The Elephant in the Seminar Room: Should the PhD Be Saved?

By Stephen MilderMay 26, 2016

The Elephant in the Seminar Room: Should the PhD Be Saved?

The Graduate School Mess by Leonard Cassuto

IN RECENT YEARS, debate about the state of graduate education in the humanities has flourished. This seemingly arcane subject has gained currency since the recession of 2008, amid the burgeoning national discussion of student debt and adjunct instructors’ intensifying efforts to unionize. A new genre of online prose, “quit lit,” articulates graduate students’ anger at the dearth of academic jobs. Perhaps in response to these widely read tales of talented PhDs unable to find long-term employment in the academy, modest proposals from the professoriat have promoted the idea of a “Malleable PhD” at professional conferences and in the pages of scholarly journals. These calls for reform seek to redefine the humanities PhD as a gateway to jobs beyond the academy. They announce plans to funnel unemployed PhDs into “alt-ac” careers, a vaguely defined category that encompasses everything from posts within the university administration to research-focused jobs at nonprofits to positions with commercial firms.

But there is an elephant in the reformers’ seminar room. The student loan crisis’s impact on humanities enrollments, the problems of poorly treated adjunct faculty, and even graduate students’ roles as vital cogs in the corporate university are rarely discussed in the reformists’ proposals. Instead, reform-minded professors offer plans to restructure curricula and seek to convince their colleagues that the PhD ought to be redefined as a generalist’s degree so it can be saved. In essence, the reformists have devised ingenious plans to save existing PhD programs without providing more academic jobs or addressing the circumstances that have created the PhD-holders’ employment problem in the first place.

Leonard Cassuto’s thoughtful and aptly titled new book, The Graduate School Mess, exemplifies this approach. The book is a well-meaning attempt to improve the lives of young people trapped inside a system that, as the author frankly admits, faculty have played a major part in creating. His book is directed primarily at “teachers of graduate students,” in part because Cassuto senses that this group could extend a great deal more compassion when it comes to the way they train graduate students; he actually goes so far as to remind his colleagues that “[g]raduate students are human beings with lives.” But, despite his sincere concern for these young humans’ struggles, Cassuto fails to offer compelling reasons that graduate students’ lives will be made better by graduate training in the humanities, even by the reformed version that he advocates.

Cassuto has no shortage of evidence of what is broken about graduate school. The “road to degree” is the key issue for him: he argues that it is “fraught, perilous, poorly paid, and too long.” This problem is not new. Already in the 1960s, the Ford Foundation made an ill-fated attempt to solve it by paying graduate students more. (The program failed, Cassuto argues, because graduate students actually took longer to finish their degrees in order to benefit more from the Foundation’s largesse.) Cassuto’s impressive research into the history of American higher education shows the deep roots of other current problems in graduate education, too. He describes a history of privileging research over teaching and the “other goals” of graduate training that extends backward to the founding of the first American research universities in the late 19th century. Most significantly, he contends that except for a “brief postwar golden age [in the 1950s and 1960s] when a job as a professor was waiting for anyone with a doctorate,” PhD programs in the humanities have struggled to place their graduates in permanent teaching positions. Already in 1933 an analyst writing for the Journal of the Association of American Universities could claim that “overproduction of members of the teaching profession is no new phenomenon.” Even though professional organizations like the American Historical Association and Modern Language Association have only recently begun to track placements systematically, academic job-seekers’ plight since the economic slump of the 1970s and particularly since 2008 are well known.

To address these long-standing, systemic problems, Cassuto recommends a package of piecemeal reforms. For one thing, he would like to shorten the length of the dissertation. He notes that the German and Slavic Languages Department at the University of Colorado allows its PhD candidates only two years to complete their dissertations (one year for research and one for writing), reducing the total time from BA to PhD to a mere four years. Humanities departments at several universities, including Indiana and Duke, have sought to improve the qualifying examination by “incorporating preliminary dissertation work right into the examination” or using a portfolio system rather than a single big test to evaluate students.

But Cassuto’s foremost aim is to propose reforms that will prepare “today’s graduate students for a wider range of employment, not just academia.” He commends the University of Louisville’s PLAN program, which consists of extracurricular seminars and workshops that teach graduate students how to manage their time and search for jobs, as a means improving PhD-holders’ odds on the job market. Other innovations — like the acronym “DEVOUT (Diversity, Experience, Versatility, Outcomes, Usefulness, and Technology),” developed by the University of Maryland’s English department to remind its PhD students to inform potential employers of their attributes — also receive his praise. Finally, he promotes a handful of recent studies showing both the frequency with which PhD holders are employed outside of academia and their impressive achievements in a wide range of fields. These are not radical changes, but Cassuto contends that they will help professors and students alike to rethink the job market, and thus enable PhD-holders to make their way in a wider range of careers.

