From the Department of False Analogies: reforming professional training in the humanities?

Did anyone else hear this interview with Louis Menand on All Things Considered last night?  On the one hand, he gave some important context for understanding that the academic job crisis in the humanities is nothing new–like Historiann, he sees it as directly linked to the halt of the massive institutional expansion of higher education after the 1950s and 1960s.  But then he beats (once again!) on the dead horse of the years-to-degree for most humanities Ph.D.s, and says something astonishingly stupid:

[Prof. MENAND:]  The other piece of it, which is even more amazing to me, is that the time it takes to get the PhD has been increasing steadily since the 1970s so that the median time to get a PhD in a humanities discipline, like philosophy, English, art history, is nine years. Half of people who get PhDs…

[Host Robert] SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENAND: …in those fields take more than nine years to get the degree.

Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a medical degree and cut somebody open in four years, why should it take nine years to teach poetry to college freshmen? And there are a number of factors involved in that. One obviously is the job market. Another is the fact of part-time hiring. That is, a lot of graduate students teach college students, and they do it quite full time for very little money because they are still enrolled as students in their institutions.

(Riiiight–because there’s so much more money to be earned by adjuncts who have taken the Ph.D.?)  But, back to the silly comments about attorneys and physicians:  who here thinks that all you need to be a doctor is to go to medical school for 4 years, and then hang out your shingle?  And who here thinks that there are lots of 25 year-olds right out of law school who have argued cases before the Supreme Court

Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Now, I realize that in addition to being a Professor of English at Harvard, Menand is also a writer for the New Yorker, where glib and superficial is the house style these days.  But Professor, please:  you might be happy to be cut by a sawbones right out of medical school, if a back-alley amputation is what you’re after, but the rest of us probably prefer to be treated by licensed and boarded physicians.

As many people know by the time they’re adults–especially if they watched a lot of ER and Law & Order back in the 90s–graduating from medical school and law school just signals the end of one phase of a young doctor or lawyer’s professional training.  All licensed and boarded physicians in the U.S. must complete an internship and residency of at least three years (for primary care medicine, like family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine), or more (from 4-6 years) for surgical sub-specialties, not to mention 3-year fellowships that many doctors undertake for the extremely high-stress and high-skill subspecialties (such as intensivists).  During residencies and fellowships, the doctors in training will treat patients, but only under the supervision of the attending physicians.  So any licensed physician who will treat you as your physician of record outside of a teaching hospital will have anywhere from 3 to 10 years of training beyond medical school, which also means that ze has passed extensive medical board exams in each of hir specialties or subspecialties order to get a license to practice.   Attorneys don’t have as much formal postgraduate professional training as physicians, but they too must pass state-by-state bar exams.  I would think that a clerkship with a federal judge or state or U.S. Supreme Court justice would be useful, if not absolutely de rigeur, before arguing a case before the Supreme Court of the U.S., but those of you with more knowledge of legal education, please feel free to chime right in.

So, a responsible comparison of medical and legal education to Ph.D.s in the humanities suggests that graduation from medical school corresponds with a humanities student completing hir coursework and qualifying exams–what we in the biz call “ABD” (All But Dissertation) status.  That’s the point at which people can shift from functioning mainly as students to functioning as professionals in training–and functioning like a professional in the humanities means conceiving of and completing a major research project  on your own–what we in the biz call “writing a dissertation.”

Now, Menand’s larger point is a reasonable one:  should we insist that all college instructors have Ph.D.s, let alone Ph.D.s that take 9 years to complete?  It would deserve a serious hearing, if there were anything like a shortage of Ph.D.s and a corresponding surfeit of jobs that need filling.  (In fact, as many of you can testify, lots of men were hired in the 1960s ABD, and many of them achieved tenure and promotion even without ever completing their doctoral dissertations!  That’s how many jobs there were and how badly professors of the humanities were needed.)  But that’s not the world we live in, not for the past 40 years anyway.  So, saying that the time-to-degree for humanities Ph.D.s is the biggest problem in American universities today is like saying that the biggest problem with the banking industry today is that Goldman Sachs and other investment banks require that their secretaries and administrative assistants have college degrees.  True, requiring that degree to do secretarial work might be unnecessary, but it’s rather beside the point, don’t’cha think? 

0 thoughts on “From the Department of False Analogies: reforming professional training in the humanities?

