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Humanities doctoral programs show unexpected boost in new students

More Humanities Ph.D.s
September 12, 2013

New doctoral enrollments in the arts and humanities have been been going up very modestly -- an average of 1 percent annually -- for a decade. But data being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools show that in the fall of 2012, arts and humanities doctoral programs saw a 7.7 percent increase -- a surprising jump given the difficulty many new Ph.D.s in those fields have in finding jobs.

Such an increase could add to the glut of humanities Ph.D.s that has grown as the economic downturn has left so many who have been unable to find tenure-track jobs.

Of the broad disciplinary categories in which the council analyzes data, only public administration and services had a larger percentage increase in new Ph.D. enrollments (7.8 percent), but those are fields in which many new doctorates work in government or consulting. The rate of increase in Ph.D. enrollments for arts and humanities outpaced gains in fields such as engineering, math and computer science and business -- where there is much more demand for new faculty openings and where non-academic jobs abound for Ph.D.s.

The annual report from the graduate council covers master's and doctoral programs across disciplines. The total change in new graduate enrollments was an increase of 1.8 percent, following two years of declines. Graduate enrollment overall was down by 2.3 percent in 2012. But because of the length of graduate programs, new enrollments are the better indicator of what's happening in a given year, so the increase in that category will likely please many college officials.

However, the figures show that the increase is entirely due to gains in international foreign students, and domestic enrollment levels are flat. The role of international students remains particularly crucial in science and technology disciplines.

The Humanities Mystery

Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said she could not offer an explanation for why arts and humanities doctoral programs would be showing the gains they experienced in the last year. She acknowledged that the increases are likely to renew the debate over the size of doctoral programs in the humanities and the wisdom of enrolling in them.

She didn't weigh in on those issues, but said that "what's very clear is that institutions need to do a good job of explaining to all graduate students what the career outcomes are for people who graduate from their particular programs, and increasingly we are finding our members are talking more and more about finding effective strategies for doing that."

Stewart said it was important to remember that free choice is at work. "We live in a free country and if people want to pursue their dream and their dream is to pursue a humanities Ph.D., as long as they have full information about the likely outcomes for those who graduate for that program, then I see no harm in students pursuing Ph.D.s," she said. The problem is when the students have specific expectations of career prospects that just don't exist, she added.

What the data should reinforce, Stewart said, is that graduate programs need to be detailed in describing the jobs obtained by recent graduates, and that potential graduate students need to look at those figures, focusing on each program individually. "The data in our survey are aggregate data," she said. "But nobody goes to graduate school in the aggregate. The information you need is what happens to students who graduate from your program."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said she found the 7.7 percent increase "surprising."

She said it was hard to analyze it without having the data broken down by individual disciplines. But she saw the potential for problems with this trend for the new graduate students. "If there is a 7 percent increase in those pursuing a doctorate in English and the modern languages and if these new doctoral candidates expect to get tenure track jobs, then I might be concerned."

While there are selected specialty areas where new Ph.D.s remain in high demand -- Feal cited Arabic as an example -- the job market isn't going to support many more Ph.D.s seeking traditional academic career paths.

"Given what we've seen for decades now," she said, "there are more and more qualified Ph.D.s in most fields than there are tenure-track jobs." She said that MLA leaders will continue to call for the creation of more tenure-track jobs, and for better treatment of those off the tenure track, but that new Ph.D.s face the current, difficult job market.

Feal noted that the MLA and other humanities organizations, such as the American Historical Association, have been working to promote non-academic career options for humanities Ph.D.s. And she said that she would feel better if she could know that the new humanities doctoral students were looking for non-academic work, or were accepting of the limited academic job availability.

But it can be hard to reach prospective doctoral students, she said. From talking to doctoral students, she said that when they are starting out, "in general you are not thinking about the job market; you are thinking about how much you love to study whatever it is you are pursuing."

These days, of course, there are many people warning against pursuing humanities doctoral degrees. A historian's open letter to his students, "No You Cannot Be a Professor," attracted much discussion among history grad students. And many humanities graduate students or new Ph.D.s have appreciated or been depressed by the blog 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School (the most recent entries are "Downward mobility is the norm" and "Virtually no one cares what you are doing").

