Graduate Education

Essay questions whether applied Ph.D.s are useful for careers

Felicia B. LeClere considers the pros and cons -- for institutions and for grad students thinking about their careers.

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American Historical Association highlights lack of pedagogical preparation in Ph.D. programs.

Problems and potential solutions in humanities doctoral education (essay)

The recent conversations on the future of the humanities degree -- most prominently at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association by its then-president, Russell Berman -- are encouraging steps in addressing the challenges. The position paper that Berman helped write outlines some meaningful first steps to address the time-to-degree issue, for example, that will need to be a driver for change. The recent article “The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.” on Inside Higher Ed reiterates Stanford’s desire to continue fostering the debate with an emphasis on shortening time to degree for humanities Ph.D.s.

The current contribution seeks to expand the conversation and offer some concrete ideas for desirable changes beyond the time-to-degree issue. In particular, some funding changes -- coupled with restructuring programs so that the summers are utilized better and students have an expectation of an impactful year-around engagement -- need to take place. In addition, in order to open more avenues for employment, we may have to provide a similar co-curriculum as we do on the undergraduate level, one that produces T-shaped Ph.D.s aware and confident not only of their disciplinary depth, but also of their broader transferable skill set.

Given the public’s preoccupation with STEM disciplines and the less-than-stellar reputation of the humanities in the larger public, coupled with changes in student loan deferment during graduate school, and the challenging job market, these conversations are urgent.

What Is the Proper Size of Arts and Humanities Graduate Programs?

Although some universities including ours have addressed the issue of proper program size for a decade or so already, seen in context with the lingering overproduction issue, the choice seems fairly clear.  In this national context, graduate programs in the humanities need to come to terms with the often painful lesson that bigger is not always better. Administrators and faculty need to have realistic views on what a “right-sized cohort” is for the given discipline, the institutional profile, and, in some instances, the geographic location.

What Is Meant by Right-Sized?

By right-sized, I mean a frame of reference based on quantitative and qualitative factors like the following: 

  • the demand in the field
  • the placement rate of the unit
  • the number of applications to the program
  • their “fit” for the institutional mission
  • the level of active faculty engagement required by quality graduate education, including timely and targeted intervention when student progress is imperiled.

It is advantageous for graduate programs to focus on their distinctiveness within their larger institutional and national context -- and not strive to be everything to everybody.

With good planning and a lot of good will, the more technical aspects and issues surrounding graduate education can and should be addressed. The bigger and more contentious issue will be the disciplinary reframing that has to be part of this discussion:

  • How much coursework is enough?
  • What kind of coursework?
  • What should the comprehensive exam look like?
  • How does the coursework, the comprehensive exam, the dissertation prospectus integrate in the most efficient ways.
  • Will there be a distinctive niche for the program?

Faculty in every humanities department offering the Ph.D. should be discussing these questions.

Graduate Education in More Differentiated Higher Education Environments?

The distinction among institutions could offer some welcome differentiation in the higher education environment. Creating a particular focus as a distinctive niche in each program, where more resources go into certain subfields, is a productive move to avoid duplication and to carve out an attractive competitive position. Examples from our own institution, Michigan State University, include: a focus on biomedical and environmental ethics in our philosophy program; additional training in how to deliver first-rate general education courses in addition to disciplinary courses in our English department; a focus on digital humanities and educational technology in the German Ph.D. program and several other humanities programs; a focus on “Writing in Digital Environments” and cultural rhetorics in our writing program.

In our case, MSU’s strong science and engineering programs and its highly developed tradition as a global university allow the College of Arts and Letters to also integrate a strong sense of global awareness, and a focus on educational technology, digital humanities and media, and writing in digital environments for our graduate students. At other places, it might be a leading medical school that drives the campus climate that could provide many unique opportunities for humanities Ph.D.s. Yet others may have a strong policy and diplomacy focus or distinctive advanced institutes that may provide a compelling niche or added value dimension to humanities Ph.D.s.

Time to Degree

Then there are practical issues of how to foster a more deliberate and rapid move through the program, and the composition of its various elements; the avoidance of drift by shifting the culture of the programs to provide more hands-on mentoring; the avoidance of “unproductive lines of inquiry” (as David Damrosch described it in this article); more targeted support (including summer support) suggested in the same article, all of which would be helpful measures to enhance most programs.

What is somewhat lacking in the national discussion is a level of specificity and concrete ideas, such as how to better-integrate coursework, comprehensive exams and dissertation research to avoid unproductive breaks between these various pieces in graduate education. One looks forward to a discussion on this issue at the Modern Language Association Meeting in January 2013. Our time to degree overall across the humanities at Michigan State is already around six years and even shorter where this integration has already happened, and nowhere near the nine-year Ph.D. assumed in the recent article coming out of Stanford with its call for proposals for a five-year degree. The five-year Ph.D. is certainly within reach with a few modifications and more targeted financial support.