  1. And in addition to spending that ABD time writing, many of us also taught, which I liked to see as part of my apprenticeship. By the time I ended my 7 years in grad school, I had taught for 5 years as a GI, in my own classes, getting valuable experience that helped me land a t/t job. Not to mention that time varies considerably across fields. We medievalists not only have substantive language training, but writing that dissertation required visits to European archives, which cost money. Getting funding necessary to make those research trips added time for many of my colleagues who couldn’t afford to foot the bill themselves. I might expect someone in the sciences to be unaware of such differences, but someone in the Humanities?


  2. Yeah–I don’t get Menand’s position, which seems to boil down to “we in the humanities don’t do anything useful.”

    I agree with you that teaching was part of your training, but I can also see Menand’s point which is that it’s not probably strictly speaking totally mandatory–if there were more jobs than qualified people to take them, that is. The reason why we hire so many people with extensive teaching experience is that it takes them usually 3-4 years to find a tenure-track job, so most people make do by hanging out ABD and/or taking 1-year instructor gigs. It’s nice to be able to hire people with so much teaching experience, but I’m the first to say that it’s not really necessary when we’re hiring an Assistant Professor.


  3. On the other hand if you compare this to the UK, it is a much longer process. I went to u/grad at 17, did a four year degree, then a 1 yr MPhil, followed by a PhD in 3 years (although four years is more typical),. I also taught for the three years I was doing the PhD, so have plenty of teaching experience and had two publications forthcoming by that point.

    At that point, I was 25 and technically qualified for a permanent job, but like most people in the UK, I have spent the last 3 years in temporary jobs, but at least they pay reasonably well (that is the same as new lecturer in a permanent job)and have pension benefits and the like. Most people getting their first permanent job (which is essentially like the TT job, only we have to screw up to get fired) have 5-7 years of temporary work under their belts. But, I think the major difference is that we are earning and developing our careers during this point- rather than still being in training.

    And Drs and lawyers in the UK don’t take substantially longer that this either, unless they specialise post-residence (but then that is where the big money is and they are paid along the way). Drs do 3-4yr u/grad followed by 3 years residence, and then extra to specialise. Lawyers do 3-4 yr u/grad, 1-3 yr p/grad qualification, 2 yrs practice training.


  4. I think Menand had a longer piece about this in the Atlantic last Fall. I think he is flogging a book that is out or coming out in the Spring.

    From what I remember about the article, it ties in with that post from a couple of days ago about graduate school. According to Menand its not the length of time it takes to get the PhD that is the problem – Its the opportunity cost. If you spend three or four years earning a PhD, but don’t get an academic job, you are not out much in terms of time and effort. But if you spend nine or ten years earning a PhD in the humanities, and then don’t get an academic job, you are really screwed in terms of finances, saving for retirement, discovering a new career, etc. Also, its a lot of time that might have been better spent pursuing something else.

    I don’t think he really offers a solution. Making the programs shorter would not really change the job market dynamic. It would simply mean more turnover in grad programs. Essentially Menand argues that PhD programs should be exploiting grad students more efficiently.

    And yes, I agree, any analogy between professional programs in Law and Medicine is shaky at best. The professions do a better job of gate-keeping and protecting their control over the process. The PhD programs in the humanities are in a straight race to the bottom in terms of both gate-keeping and placement.


  5. A question for Feminist Avatar: I heard from friends that grad students do not take a lot of coursework for their UK PhDs. I was told that they start researching MA and PhD theses almost right away. Is that true? It seems to me that this approach would shave a couple of years off the PhD here in the States…


  6. @ Matt L: traditionally there was no coursework- just straight into the research. More recently, the powers that be have decided that PhDs need certain research skills, before they begin. So, most of us now do a research masters first, like an 1 yr MPhil, which is very proscribed and designed for PhD preparation, and includes such exciting things as quantitative methods or for those that need to pick up a language- a language. This is now a requisite of all the major funding bodies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, but on the plus side, the funding they offer is now usually a 1+3, that is a 1 year MPhil + 3 yrs funding on the PhD (with a limit that you submit the dissertation within 4 years of starting the +3).

    Because of these changes in the funding system, if you decide to fund yourself or if you get funding from a private funder (who aren’t as strict), most universities now require you do the core classes of the masters before you can do the PhD, but you will do these in the first year of your PhD, rather than doing them the year before. The disadvantage of this method is you don’t get a separate MPhil qualification, but if you are self-funding it saves you in fees.

