The Urgent Need to Change

Structural problems threaten the future of humanistic study. Many of these problems have developed over decades, and concern about them is not new. But public attention to them, far beyond the precincts of the profession, has burgeoned since 2008. That timing is not surprising, since a major component of our predicament involves the economics of constrained resources and a changing labor market. Yet we should not lose sight of an equally ominous development: the extent to which doubts about the validity of the humanities in general and about graduate study in languages and literatures in particular have permeated public discourse. The proliferation of responses from leaders in the profession underscores both the difficulty of articulating and the urgent need to articulate a convincing answer to the underlying challenge: why maintain doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures—or the rest of the humanities—at all? The substantive rationales for humanistic study have been discussed many times; this is not the place to reiterate them. This is, however, the place to underscore the fact that doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study are disturbingly widespread—in the general public, among opinion makers, and in the education press. Even within the academy, faculty members, graduate students, and university administrators have raised questions about the rationale for doctoral education in our fields. These doubts cannot simply be dismissed as anti-intellectualism, anti-aesthetic hostility to literature, antipathy to theory, or nativist animosity to the study of languages other than English, although each of those tendencies surely plays a role. Nor is it useful to view the challenge to doctoral study primarily within the framework of the traditional “two cultures” paradigm by bemoaning today’s technoscientific culture as one exclusively devoted to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and antagonistic to humanistic knowledge. In contrast, we need an analysis that enables us to face the challenges and opportunities of our historical moment.

Nine Years: It Takes Too Long

The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) reported a median time to degree for 2012 humanities degree recipients as 9.0 years from entry into graduate school, with foreign languages and literatures at 8.9 years and with letters, which includes English and comparative literature, at 8.7 years (Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012).1 There are factors specific to study and research in the humanities in general and to the study of languages and literatures in particular that may account for such a long time to degree for students, including the mastery of difficult languages, extended research in archives in other countries, the search for grant support, the necessity of finding jobs to finance one’s education, and systemic and economic pressure to maintain an enrolled status. We acknowledge the breadth and depth of knowledge expected of doctoral-level work. Even factoring in these conditions, however, we consider 9.0 years unacceptable, in great part because of the social, economic, and personal costs associated with such a lengthy time to degree. Long periods of study delay full-fledged entry into the workforce, with associated financial sacrifices. For many there is increased indebtedness; for some, delayed family planning. For some students a long time to degree may not be especially disturbing if funding from their universities—through fellowships or research and teaching assistantships—is available. Here, however, there is also a cost at the level of the university itself. Just as colleges and universities are being urged to steward their resources and encourage undergraduates to complete their degrees in a timely fashion, so should they be urged to apply this policy at the graduate level.

Compared with other advanced degrees—the MD, the JD, the MBA—the significantly greater length of time required to complete a humanities PhD can render it a far less attractive alternative, even leaving aside the treacherousness of the job market. We can easily imagine a talented undergraduate’s reasonably deciding against doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures when confronted with the time required to complete the degree.2 For prospective doctoral students who have obligations to provide financial support to family members, lengthy time to degree may make undertaking and completing doctoral study impossible in the absence of adequate funding. In short, time to degree is a significant contributor to issues of equitable access to doctoral study.

A historical perspective is useful here. Today doctoral students in the humanities are taking longer to finish their degrees than they did in the 1960s; then, more than twice as many students finished in six years or less than do today.3 While much has changed in academic culture during the past half century—the expansion of fields of study, the rising expectations for publication, and a transformed job market—the time to complete the humanities doctorate has expanded dramatically, much more so than for doctorates in other fields of study.

In 2006–10, nearly forty-four percent of doctoral students in the humanities—a striking figure—took more than ten years to complete their degrees. Various factors no doubt contributed to this long time frame: personal circumstances, the difficult job market, insufficient mentorship, choice of dissertation topic. Regardless, if nearly half our degree recipients require more than a decade to complete the doctorate, something is grievously wrong. To maintain doctoral study as an accessible and affordable opportunity, it is incumbent on us to inquire into the structure of our doctoral programs at our individual universities. We must provide consistent and reliable mentoring with benchmarks for completion of the degree and set realistic expectations about the culminating project, the dissertation.

The Academic Job Market and Employment Prospects

The relation between the career expectations of many of our doctoral students in the modern languages and literatures and the reality of the academic job market poses another serious problem. As highly educated professionals, recipients of the PhD find employment; they are not typically part of the long-term unemployed. It has long been the case, however, that not all recipients of PhDs in modern languages and literatures find tenure-track positions, and the significant shrinking of the job market for tenure-track employment after 2008 has exacerbated this situation.

