In 2008, when the academic job market collapsed, humanities students who were about to finish their Ph.D.s were left to flounder. Job postings, interviews and even job offers vanished overnight, leaving hundreds to enter the academic market again the next year, when they were joined by a fresh cohort of colleagues, newly minted.
That cycle repeated itself over and over, while the number of Ph.D.s who graduated with a job -- academic or not -- dropped sharply in all fields. This trend was especially pronounced in the humanities disciplines, where in 2016, only 41 percent of Ph.D. graduates had a firm employment commitment when they finished. Although we don’t yet have the numbers for this year, it is likely that they will be far lower and will remain so well past the end of the pandemic. Not only is higher education struggling, but many other sectors that Ph.D.s might have gone into in the past are, too.
These trends should disturb anyone who advises Ph.D. students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences and who cares about their well-being as both people and scholars. We -- and by we, I mean faculty, staff and administrators, those of us with the privilege of secure and gainful employment -- must check our institutions in such moments. It is up to us to ensure that doctoral students are not going without housing, food or health insurance. It is up to us to ensure that they are not unceremoniously ejected into a job market that has contracted without any warning.
Fundamentally, I see this as a problem that speaks to a structural void of ethical obligation and responsibility -- of care -- on the part of our institutions toward doctoral students, who represent the future of our disciplines and of higher education. We must take seriously our responsibilities to those people who have entrusted us not only with their educations, but with their lives and their futures.
That is why we should collectively pause doctoral admissions in the humanities and humanistic social sciences for two years. And here, when I say we, I mean all of us. Not only public institutions facing shortfalls, such as the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where I work, but well-resourced private institutions, as well. All of us. No doctoral students admitted in 2021. No doctoral students admitted in 2022.
A two-year moratorium on admissions may seem like an extreme response to the pandemic, but it is the most concrete way that faculty members and administrators can demonstrate our collective commitment to our current students. Some departments in other disciplines -- notably sociology -- are making similar choices, at least for the upcoming admissions cycle. This is not a time to let our institutions simply roll forward, unchecked, into another cycle of recruitment and admissions, even as doctoral students face a future that is exponentially more precarious than it was six months ago.
Time and Space for Creativity
We’ve heard a lot of talk about creativity and innovation in our post-COVID times -- some of it in good faith, and some of it in institutional doublespeak for cuts and layoffs. A two-year pause in graduate admissions would allow time and space for actual creativity and innovation on the part of programs, departments and institutions. Indeed, a two-year pause need not only benefit current students. Faculty members and administrators can use these two years to build structures of care that will persist beyond the end of the pandemic.
Here are some concrete ideas for what individuals or departments could do during such a pause.
Departments could offer doctoral students additional financial support. This is the most obvious but perhaps most important benefit. It might come in the form of sixth- and even seventh-year funding, or postdoctoral teaching or administrative positions, that help students ride out the most tumultuous part of the pandemic-induced recession. It might also take the form of substantial research grants for students who have to change their projects yet can’t afford to lose ground.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it should ensure that every doctoral student has health insurance and a livable wage for the duration of the crisis.
Departments could expend resources on helping students explore a range of career options. That could include funded internships at nonacademic organizations, many of which would welcome the extra help right now. It could also include bringing in practitioners (who should receive an offer of an honorarium, even if it’s over Zoom) to teach workshops on various aspects of their work.
This also seems like a good time to finally undertake that doctoral alumni tracking project the department hasn’t had the bandwidth for. You know the one I’m talking about.
Faculty could revisit the curriculum. What are the department’s required courses? Do syllabi reflect current debates in the discipline and departmental commitments to equity and inclusion? What is the purpose of each exam? Does the department offer guidance on the dissertation, and is that guidance up-to-date and reflective of the work students do? Is it reflective of the work students aspire to do?
Departments could reconsider long-term graduate admissions strategies. That might range from jettisoning the GRE requirement to implementing holistic admissions practices, or even changing to a biennial model of admissions.
Faculty and staff members could offer extra mentoring. Graduate advising is often an exercise in benign (or not-so-benign) neglect. Faculty and staff could put time and effort into mentoring students virtually in small groups -- on digital pedagogy, career exploration or dissertation writing, for example. Even if they are not themselves expert in all these areas, they can hold the space open and learn with and from their graduate students.
Solidarity in a Time of Crisis
At the PublicsLab, the center that I run at the Graduate Center, some of these practices are already in place. We offer funded internships, and we’ve increased their number this year and found ways to attach health insurance to them for students who need it. We also offer small research grants to students whose publicly engaged research has been disrupted.
In the course of selecting our grant recipients in June, we discovered that some students had undergone truly harrowing experiences because of COVID. A few were effectively homeless. Some had paid out of pocket for shockingly expensive repatriation flights. Others struggled to make degree progress without access to childcare.
In my experience, graduate students rarely reveal such details to faculty members or administrators, because they have little evidence that the institution and its agents care. Although college leaders may say they care, structures and practices often demonstrate the exact opposite, especially to students of color, queer and trans students, and first-generation college students, who are less likely to have family resources to draw on in times of crisis. Faculty members and administrators also feel that lack of care, and the limits of their own power and privilege, acutely at times. But it is important to remember that even within structures that are both careless and unjust, we all have agency. We all have levers we can pull.
A two-year pause in graduate admissions would be a significant lever. It would allow faculty and staff members to better serve all current students during this crisis, and all future students in years to come.
The decentralized nature of higher education means that this decision would have to be made department by department, program by program, and the institutional challenges associated with such a decision would vary widely. There may be significant effects on instruction at the undergraduate level, which may, in turn, force a department to reckon with its labor practices.
All of that having been said, for the sake of current and future students, and the future of doctoral education and higher ed more broadly, let’s seriously consider the possibilities that open up if faculty, staff and administrators are not pouring resources into recruiting, funding and instructing new graduate students over the next two years. Provided the time is used wisely, this would be a true demonstration of care and solidarity.