    This does not apply to the sciences who still seem to go straight to research (but they are also more likely to work in teams as assistants, rather than independent researchers).


  7. UK PhDs are all research right from the start (no exams until the viva at then end, except maybe Latin exams for medievalists) and are officially supposed to take 3 years. Feminist Avatar is in a brilliant minority as very few people actually manage to do it in that time. I took 4 1/2 years, which isn’t too unusual. Even that represents a big opportunity cost. At the end of it I didn’t want anything more to do with history (although that became a 5 year career break because I changed my mind again) but it was very difficult to get jobs because I was overqualified and lacking experience.

    In any case, I think we have the same problems as the US: not enough academic jobs for all the people with PhDs who want them. So I don’t think the time taken to qualify has any bearing on it.


  8. I should say that PhD who are doing coursework in their first year are still expected to be researching their dissertation- so at the end of the year, you have to have met you first year dissertation milestones along with the coursework (which is effectively treated as hoop to be jumped through)- and are still expected to submit within the four year limit.


  9. Gavin- I think it is much harder to get away with submitting later that 4 years now, as institutions who have lots of late submissions, run the risk of getting their funding cut. I know we had that drummed in to us on a regular basis, and that everybody I know who did the PhD at the same time as me got in before the 4 yr milestone (although many people were having panic attacks in the run-up!). And, we were also told (and I suspect it’s true) that with the job market the way it is, if you take significantly longer than four years you are going to find it much harder to get a job- especially as later research funding puts so much emphasis on timeliness.

    I think the benefit to a short time to qualify is that you start earning quicker (so have pension benefits) and can change careers if it doesn’t work out without so much cost to yourself.


  10. Wait, is this Menand guy counting the undergrad years when he’s talking about a PhD but then NOT counting them for MD/JD completion? Good thing he’s not a Math Professor. Agree with Historiann, his “point” has no traction given it’s not like we have an undersupply of PhDs. Or an undersupply of BAs. I even heard fresh nursing graduates are having trouble getting jobs right now, so so much for the “nursing shortage” that was supposed to happen.


  11. Doesn’t the UK 1+3 yr model assume a much more specialized undergraduate degree than one gets with the standard American-style liberal arts B.A.? So a student having “read History” as an undergrad in the UK has already completed more extensive, specialized coursework that an American student with a B.A. will have done. Fields of specialization for the PhD—at least from my small-N personal observation of historians!—also seem also to be somewhat narrower, further reducing the coursework expectations.


  12. FrauTech: no, he wasn’t counting undergraduate degree years in that nine years–he was talking about just postgrad years. And in the interview, he acknowledges the job shortage as one major factor in the lengthening of the time-to-degree. I just don’t get his critique, given the state of the job market. What’s the rush, when there are no jobs? (On the other hand, delaying graduation and waiting for the magic Job Pony to arrive and start handing out tenure-track jobs is clearly a shaky career strategy.)

    Feminist Avatar and Gavin–thanks for the intel on the British system. I knew that coursework was much less emphasized–I wonder if those of you who have experience or knowledge of both systems have a clear preference or see that one system is superior to the other? I’m glad to hear that instructors have more job security and better pay and benefits in the U.K.–but considering the adjuctification of American universities, maybe that’s not a difficult bar to clear?


  13. Well, temporary work post-phd is not the same as adjuncting (which we do effectively have as well in the form of PhD students and those who can’t get a temporary job post-PhD who teach for very low pay and pretty poor conditions for a few hours a week, and effectively support/ complement permanent lecturers in their teaching).

    Temporary jobs fall into two areas: researchers (that is people who are paid just to do research for large-scale academic projects, led by professors in universities- which is what I do and Gavin as well, I think) and teaching cover, which is when somebody in a permanent job is off doing something else and you fill in (such as maternity leave or they have research leave- perhaps to run a big project which the researchers work on). Teaching jobs involve all the responsibilities of lecturing, including admin and maintaining a research profile. Reseach posts tend to pay slightly better than teaching posts, but you are effectively maintaining your own research profile in your own time (such as turning the PhD into a book in the evenings). Although, if you’re lucky you can sometimes get a few publications out of the research project you’re working on.

    Sorry for hogging the comments!