The best measure of opportunities for tenure-track academic employment for holders of language and literature PhDs is the MLA’s annual count of jobs advertised in the MLA Job Information List (JIL). Before 2008, the number of tenure-track positions departments advertised appeared to be aligned with the number of new PhD recipients (see Report). Between 2004–05 and 2007–08, for example, an average of just over 1,000 ads in the JIL’s English edition were tagged for tenure-track assistant professor, while each year from 2005 to 2008 the SED reported an average of just under 1,000 new PhDs in English.4 But the apparent alignment fails to take subfields into account and ignores graduates from previous years who also competed for tenure-track openings. The problem of a weak job market became only too visible after 2008, when the number of tenure-track listings fell rapidly. Since 2008–09, the English edition of the JIL has contained about 600 ads tagged tenure-track assistant professor, on average, while the SED has continued to report close to 1,000 or more new PhD recipients in English each year. Similar discrepancies developed for the other languages. This drop represents a dramatic contraction of the academic job market.5

Other fields—including the physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering—also report sharp declines in job openings after 2008; the job market for JD recipients is similarly bleak.6 There is a specific challenge to the future of doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures, however, since securing a tenure-track academic position remains the primary career goal for a far greater share of doctoral students in modern languages and literatures than it does for those in the sciences or social sciences. The disjunction between the number of new language and literature doctorates and the number of available tenure-track positions is therefore particularly troubling.

The Casualization of the Academic Workforce

In addition to the lengthening time to degree and the contraction of tenure-track positions in the academy, a third and related structural problem facing our fields is the changing character of the academic workforce. Doctoral programs are typically structured to train research scholars for tenure-track positions. But since the 1970s the fraction of the faculty holding tenure or in probational appointments leading to tenure has shrunk drastically. In 1975 70% of the faculty held a full-time position, and well over half held tenure or were on the tenure track; today half the faculty hold a part-time appointment, and only 29.8% hold tenure or are on the tenure track (Curtis 4 [fig. 2], 1 [fig. 1]). Many institutions—in particular public universities7—rely heavily on graduate students to teach undergraduates, and many institutions employ adjuncts in precarious working conditions. This story is well known (see, e.g., Issues; “Academic Workforce”), and we will not rehearse it here. Our point is that the precarious economic circumstances of the large and increasing share of postsecondary faculty members working in contingent positions threatens the viability of the entire enterprise of doctoral study, as doctoral students face the ongoing deterioration of prospects for employment as full-time tenure-track professors. It is therefore in the interest of our fields to advocate vigorously both more tenure-track positions and improved working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty members. At the same time, it is urgent that departments provide mentoring and professionalization for doctoral students that will increase their chances for success in a broad range of opportunities. There is a tension between these two goals—reform of the employment structure of higher education and broadened career preparation for the individual—but both are necessary. Given the current structure of the academic workforce and assuming that in the future more positions in the academy are likely to be teaching-intensive, with relatively less of an emphasis on research, it is clear that many of our doctoral programs should be modified to prepare our students appropriately, placing greater emphasis on the development of skills in teaching.

The Narratives of Success and Failure

Among the measures used across the disciplines in the academy to gauge the success of doctoral programs, the placement record of a department’s graduates commonly ranks near the top of the list—for its faculty members, for institutional administrators, and for students themselves, current, prospective, or former. Faculty advisers care deeply about their doctoral students; they are concerned about their progress through their doctoral program and want them to succeed in their careers after the conferral of the degree. For many faculty members, this relationship extends well beyond the years of doctoral study. While placement is primarily a matter of the professional and personal responsibility of faculty members as teachers, we should acknowledge that it also reflects the distribution of recognition within the academy: prestige accrues to the individual faculty member and to the department when their doctoral students succeed according to certain definitions.

The prevailing culture in the modern languages and literatures, however—perhaps more so than in other fields—relies on an exceedingly narrow narrative of success. At its extreme, a successful placement entails a tenure-track position, preferably in another doctorate-granting institution, in particular at a highly ranked research university. Although many doctoral programs have self-consciously articulated different missions and many faculty members would rejoice if their doctoral students chose to work in a liberal arts college, this extreme formulation holds tremendous sway, and it stands at odds with the reality of the academic job market. There are many other kinds of positions in higher education, ranging from tenure-track positions in comprehensive community colleges and lectureships in research universities to nonfaculty, or alternative-academic, positions. Many with doctorates in the modern languages and literatures also go on to indisputably successful careers outside the academy. Yet these diverse routes to satisfying and fulfilling careers do not fit the dominant narrative that centers on the replication of the current faculty. The covert if not overt message that many doctoral students hear is that success can only involve achieving a position comparable with or better than that of their adviser.

We spell out this predicament because in the course of our deliberations for this report and from our own experience we know that this narrow narrative of success places considerable stress on many doctoral students, perhaps especially on those who discover the appeal of other career tracks, including careers in education outside research institutions. Graduate students who, prudently, explore the possibility of nonacademic careers by seeking out advice at university career development centers reportedly express con- cern that their visit be kept secret, lest their dissertation adviser learn about it. Graduate students have recounted that when they inform their adviser of alternative plans, they are met with negativity; their advisers communicate a sense of disappointment, and stu- dents report experiencing feelings of shame and failure. We have no way to determine how often such conflicts transpire, but we do know that such stories circulate widely.

