will reveal that philosophers, lit majors and their ilk end up in just as wide an array of jobs as social scientists. Broadcasting, life coaching, union organizing, the arts, and the non-profit sector are just a few places where humanities folks -- Ph.D. in hand or not -- end up.

This in turn points to another significant factor that determines degree time to completion: the human one. Faculty, the study reveals, play a key role. For example, providing clear expectations as to when degree requirements should be finished is instrumental in student success.

Departments where faculty members "bought into" the idea of reducing time to degree showed much more progress than departments were the project was encouraged by the institution, but didn't have faculty buy-in.

Faculty also have an important role to play with respect to attrition rates precisely because of the way money can work in the lives of grad students. In this study, it appeared as though the funding provided to students may have introduced a whole new monkey on some students' backs: the pressure to stay. Early attrition rates dropped, and for those who believe that if you should quit, you should quit early, this isn't good news. It appears as though the money granted to students in this effort provided just enough security for them to stay, even if they dropped out later in their degree programs. When it comes to leaving, all you have to lose is your chains, indeed -- that, and the modicum of security that a slice of financial aid can provide you. The role for faculty, then? One of the researchers

said that the findings don't make him think financial aid should be lessened, but rather than generous packages need to be accompanied by frank discussions between professors and students.

These "frank discussions," though, should ideally be informed by some knowledge of the non-academic labor market, with which most faculty are very unacquainted.

So what did happen to the people who left their programs before finishing the degree?

12 percent ended up earning a Ph.D. either from a different university or another department at the same university. Another 18 percent earned other postgraduate degrees, many of them in business or law.

This is not especially surprising, given that getting more education is in the blood of so many who leave academe. But the career paths of those who left really raised my proverbial eyebrow:

17 percent of those who departed programs reported that they were in managerial positions, 13 percent reported that they were either judges or lawyers, and a majority of the rest found careers in education, mostly at colleges and universities.

Really? Really? They all ended up as managers, judges, lawyers and college educators/staff/administrators? This list does not reflect at all the career paths of the majority of the former academics I've met (including those who finished the Ph.D. and those who didn't). Where are the entrepreneurs and the self-employed? The directors of non-profits? Where are the cultural creatives and magazine publishers? We're talking about humanities Ph.D.'s, here!

This weirdly restricted array of post-academic careers reported may point to a limiting factor built in to the study: the list of universities selected to be a part of it. They are Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and the Universities of California at Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Are post-academics from these institutions making different choices than those who attend different sorts of colleges and universities?

I was heartened to see that there was attention paid in the report to gender differences among men and women, and those who had young families. But I don't think there's anything to get excited about here:

in many respects humanities departments are treating their male and female students similarly, and that their success levels reflect that.

Again, we're talking about the humanities. This finding would be newsworthy if we were talking about engineering programs. But reporting that women and men are treated equitably is kind of like saying male and female nurses are treated equitably by the nurses' union. What is interesting is the news that women who enter Ph.D. programs as moms don't finish any more slowly or drop out any more frequently than women who aren't moms at the start of the Ph.D. Moms: the ultimate multi-taskers. And then there's this:

Men who are married when they start graduate school are more likely than single men to graduate and to graduate more quickly. Married women, on the other hand, had no advantage over single women, so whatever the married men are getting in support from their spouses is not apparently duplicated.

The implication, quipped Ehrenberg [a study author], is that "everyone should have a wife."

But really, that's not news either, is it?



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