In his conclusion, Cassuto moves from promoting particular reforms meant to address the nitty-gritty problems of graduate training in order to diagnose the problems facing the academy as a whole. Here he acknowledges that “the problems with graduate school can’t be cordoned off from the problems that face American higher education generally,” and proposes that universities solve these larger problems by adopting an “environmentalist ethic.” Environmentalists, he explains, have dispensed with cost-benefit analysis and seen to it that “the language of stewardship dominates the [environmental] debate.” Universities, too, should emphasize “community stewardship” over financial relationships, look outward, and reestablish themselves in the public square: noble goals all.

Yet Cassuto’s injunction that “the financial equation has to be removed” from higher education overlooks the centrality of finances to students’ and communities’ relationships with American universities. Instead of beginning to clean up the graduate school mess by talking about what PhD-holders could do with their degrees in the future, we ought to talk more about what PhD candidates do for universities and departments now. By teaching large survey classes for pennies on the professor’s dollar, grading mountains of undergraduate essays, and working as low-paid adjuncts after graduation, graduate students make it possible for funds to be redirected away from the humanities. By conducting cutting edge research, graduate students keep rankings high and maintain departmental prestige. Until the ways universities are financed and the things they do with their money are radically changed, it is impossible to dissociate the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars that students pay in tuition from the educations they receive or the low wages of workers from universities’ role in the community.

In fact, it is not the humanities that most of the reformists engaged in the discussion about graduate education are hell-bent on saving; rather, it is the PhD. Tenured professors would find themselves in a somewhat different line of work without graduate students — preferably PhD candidates — to train. Cassuto openly acknowledges the centrality of graduate education to professors’ sense of themselves: “Just about every professor wants to teach graduate school,” he writes. “Lots of them regard it practically as their birthright.”

Such a frank acknowledgment of the outlook from behind the professor’s desk is a rarity in the graduate school debate; unfortunately, Cassuto fails to fully examine its implications. The obvious conclusion to draw is that the PhD survives, on the one hand, for the benefit of universities that depend on graduate students’ cheap labor to teach undergraduates, and, on the other, for the benefit of professors who want to continue teaching graduate seminars. But rather than even considering whether PhD programs should be reduced or replaced with other degree programs, Cassuto maintains that the PhD must be saved because only “the original, genuine, first-class article” will attract potential students. He goes to great lengths, for example, to assert the primacy of the PhD over the obscure Doctor of Arts degree, which he argues never caught on because of its “second-class status.”

Among reformers, Cassuto is far from alone in trumpeting the academic prestige of the PhD. Schemes to create “Malleable PhDs” and declarations that a non-academic job should no longer be “Plan B” for PhD students are also focused on saving the degree, not the humanities or their values. Paradoxically, these reformist visions propose that the most prestigious academic credential be considered a means to secure entry-level employment in a wide variety of fields. Such arguments refuse to acknowledge that the sorts of skills, the ways of understanding the world, and the knowledge that can be imparted to students through humanities education have relatively little to do with the doctorate itself. After all, these are precisely the same sorts of skills that we humanists claim to teach our undergraduate students.

There is no reason to assume that the PhD itself is an essential part of teaching our students to be humanists in the world. What its steadfast defenders fail to grasp is that, by promoting the PhD as a sort of generalist’s degree that should be used to do all sorts of things by as many people as possible, they are damning the humanities to continued irrelevance. Cassuto, for example, argues that since “not all lawyers practice law, and not all doctors care for patients,” not all humanities PhDs ought to become professors. His point is a valid one, and research commissioned by the American Historical Association shows that there have always been significant numbers of PhDs working outside the academy, even in the postwar “golden age” of widespread academic employment. But there is a difference between acknowledging that many challenging, exciting, and meaningful career paths are open to PhD-holders and arguing that the PhD ought to be considered a qualification for people interested in a wide range of non-academic fields.

To return to Cassuto’s example, medical schools may well produce graduates who choose not to practice medicine, but they hardly propose that an MD is an ideal credential for future scholars of medical history — even if such a degree would doubtless be helpful in that field. In fact, the American Medical Association tightly manages MD programs and even regulates the number of MDs awarded annually in order to ensure both excellence in training and the value of the MD degree for its holders. If Cassuto’s research into the history of graduate training yielded evidence that any professional association in the humanities has ever seriously considered limiting the number of PhD programs or degrees awarded per year — despite a century of overproduction — he neglects to mention it.

By failing to even raise questions about the wider economic context of graduate education, the well-meaning professors struggling to save their PhD programs and enhance their advisees’ welfare imply that they honestly believe that the PhD is a good option for young people, regardless of their financial situation, no matter their career interests, and whatever their personal goals. Such logic promotes a form of humanities education so distant from reality that it can only be suited to the ivory tower. Unsurprisingly, it also suits the “caretaking” environmental ethic that Cassuto champions as a mantra for the university itself. In both cases, Cassuto attaches to the university, and to faculty members in particular, a sort of paternalistic responsibility for those who have been placed under their authority. But to make progress in cleaning up the graduate school mess, we must admit that the university is not a benevolent caretaker that may choose to remain aloof from the economic context in which it exists but rather a large and powerful institution that must often be reminded to respect the laws and regulations that apply to other employers and major community stakeholders. The relationships between university and community or between faculty advisor and graduate student ought to be based not on “stewardship” but on mutual respect.