The Devaluation of Teaching in the Research University

Doctorate-granting universities confer prestige on research rather than on teaching. A coin of the realm is the reduced teaching load—even the term load conveys a perception of burdensomeness—while honor and professional recognition, not to mention greater compensation, are linked largely to research achievements. The replication of the narrative of success incorporates this value hierarchy and projects it as a devaluation of teaching.

Many faculty members take teaching very seriously, and graduate students often dedicate themselves enthusiastically to their teaching, whether as teaching assistants or in independent courses. Some doctoral programs expect their students to move to institutions that expect strong teaching; other programs specifically prepare students for leadership roles in programs that teach writing or second languages. Moreover, teaching has its own professional and personal rewards. Yet doctoral programs sometimes communicate a different message: that the highest professional rewards are to be gained by becoming a research professor whose teaching and service are minimized. This cultural sensibility puts the new PhD at odds with an academic job market where candidates’ teaching is receiving greater emphasis and with a postsecondary education policy discussion where teaching is being reconceived in terms of student learning (Bok; Troop).

1. History is comparable at 9.2 years for 2012 graduates (Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012). In 2012, the median age of the doctorate recipient in the humanities is 33.9 (34.3 for men and 33.7 for women [table 66]).

2. The JD and MBA are typically three-year degrees, and the MD takes four years, followed by residency training. The PhD in the humanities is also followed by increasingly common postdoctoral years, and for those fortunate enough to find a tenure-track position, there is a seven-year probationary period of limited job security. More appropriate than these comparisons with explicitly professional degrees is a consideration of time to degree in other doctoral programs: earning a PhD in the life sciences takes 6.9 years; in the physical sciences, 6.7; in the social sciences, 7.7; and in engineering, 6.7—all considerably less than the 9.0 years in the humanities. Only the PhD in education, at 11.8, takes longer, presumably because of the pattern of teachers working in the field while pursuing the advanced degree (Doctorate Recipients in U.S. Universities, 2012 [table 31]).

3. These historical time-to-degree figures are drawn from a custom data run of the SED for the MLA by the independent research organization NORC, at the University of Chicago. Looking at PhD completion rates in six years or less is instructive. In 1961–65, 24.5% of humanities doctoral students completed their degrees in six years or less, and in 1966–70 that number rose to a high of 26.7%. The rate fell until the mid-1980s, when in 1986–90 only 10.0 % of humanities doctoral students completed their degrees in six years or less, and in 2006–10 it was 10.4%. In contrast, the percentages of doctoral students in other fields who completed their degrees in six years or less are considerably higher than in the humanities: around 30% in the life sciences and social sciences, and 40% in the physical sciences, in contrast to the humanities’ 10%.

4. The total for English given here represents the sum of the SED subfields English language and literature, American literature, and creative writing. The MLA Job Information List does not typically capture those institutions in the higher-education sector not pursuing a national job search.

5. Beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing until 2008, the annual number of PhDs awarded in English hovered around 1,000, and in languages other than English around 600. Each of these numbers is about one-third lower than the high of 1973 for English (1,412) and 1974 for other languages (886). The number of national searches advertised—for all types of positions—has varied, but before 2008 the count was well above 1,500 positions in English and above 1,300 for other languages, both figures that compared positively with the number of new PhD holders. Yet it is crucial to remember that, as noted, these national searches involved all types of positions (e.g., term visiting positions) and by no means only tenure-track openings.

6. The report on the 2011 SED describes sharp post-2008 declines in all fields in the percentage of doctorate recipients with definite employment or postdoctoral positions at the point of graduation (Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2011). This job market contraction is not solely a humanities problem, although during most of the two decades analyzed (1999–2011), the humanities showed the lowest percentage of recipients with employment or postdoctoral placements of all fields. Yet the twenty-year linear trend for the humanities has been slightly positive, whereas the prospects for employment in the life sciences have been declining. (In the life sciences, the absolute number of postgraduate commitments has been growing, but the number of new PhDs has been growing even faster.) In general, the physical sciences, the life sciences, and engineering all show patterns of decline (accelerating after 2008) in the percentage of new PhDs with postgraduation commitments since a peak of 2001, possibly reflecting ongoing reductions in federal research support, concurrent with growing PhD production.

7. Graduate assistants with teaching responsibilities made up 31.7% of the academic workforce in public Carnegie doctoral institutions compared with 16.7% in private Carnegie doctoral institutions, according to the IPEDS 2012 Employees by Assigned Position survey (custom query).

[Next: Opportunities for New Directions in Doctoral Study]

One thought on “The Urgent Need to Change”

  1. I think that communication of realistic expectations for future PhD candidates must be an essential component in this study. It seems that there has been a shift in student expectations. Along with the increase of many non-traditional students who are taking longer to complete their degrees, there is also a quid pro quo mentality; if I get a doctorate, then a better job and career await me. Those jobs are getting so much harder to secure.

    Many students who pursue a PhD plan or hope to become academics. Often they “settle” for another type of position only after they get discouraged with the job hunt. They don’t really consider that there might be other possibilities for them out there. Changing this perception might even require specialized classes or programs to inform them of other possibilities. I also wonder if the traditional dissertation might continue to be the only option, especially if the student is honestly exploring other options than academia?

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