Better Utilization of the Summer

The productive and funded use of the summers will be crucial to make significant progress in course work and dissertation writing. We should not kid ourselves and assume that this is a trivial task  —if the level of funding remains the same with no significant increases, the cohort might very well have to shrink. Even more significant is the fact that the way faculty work during the summers has to undergo significant changes. There obviously will need to be a number of courses offered and hands-on mentoring, possibly in research groups or cohorts will have to be conducted, with possibly negative consequence for faculty research productivity. As an alternative, a robust and well-designed digital environment for student-student and student-faculty exchanges could be conceived of to keep students on task, on track and connected to faculty mentors. Faculty-led reading groups in preparation for the comprehensives could be part of summer offerings or be part of year-round workshops.

Beyond Shortening Time-to-Degree

To enhance preparation of our students for a variety of institutions, our programs at Michigan State University have added important features to assure realistic and defensible notions of quality graduate education. Most have integrated scholarship and pedagogy into the curriculum, and some provide job-shadowing opportunities at liberal arts colleges. We have added internships where possible and desirable. The philosophy program offers internships in a regional hospital for their bioethics students; language internships are available at MSU’s Community Language School (a language school for pre-K to middle school students from the greater Lansing area). Students from English and professional writing gain internship experience with journals and leadership experience working on co-curricular initiatives in project-based learning (leadership roles in our Creativity Exploratory, an interdisciplinary project-based space and concept to foster team work, design process thinking, and project management).

We consider advanced preparation in educational technology to be essential in today’s market regardless of field. In collaboration with our graduate school, we have created two distinct certificates that emphasize the pedagogy associated with humanities teaching and learning (one of a general nature, one with a focus on foreign language teaching). We are working on certificates in digital humanities and educational technology for graduate students to enhance their capacities as researchers and teachers. Furthermore, we encourage our graduate students to avail themselves of opportunities to learn what it takes to educate the whole student (informal shadowing in career services, study abroad, alumni relations, etc.) to further prepare themselves for a variety of institutions.

More Radical Solutions….

The voices that call for nonacademic career paths that would make students more suitable for the broader, nonacademic job market are becoming louder. This suggestion is often coupled with the time-to-degree issue. Making graduate education shorter and, thus, cheaper, might lead to the possibility of a larger and more diverse cohort (Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas, New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).  With less time invested and less expense associated with the Ph.D., graduates might be more inclined to see the Ph.D. more like a professional degree and to pursue career paths outside of academia.

The elephant in the room is of course this “world outside of academia,” the “broader job market” that is alluded to in these kinds of discussions. It is generally less clear in the pertinent discussions what these “other career areas” are. It is not clear that a more narrow disciplinary preparation coupled with the shorter tighter time-to-degree timeline — although very laudable — is in itself ultimately successful in broadening job prospects beyond the academy.

Possible Solutions

As we know from our undergraduate placement in the humanities, humanities majors indeed find employment, but they have to be more proactive and more entrepreneurial in looking for and preparing for jobs. A lesson for the broader graduate market could be learned from that.

The other insight from undergraduate placements is the criticism by employers that undergraduate professional students don’t display sufficient big-picture thinking, the ethical maturity, the global perspective, the critical and analytical skills, the written and verbal communication skills, and the overall goal orientation that employers seek and many jobs demand. Given the increasing complexity of tasks in certain areas of the not-for-profit and the for-profit sector, maybe it is not that undergraduates and professional majors are not as well-prepared as they should be, but that expectations are too high.

With mandates for social innovation, technology-enhanced work habits, global awareness, and a generally broad education as key assets, work environments such as academic administration, the editing and publishing industry, translation and international diplomacy opportunities, entrepreneurial contexts, cultural organizations, think tanks, private and public sectors, government and nongovernmental organizations, research foundations, and local and regional public policy centers, might well be better-served by hiring employees with advanced degrees with their much stronger research, critical thinking, and communication skills.

Ph.D.-holders already display, by the nature of their work, some advanced transferable skills. They are able to

  • define a research question or a problem
  • research the topic
  • identify what is relevant, and distinguish it from what is not
  • synthesize the work of others
  • integrate information.

Further, Ph.Ds. are able to

  • offer independent and critical analysis of data
  • self-manage an area of inquiry
  • bring a complex project to completion
  • display significant experience in writing with precision
  • offer creative reconstruction of information
  • formulate new approaches
  • deal with constantly changing fields.

While these skills were honed in field-specific contexts, they transfer well. Making these skills more visible to both graduate students themselves and potential employers can be fostered through additional leadership training in a series of linked activities. A significant informative public relations and advocacy effort will need to take place to get this message across.

T-Shaped Graduate Education?

Humanities Ph.D.s could be both broadly and narrowly trained in the ideal T-structure consisting of their disciplinary field for depth on the one hand; and leadership skills, time and project management abilities, technology skills, an ability to analyze data, and the pedagogical understanding to convey information in appropriate ways and the most useful medium for breadth on the other. This is a very attractive combination of skill sets for a variety of employment contexts. Furthermore, Ph.D.s embody the essence of innovation and creativity as they are used to formulating original research questions. A research degree coupled with excellent technology skills, leadership skills, a solid grasp of data analysis, and self-efficacy seems to be a promising combination of transferable skills. 