Some question whether graduate programs are being frank enough with prospective graduate students about job prospects.

Fabio Rojas, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington, blogs about graduate education (and has turned his advice into the book Grad Skool Rules). He said that the humanities increases seem "odd" since "it's now common knowledge that humanities Ph.D.s don't have very good academic job prospects."

Rojas said that many graduate students tell him of "graduate programs with a lot of misleading guidance." He said, for example, that it's true that humanities Ph.D.s have skills they can use to perform many jobs outside of academe.

But most of those jobs don't require a Ph.D., he said. "The issue is opportunity cost. If you are smart enough to get into a doctoral program, you probably aren't going to starve. But you end up taking out loans, and spending all of this time in graduate school for a job" for which you could have trained in a much shorter time period. "I don't believe Ph.D.s are required for critical thinking," he said.

Ervin Malakaj, president of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus, and a Ph.D. student in German literature at Washington University in St. Louis, said that he talks to humanities graduate students in many programs at many universities. And he said that they are in fact deciding to pursue programs with awareness of the job market.

"Almost all of the students I talked to had been previously warned by advisors and colleagues about the slim chances of landing a tenure-track job upon completion of the degree," he said via e-mail. "Most of them also entered their graduate programs with a warning from undergraduate advisors, who told them about the difficult career outlook in academia back when they were considering academic careers. I, for instance, was advised to reconsider the decision to pursue an academic career; my advisors were very honest about the difficulties that humanities disciplines were facing in providing a stable job market to fresh Ph.D.s. Like many of my colleagues, I decided to pursue graduate studies despite all warning.

"Having said this, I find it difficult to believe that graduate students enter Ph.D. programs uninformed about the nature of the job market and the various related issues discussed in public forums of all sorts. Many graduate students are part of national organizations in their discipline, such as the MLA, which publish regularly on issues relating to the humanities. These organizations have become a huge source of information about the issues that humanities programs across the country are facing, both for graduate students and faculty alike."

Here are the figures showing changes in the enrollment of new graduate students, by discipline, in the fall of 2012.

One-Year Change in First-Time Graduate Enrollment, Fall 2012

Field Master's Doctoral
Social and behavioral sciences -4.3% +4.2%
Public administration and services +4.9% +7.8%
Physical and earth sciences -0.1% +6.4%
Math and computer science +9.4% +2.8%
Health sciences +4.6% +6.5%
Engineering +4.6% +6.0%
Education +2.4% +3.3%
Business +4.0% +5.1%
Biological and agricultural sciences -0.2% -0.6%
Arts and humanities -2.3% +7.7%
Total +1.2% +5.0%

Other Highlights

The full report contains more than 100 pages of data and analysis. Many of the trends are not, however, notably different from last year, with the jump in humanities Ph.D. students one of the exceptions. Here are some of the other highlights:

  • With the 1.8 percent increase in new graduate students last year, total graduate enrollment was about 1.74 million students. (Nearly three-fourths of graduate students across all disciplines are enrolled in master's or certificate programs.)
  • Applications for graduate programs increased by 3.9 percent, with 39.5 percent of applicants being offered a spot.
  • First-time enrollment was up for black, Latino and American Indian graduate students, while slightly down for white students. While Stewart of the graduate council said she was pleased with those figures, she noted that much of the shift was due to increased enrollment in education programs (after a drop last year). A disproportionate number of minority graduate students are in education programs, so shifts there tend to have an impact on the total demographics of graduate schools.
  • The share of women appears to be continuing to grow in graduate education. About 58 percent of first-time graduate students are women. In the last year, women received 60 percent of master's degrees and 52 percent of doctorates -- marking the fourth year in a row that women have earned a majority of doctorates.
  • Different disciplines vary widely in their dependence on international graduate students. In the health sciences, 95 percent of new graduate students are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The figure is 86 percent for the arts and humanities. But in engineering only 49 percent are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. In mathematics and computer science, the figure is just under 50 percent.

 

 

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