The American system of awarding doctorates and producing professors is a mess. On that, the disparate voices on a high-powered MLA panel on reforming the Ph.D. agreed Monday night.
But the panelists offered widely discordant perspectives on what the biggest problems are and how to fix them. Their solutions included lowering the requirements and shortening the time it takes to earn a Ph.D., creating a federal "job corps" akin to the Work Projects Administration to put young Ph.D. recipients to work right out of graduate school, and, most radically, adopting a civil service approach in which new Ph.D. recipients, like firefighters and state troopers, would get tenure after a yearlong probationary period and then get regular raises over defined terms of service.
The session was equal parts history lesson, therapy session, and call to arms. It featured Louis Menand, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker; Jeffrey J. Williams, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and editor of the minnesota review, and P. Marc Bousquet, associate professor of English at the University of Louisville and a veteran of the academic labor wars.
Menand focused most heavily on the attrition that marks the path to the humanities Ph.D. He joked, to knowing and nervous laughter in the audience, about a professor greeting a time-worn graduate student in the English department hallway with "Are you still here?," and noted that just a quarter of those who enter humanities doctoral programs end up with tenure.
"It takes three years to become a lawyer," he said. "It takes four years to become a doctor. You can get an M.D./Ph.D. in six years. It takes more than eight years to become an assistant professor in an English department. There is something wrong with this picture."
His solution: significantly cutting the research and teaching requirements of the Ph.D. -- by, say, requiring a graduate student in English to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of a thesis. "Students are being way over-trained for the jobs available," he argued. "The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses."
A New Deal for New Ph.D.'s
Williams zeroed in on a different part of the problem: the fact that the average Ph.D. recipient in the humanities is 40 years old and "as likely to be unemployed as to land a tenure track job."
A few departments offering postdocs won't do the trick, he argued -- "the problem needs to be solved across the profession, which means on a national level." Drawing parallels to the G.I. Bill and the National Health Service Corps, he proposed a "national Ph.D. Job Corps, or Academic Works Administration."
Under such a plan, Williams said, the federal government would sponsor two- to three-year service terms in which scholars would work as teaching fellows, mentoring instructors in school or community-college districts, or as visiting poets or scholars in schools, or as consulting researchers in governmental agencies. In exchange, they'd receive a modest stipend and loan forgiveness.
Such a program, he said, would "put our expertise to a wider public use, reaching those in remote or impoverished areas," and, conversely, "teach us what is useful, relevant, and needed in what we do, and what is not."
Compared to Menand's and Williams's proposals to remodel the Ph.D. system, Marc Bousquet wants to burn it down. He criticized colleges for "substituting student teachers or term workers" for traditional faculty members, and urged graduate students to unionize to protect their rights.
He also, though, suggested that higher education abandon its current system for training professors for a truer apprenticeship system on a civil service model that would include military-style pay grades.
He encouraged the audience to look at a Web site  about the pay of state police officers. Comparing their pay to humanities professors, he said, is instructive. Entry level state troopers earn about as much as nontenure-track instructors, he said, and a state trooper with 20 years' experience earns about as much as full tenured professors.
"It only takes a year to become a state trooper," he said.