Reinventing the Humanities Ph.D.

Calls to reinvent the Humanities Ph.D. are growing louder.

Just last year, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $1.65 million to 28 universities to prepare doctoral students for careers beyond the academy.

The reasons for concern are obvious.  Attrition rates in doctoral programs approach or even exceed fifty percent, and nearly half of those who earn doctorate have no job or post-doc commitment upon graduation.  Most who do get a tenure-track job do so at institutions that prioritize teaching over research.  To make matters worse, the pool of doctoral students is far less diverse than the undergraduate population as a whole.

At the same time, expectations about graduate students’ productivity continue to escalate. To be successful in the job market, humanities doctoral students are increasingly expected to have already published a number of articles and often have a book contract in hand.

What, then, is to be done?

Some argue for enrollment caps and elimination of weaker programs, given the imbalance between the number of newly minted Ph.D.s and of tenure track jobs. But who are we to narrow the Ph.D. pipeline? Many talented doctoral students – including a disproportionate number of doctoral students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds – enroll in less prestigious programs.

Also, the job market is highly segmented, and many local and regional programs place students at community colleges and less selective regional four-year institutions.  Hiring committees are often convinced, sometimes rightly, that graduates of top tier programs are ill-prepared to teach their students.

Others argue for creation of a distinct Applied Humanities Ph.D. track, which explicitly seeks to prepare doctoral students for positions in museums, historic sites, libraries, and archives, as well as in K-12 curriculum development.  Among the distinctive features of such a track would be an internship to provide job experience.

Still others believe the best way to prepare students for non-academic careers is through special courses, workshops, boot camps, and certificate programs in the digital humanities, the learning sciences, grantsmanship, and public, technical and professional communication. Certificates from this programming would verify the skills and competencies that the students have acquired. Curiously, few call for training in quantitative methods and data science, or in academic administration or management – areas of particularly high demand.

Many who favor applied degrees or skills programs also favor alternatives to the dissertation, calling on departments to consider something other than an incipient monograph.  Some support the model favored by Economics departments: three articles published in high impact journals. But others favor less conventional models, including documentary films, resource curation, or web base projects.

There is something to be said for the applied Ph.D. and for skills training.  But the time may have come to shake up the conversation.  Let me suggest several ways we might think outside the box.

1.     By blurring the divide between Master’s and doctoral programs.

2.     By expanding, rather than contracting, Ph.D. programs.

3.     By embracing new course designs, schedules, and delivery modes.

4.     By creating new kinds of educational opportunities for doctoral students at under resourced institutions.

5.     By crediting “prior learning” outside Humanities departments.

At too many institutions, Master’s programs are cash cows.  Not only is financial aid limited, but Master’s students are often relegated to separate seminars, receiving little of the kind of mentoring that Ph.D. students expect.  Often, there is no easy path to transfer into the doctoral program.  The resulting two-tiered divide creates a virtual caste system. 

Many Master’s candidates would benefit from access to a Ph.D. — and doctoral programs would, in turn, benefit from their presence.   When I taught at Columbia, my Master’s students included exceptionally knowledgeable and skilled curators, archivists, and published authors. In one summer seminar, I taught a future recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship, and National Humanities Medal.  At a time when any elite doctoral program lack a critical mass of students, practicing professionals like these could make a huge contribution.

I know the problem: institutions like Columbia that fully fund doctoral students can’t afford to support anyone else.  To admit additional students without financial aid and other benefits would create new inequities.  But just as we shouldn’t treat those humanists outside the academy as second-class professionals, we shouldn’t relegate Master’s students to a separate, unequal status.

There are no easy answers.  One possible solution might be a special professional track, where these students would have tuition and fees waived, and a higher salary and benefits if they serve as teaching assistants or preceptors. This is certainly a topic that deserves exploration. 

Departments might also consider integrating new kinds of classes into their curriculum that don’t fit the conventional 15 week model.  A growing number of humanities faculty already offer intensive one-, two-, four-, and six-week summer seminars or weekend academies as free agents in programs funded by private institutes and foundations (like the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History) or the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Intensive shorter courses, which might better meet the needs of working professionals, might also give traditional doctoral students exposure to a broader range of topics.

One way to better meet the needs of underserved students and help diversify the humanities faculty would be to establish visiting programs targeted at doctoral students enrolled at less well-funded institutions.  A disproportionate share of underrepresented students attend these schools and could benefit enormously from interaction with faculty and Ph.D. students at better funded universities, which would also increase these students’ access to archival resources.

At Columbia, I co-led a Mellon-funded Leadership Alliance summer research program for underrepresented undergraduates, which sought to encourage these students to consider graduate school.  The students took part in seminars and conducted research under a faculty mentor.  I can easily imagine a parallel program for visiting doctoral students who would have opportunities to network with faculty and peers.

Lastly, departments might consider special accelerated pathways for individuals, like journalists, authors, museum professionals, editors, and foundation officers, who have already demonstrated achievements in the humanities.  In my discipline, U.S. history, a growing number of the most important books are published by journalists and editors.  If we are to create a more diverse and representative professoriate in a timely manner, we can’t afford to ignore people like these, who are following unconventional paths, but who are already shaping scholarly discourse.

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