  14. (Not responding to Menand except with a big *eye-roll*) I think the lack of prep in undergrad is a huge difference between the European system and the US. In many parts of continental Europe, undergrads have more specialized degrees (as someone has noted) and better training overall. This may be romantizication on my part, but I imagine a history major (or equivalent) at Oxford is well-trained not only as an historian, but linguistically. At least in non-US history I think many PhD students spend a bunch of time acquiring their languages. I don’t think this is the main problem in the 9-year PhD, but it’s a factor. From completing my exams to defending my dissertation took 3 1/2 years – but it’s the combination of 2-3 years of coursework on top of the years it takes to complete a comprehensive research project that makes the figures so large. I was fortunate because I was almost fully funded (one semester uncovered), and so didn’t do any adjuncting while trying to finish, though I was a teaching assistant and taught my own course one term.

    It would be interesting to get a straw poll – how long did it take people to finish and what do they think factored into that quick/slow/average finishing? Does anyone think there’s anything their department/advisor could have done to speed the process?


  15. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the problem of humanities profs basically suggesting that we a) aren’t really up to anything particularly important in universities and b) that we should really retool to a more corporate model. Neither of those are things that I like.

    I will say, though, that here at BMU there is a major push for students to get their Ph.D.’s much sooner than 9 years.


  16. Perpetua: I was 6-1/2 years from start to finish, but I taught full-time as a lecturer at another institution in my sixth year, so it was 3 years full-time coursework, TA, and prep for exams, then 2-1/2 years working on the diss. (I had competency in two languages going in, though, and my diss. research was all in English and in the U.S.)

    For me, the coursework was very important. I wasn’t trained at all in historiography before I got to grad school. Even if we could produce faster Ph.D.s, what’s the point, without any jobs to offer them? (And how many of you would hire people into your departments with a speedier degree, no languages, and/or less teaching experience, when you can hire someone with more languages, a more demanding diss. topic, and more experience? To a large extent, this is what the market will bear, and a 4-year Ph.D. would look pretty green and pretty insubstantial next to someone who’s used hir time to earn a variety of different skills and experiences.)


  17. The only way to insure that we don’t, de facto, require a Ph.D. for every college teaching job is to reduce the number of Ph.D.s awarded every year. Otherwise — most committees will prefer the Ph.D. to the MA/ABD — unless the MA/ABD has some outstanding quality.

    Of course, the other half of that equation is to remove the expectation that every faculty job involve research. IMHO, I think that far too many colleges value research over teaching — and thus hire Ph.D.s when the MA/ABD candidate may be a better instructor. I think this poses an ethical problem for SLACs, that charge students a lot of money to be “taught” by faculty who think teaching is secondary to their mediocre research.


  18. In response to Perpetua: I did a masters in 2 years and then switched programs for the PhD. The doctorate took six years. Altogether It took me eight years.

    I think switching programs slowed me down by a year. For example, I had to retake historiography at my new program because it was the only core class all grad students had together. Also, I took classes so I could meet professors and see if I wanted them on my committee. If I had stayed with my original program, I probably could have shaved off a semester or two.

    Language training might have been an issue: I specialized in a far off obscure East European country called Ruritania. I learned Ruritanian by going to summer language schools. (I had studied German in night school before I applied to grad programs in history.) Certainly, I was competent, but not brilliant in my research languages. If I had a higher level of fluency, the research might have gone faster.

    I consciously cut corners in my PhD progrm. Some of my cohort spent a year preping (not taking classes, just reading) for the comprehensive exams. I took a semester to prepare, and in retrospect, even that was kind of a waste. If taking the coursework didn’t prepare you for comps? Why bother taking classes? Just read for a year. I think you could cut completion time for a doctorate in history by a 1/3 by rethinking the curriculum and changing the comprehensive exam format.


  19. katydid13: Ha! I guess it’s like the old song goes, “nice work if you can get it.” I don’t know that “you can get it, if you try” is operative any longer.

    PhilosopherP: You’re right that this is related to the supply/demand issue. But, I would argue that the overall quality of American higher ed has gone up, with faculty even at CCs, 4-year directional schools, and SLACs having survived the gauntlet of a rough job market. Now, it’s not exceptional for these folks to maintain a research agenda–and having a research agenda is the one thing that keeps me reading new things and making innovations in my teaching.