Cassuto’s failure to address the economic context in which graduate education exists makes his “environmentalist” solution an inappropriate means of resolving the problems he diagnoses. Instead of promoting minor reforms and asking professors to reconceive themselves as caretakers, doing what is best for graduate students and connecting the humanities with the wider world means broadening the discussion of graduate training beyond the PhD. It is time we talked seriously about developing other degree programs alongside the PhD that are intended to be accessible, not cloistered, and that are geared toward students’ needs, not professors’ egos.

Cassuto himself seems to be crafting two separate degrees in his discussion on what is wrong with PhD programs. On the one hand, he rightly asserts that doctoral students almost always receive their PhDs without being properly prepared to fulfill all of the duties expected of faculty members — especially of faculty members who work outside the research university where PhDs are invariably trained. This is because most PhD programs are run by top-flight researchers who excel at training students to conduct research. Even such essential tasks as teaching and administrative work tend to fall by the wayside in the sustained, focused effort to research and write the dissertation. On the other hand, Cassuto claims that doctoral students are not well enough prepared for jobs outside the academy.

But just because both of these statements are true — PhD programs don’t prepare students well enough for jobs as professors; PhD programs don’t prepare students well enough for jobs other than professor — does not mean that both problems can be solved in the same way. Certainly, more training in professional skills could help all graduate students in the humanities. Current humanities professors could doubtless learn to teach professional skills to both sorts of students; after all, as Cassuto puts it, humanists are “professional learners.” But in an era when advanced degrees are offered in every conceivable subject, from Archival Studies to Public Service, there is no reason that historians or literary scholars should be the primary fount of professional wisdom for government administrators, to name but one example of a highly touted alt-ac career. Surely humanists can find an important place for themselves in such training programs, but at the graduate level they ought to do so in concert with teachers who can offer particular professional expertise to students. There is a very strong case to be made that humanistic training provides essential tools for citizenship, but this does not mean that taking a PhD in German literature is the ideal professional training for a future bureaucrat.

Humanities departments can, and should, offer valuable graduate degrees to students seeking to enter a range of fields. But creating these programs requires a broader perspective, one that is not premised on saving the PhD as a sort of extended internship during which graduate students are dependent on their professors’ goodwill and commitment to caretaking. The master’s degree, so frequently overlooked in discussions of the future of graduate training in the humanities, ought to be at the center of this discussion, not an afterthought.

We should also look beyond the American system. Though European universities are no paradise for talented young humanists, either, they have at least committed to treating their PhD students as employees with legally regulated rights and benefits, and created applied MA programs alongside their research-focused master’s degrees. But despite the currency of transnational perspectives in humanistic research, debates about the future of American graduate education exhibit a striking lack of acknowledgment that other university systems exist elsewhere in the world. (Cassuto’s image of graduate education beyond the United States, for instance, is frozen in the research universities of the 19th-century German Empire: he never considers looking abroad for alternatives or fresh ideas that might benefit the contemporary American academy.)

Going beyond modest proposals for reform means acknowledging what is at stake in the graduate school debate, and making hard sacrifices. Abandoning the PhD may be the right thing for graduate students and for higher education as a whole, but it will surely disadvantage individual institutions and faculty members. Departments’ prestige will suffer if they give up or drastically reduce their PhD programs in order to build bold new MA programs. Individual professors will be forced to teach new courses, perhaps even to team-teach with colleagues from other disciplines, if they wish to attract bigger cohorts of graduate students who will use the humanities in the world. Tenured faculty will need to spend less time debating PhD requirements and more time openly discussing how little adjunct faculty members are paid and how much students are paying for their studies.

Acknowledging the economic context in which graduate education takes place, and coming clean about what will happen to humanities departments and universities without an overabundance of cheap labor, may be our best opportunity to change the conversation about the humanities. We need to take up these problems in order to find better ways of making the case that humanities education is essential for 21st-century citizens — and not just academics. The first step in this direction is questioning the dogmatic belief that PhD programs are the only workable model for post-graduate education in the humanities. Only by acknowledging the elephant in the seminar room can we begin to clean up the mess it has left behind.


Stephen Milder teaches political and social history at the University of Groningen. He is currently completing a book on the emergence of the environmental movement in Western Europe, entitled Greening Democracy.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Milder teaches political and social history at the University of Groningen. He is currently completing a book on the emergence of the environmental movement in Western Europe, entitled Greening Democracy.


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