Becoming a T-shaped professional is not only desirable for undergraduates, but will make graduate students more competitive as well. Even if students seek academic jobs, these skills will be extremely useful for future faculty because they will be able to adjust to the ever-changing landscape of higher education and understand and appreciate the bigger picture. They will be more nimble in whatever context they enter. Humanities Ph.D.s could and should make highly attractive job candidates for a range of sectors.

After all, before the wicked problems of our present and future can be solved, historically informed complex analyses of the underlying issues and questions will need to be framed, the ethical dimensions considered, collaborative relationships formed, and effective forms of multimodal communication for the issue at hand created. Without understanding the respective cultural underpinnings of global competitiveness or conflict, technological solutions may miss the mark. 

Similarly, the ability to understand global forces and local diversity, ethical issues, and complex environments through interdisciplinary projects that combine creativity, research, critical analysis, and technology furthermore could make humanities Ph.D.s compelling employees.

These are but a few examples of how to add value to graduate education through more focus in the discipline while adding breadth to the experience beyond the discipline. If the conversation on the future of the humanities Ph.D. is to go beyond general statements of intent, it will be important to share best practices; to collect data and evidence; to work not only among humanities faculties but to involve graduate deans, deans and other relevant administrators; to engage national organizations like the MLA, the Humanities Centers, and the foundations that support humanities scholarship and education.

It is also clear that graduate students will need to receive additional training beyond their research focus, in a more thoughtful co-curriculum, and will need to be more creative and flexible in exploring options.

Additional Training and Who Should Provide It

The other lesson from undergraduate education is that, in general, university career-service professionals tend to be more helpful and knowledgeable than faculty advisers in assisting students to think about what transferable skills they have. Likewise, if we were to use the analogy for the graduate level, we may have similar issues in that faculty for the most part are not well-versed in the nonprofit, government, and business world. The other emergent area of entrepreneurship, that many undergraduates and potentially graduate students are interested in, is also not necessarily on the radar of faculty advisers.

The notion that humanities faculty could directly train Ph.D.s for jobs outside the academy seems implausible as very few of them have extensive experience beyond higher education. Working with alumni who have made the successful transition into business or government, etc., is one important facet that can provide inspiration and contacts. However, it will not suffice to rely on this informal network.

In order to maximize impact, it will be important to offer internships with potential employers not only to learn whether the desired career path is suitable but to understand early on what kind of additional skills will be important. I see a similar move proposed by the BiblioTech concept at Stanford which “includes trying to change the mindset of academics and nonacademics alike… and garnering the trust of industry leaders.” 

Furthermore, it seems clear that a discipline-based humanities program will have to offer additional training to make inroads into business and the technology fields with specific intervention and additional training in the technology area and in leadership skills. One would also expect a need for internship developers, career services professionals and other support professionals, just as there are on the undergraduate level, to assist with planning and organizing these additional features of graduate education for positions outside of the academy. This career segment — especially in the more supervisory functions -- could, incidentally, be a valuable career path in itself for Ph.D.s. 

The recent initiatives to collect hard data on nonacademic placements conducted by the Scholarly Communications Institute and a database titled “Who We Are” by Katina Rogers is welcome news and long overdue. Efforts at further quantitative analysis will help us map the possibilities better than anecdotes can.  Universities themselves need to keep fairly differentiated data on their graduate students to learn how in their particular environment their students move through their programs, what the hurdles and bottlenecks are, and how and where they place.

Given the complexity of issues in all sectors of our current environment, it seems that humanities Ph.D.s with additional training in technology, data analysis, and leadership skills are an underappreciated and underutilized resource. Some of our attention in graduate education needs to go into further serious exploration of the possibilities and whether or not they are attractive to employers and Ph.D.s.

I think there are exciting opportunities ahead. The big question is whether humanities Ph.D.s themselves will embrace these options as desirable, which, of course depends on what motivated them to select the humanities Ph.D. path in the first place. Their voice is conspicuously absent in these conversations and it is, after all, their future that is at stake. A more robust conversation with these most important stakeholders should be one of the first steps.

Early indications from conversations with our graduate students indicate that there is a mix of motivations; many are still very interested in academic positions, others are open to a broader set of possibilities. The most ambitious students are quite interested in leadership skills such as effective communication, time management, resilience, self-efficacy, conflict resolution, etc., which they see as broadly applicable for effective career advancement in any field.  As our graduate students accept, and even embrace, a world of wider vocational choices, I am confident that enough of our faculty change leaders will rise to the occasion to reshape graduate education in the humanities in the ways suggested above, many possible ways not addressed here, and some that are yet to be imagined in the current social, cultural, political and economic environment.

Given the mounting complexity and accelerated change, our Ph.D.s need to have a new mindset fostered by additional skills that allows them to act with greater agility and creativity to changing environments. On the most fundamental level, Ph.D.s assemble and organize existing knowledge, create new knowledge, and are trained experts in how to convey knowledge in a variety of contexts.

Which sector could not use this kind of sophisticated expertise?

Karin A. Wurst is professor and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.

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The Second International Conference on Informatics & Applications

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