    I believe that the quality and variety of history education that my department offers is unquestionably higher than what I was offered 20 years ago at a supposedly *very prestigious* SLAC. (It was fine, but as I said above, I had to go to grad school to learn about historiography, whereas I introduce it to my undergraduate students in my teaching now. I also think I push my students harder, but that may be because I must–I don’t teach at a *very prestigious* school.) I think this is in part a product of the wretched job market. And there’s no way that an ABD without a research agenda will be as creative or innovative in hir teaching than someone with a Ph.D. and a commitment to research (whether or not it’s strictly speaking a requirement of employment.)


  20. sorry I failed to address Historiann’s main point. I am not sure its a better deal students or the profession to have a quicker PhD. But is a PhD Dissertation that takes 12 years to research and write twice as good as one that only takes six?

    Can a student learn the same information and master the same skills in only six years instead of eleven? As long as the ‘learning outcome’ is the same, then its probably better to do it in six. Now if the six year program is light on content, skills etc. then a quicker time to completion is nonsense.

    I think Menand’s piece points to something important. Programs and professors have a wide range of discretion when it comes to training graduate students. There is no single standard by which to measure a PhD than a completed and defended dissertation. As a result completion times have to range pretty widely because grad students start with wildly different levels of preparation.

    PhDs are an artisan product. Hand crafted one at a time. Its not something that lends itself to assembly line production. (A shout out to Michelle K a colleague from grad school. The idea of academia as an artisan mode of production is all hers).


  21. I didn’t mean to suggest that I didn’t think the coursework is important. I was mostly trying to account for why it seems like American PhDs take so long. I know I wouldn’t have been able to complete my PhD without the coursework (I didn’t know *anything* when I got to grad school), although I did require a bit of extra time because I switched focus between comps and dissertation. Coursework is essential for helping students identify potentially important research topics, as well as preparing them for teaching. My program had 2 yrs of coursework, with comps immediately at the end of the second year. I liked this model and thought it worked well. I also required a LOT of language training in grad school. The rule of thumb at my program was that the Europeanists took long than the Americanists because of language/ access to archives, and the medievalists took the longest, because of the incredible rigor of their discipline (the necessary Latin in addition to modern languages, learning codicology, reading manuscripts, etc tc).

    Mostly I was wondering how much of the time it takes to complete a PhD is coursework/comps, how much research, how much writing the dissertation, and how much “other” (learning languages, teaching, working in other jobs).


  22. Menand is usually very sensible; I doubt he’s arguing for lockstep PhDs for everyone or for corporatization. His analysis fits my PhD program in English at Enormous State U perfectly. The school took too many of us given the bad state of the market; it wanted enough first-year comp slaves. But they paid their slaves well enough to live on, gave us good health care, and offered the chance to craft our own courses; I taught 6 different courses there. So many of us took our time finishing. We were getting good teaching experience, living in a great city, and spiffing up our CVs by publishing articles as grad students. I took 8 years, coming in with a MA (including a part-time year and a year of required coursework when I switched fields within English). My friends’ average: 5 with MA, 7 or 8 without. And a handful of people, because of writers’ block or family circumstance, took 12 or so. 9 sounds exactly right.


  23. Ignatz–he’s not arguing for lockstep corporatization–he’s saying that not everyone needs the research degree (Ph.D.) to teach college English classes, anyway. This argument by professionals that their professional training is pointless is very odd (as GayProf notes above.) This seems to me to be a perhaps slightly higher-minded argument for the de-skilling of what we do. (Slightly higher minded than turning us into graders for online courses, that is, but a difference of degree rather than in kind.)

    It also strikes me as patronizing and elitist to argue that people who don’t train graduate students don’t need Ph.D.s. (Because only undergraduates at some institutions deserve fully trained professors?) If that’s the case, then why do Harvard professors teach undergraduate classes? Shouldn’t they confine their precious specialness and excellence to graduate education only? Here’s what he said in the interview, for the record:

    SIEGEL: So it sounds like the number of PhDs being awarded in those fields is driven as much by the number of professors who teach graduate students and who assign them dissertations as it is by the possibility for ever getting a job being one of those people.

    Prof. MENAND: Yeah, it’s true. There have been several studies, long-term studies, of career outcomes of people who’ve gotten PhDs. And one of those studies showed that of people who got PhDs in English – and only about half the people who enroll in graduate programs in English actually get the PhD – only five percent of those ended up teaching in research universities, which is really what we’re training our students to do.

    So there’s a real disjunction between the training students receive to become research scholars and the kind of teaching that most of them will end up doing, which don’t involve training graduate students and generally don’t involve a huge amount of research. But they still need the PhD to get those jobs.

    Comments like this make me wonder if he’s trained and placed any graduate students lately. He appears to believe that we still live in the world of the lazy, lazy perfesser who used his same yellowed notes from 1934 and never, ever read another book or published a blessed thing!


  24. It took me nine years. It could have been eight if I had a job offer earlier, but I kind of slowed down to fill the time I had, given the way the rest of my life worked. That strategy ended up working out very well for me, but that was due to astounding luck as much as anything else.

    I think my dissertation was significantly better than it would have been had I been forced to do it in six years, but the three extra years certainly didn’t make it twice as good. On the day I went up to Philly to turn in my diss, there was someone who had been in his third year when I started who was turning his dissertation in on the same day. I was absolutely delighted not to be the senior malingerer.

    We’re working on streamlining our own Ph.D. process now, based on pressure from the administration to show good (i.e. reasonably short) time-to-advancement and time-to-degree numbers. We’ve substituted written exams for self-conceptualized “field statements” for minor fields (major field still has orals), and that’s helped some, but I worry a bit that it doesn’t address the need to develop independent skills in conceptualizing and framing questions/problems as well as it could — to some extent it pushes the problem down the road from advancement to dissertation. There is something to be said for the opportunity-cost argument, especially at a non-elite school like mine, but I wonder about how well it serves our students in other respects.


  25. I commented recently on Claire Potter’s blog about this coursework issue, that some schools require a Masters, then expect PhD students to do ANOTHER two years of course work before going on to the dissertation. I think that’s overkill.
    I got my PhD in the UK (and yes, I finished in 3 years). However, that system (until recently) has not had much focus on coursework and I think that is a real flaw. People came out of it knowing only the topic they had researched for their dissertation. That prepared them for research universities in the UK, but in the US where undergraduate teaching involves survey courses and an expectation of breadth, obviously more graduate-level preparation is needed.
    However, I think there can be a happy medium. I loved the seminars I did as part of my Masters degree, and without the development I got from them, I would never have been able to complete the UK-style PhD. However, having completed a Masters already was a big factor in leading me to a UK PhD rather than the US schools I considered: I wasn’t interested in signing on for more coursework.
    I don’t agree that US undergrads are poorly prepared compared to those from the UK, either. They’ve had four years rather than 3, and generally 30 weeks a year of classes (as opposed to the Oxbridge 22 weeks/year for 3 years). I’d say it works out about the same, with US students having an edge in having studied more than one subject.
    Anyhow: I would be interested to see a US university adopt a model of a 4 year PhD. A year of coursework, then on to the dissertation. And anyone admitted with an MA can skip the coursework.
    Someone upthread mentioned the model of people hired ABD in the 1960s: that kind of market model is what the current PhD is designed for, with people stepping into a T-T job after about 4 years of graduate school, then submitting their dissertation. That doesn’t happen anymore, and given that people (in competitive humanities fields) are going to have to spend 3 years (average I believe) on the market, have several temporary positions before landing a T-T job, I think they should be able to get out as soon as possible, rather than being obliged to spend 6-10 years in grad school before even reaching that stage.
    I see a lot less anger in the UK from people who completed their PhD at 26 and are unable to find an academic job, than from those in the US who are 36, have spent a decade in graduate school, and have paid 15 years of opportunity cost in terms of pursuing alternative careers.


  26. Look for many, many reviews of Menand’s book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Its publication date is 18 January, and I’ve already read a few reviews: see this in Slate:

    The reviewer states that Menand believes that the over-lengthy time-to-degree “is just another symptom of professors’ anxiety about the worth of their trade.” Menand argues that professionalization, rather than the pursuit of knowledge, is the problem, and there’s an uneasy compromise that serves no one well. He sees the turn towards interdisciplinarity, for example, as a failing “fix” to engage audiences and issues beyond the ivory tower. Here’s Menand quoted by Slate reviewer Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

    “Interdisciplinary anxiety, … is a displaced anxiety about the position of privilege that academic professionalism confers on its initiates and about the peculiar position of social disempowerment created by the barrier between academic workers and the larger culture. It is anxiety about the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into aimless subjectivism or eclecticism.”

    I cannot help but recall the discussion on this blog about the academic job market and comparison to auto workers.

    I was a “gradual student” because I worked my way through school. It really would be useful to have better numbers concerning time to completion by funded students and by unfunded students. Accrediting and other agencies seem to care only for simple numbers, hwoever; accreditation itself is a form of professionalization, and therefore it’s little wonder that the numbers that often count when axing a department is whether said department’s Ph.D.’s have jobs in the field.

    Let me also add that folks in material culture fields, especially in archaeology, sometimes require more time: getting through some legalities to create or use collections, undertake fieldwork in short seasons, and dealing with museums that have begun to survive by charging BIG fees for reproductions and copyrights–even for dissertations–deserves a course of its own.


  27. In my small humanities field, most of the UK PhDs are simply not prepared to teach in US institutions. Most have to spend several additional years in temporary positions or in post-docs to even be considered for jobs. Although their time to degree is much shorter, their time to tenure track job seems to be about the same.

    I have one friend from undergrad that went to Oxford specifically to avoid taking any more classes ever, learned more about the one aspect of my field s/he already knew a lot about, and then said *in job interviews at American Universities* that his/her interest was in research not teaching. S/he is an extreme example, and s/he also has what is apparently a guaranteed tenure position at a Dutch university after 3 or 4 years in a post-doc. S/he had the letters after his/her name 3 years before me, but we both got our jobs at the same time.

    Thanks for bringing this interview to my attention, I want to hear it and laugh.


  28. I’m still astounded by the unwillingness even to admit that the amount of time spent in graduate school in the US is a problem, especially given the job shortage. Maybe I’ve missed something, maybe my time in graduate school has been too miserable, but a lot of people’s lives are ticking away, a lot of things are on hold, in pursuit of this degree. Matt L. raises the all too infrequently made points about retirement, finances, etc. I don’t get why this isn’t just a given understanding.

    That said, it is difficult to see how exactly to reduce the time: archival research/fieldwork, language training, and the like all do play a huge role in lengthening the time. On the flip side, though, in my anecdotal experience, people in humanities disciplines who aren’t reading in anything other than English and who never leave the university for fieldwork are taking just as long.

    I appreciate Menand’s arguments more than many of the commentators here do because he truly seems to get the problem, especially in his longer piece for the . In his larger piece for the Harvard Magazine a few months back ( he’s up front about the enormous sacrifices people make for a degree that has less and less meaning outside the academy. He writes, “Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process.” And while shortening the length of programs would probably increase the numbers of new PhDs, it would diversify the field by being more welcoming to people whose backgrounds aren’t amenable to spending years in infantilizing limbo as the odds of getting a job continue to drop. It might also tamp down on some of the bitterness: four, even five years is a less bitter pill to swallow than 8 to 10, I’d imagine. And I suspect more people would feel comfortable walking away from academia after spending 4 or 5 years than after spending 8 or 9. A reason to rush out is that even if graduate school is intellectually pleasurable, it can be incredibly emotionally painful.

    Other commentators have mentioned, though, a crucial problem: our elementary/high school system doesn’t get students to a high enough level of work for our college degrees to reach the same level as a UK degree does. The Guardian had an article last year about a whole new crop of young historians in the UK who had active publishing careers, some without PhDs/DPhils, all incredibly young. See:

    It’s incredible the kind of flexibility they have (and yes a lot of it is surely class privilege) when they don’t have to spend all of their twenties and thirties in pursuit of a PhD to still do this kind of work (minus the teaching).


  29. @JJO–have you considered the possibility that you might have finished earlier without sharing an office with a raving maniac for a year? Don’t beat yourself up *too* much.

    More seriously–JJO’s comments bring up an important issue in my mind, which is that the dissertation is a hybrid object intended to achieve multiple goals. It is in nearly all cases a prerequisite for getting a job–but it is also the basis for one’s first book, which is a prerequisite for getting tenure in many (if not all) departments. Spending seven years instead of six to complete the degree doesn’t always make the dissertation 16% better–but it might enable to author to produce something that is closer to publication as a quality monograph than it might otherwise have been.

    In my case I finished in six years to get the degree, then took an exceedingly long time to come out with the book (a process that included jettisoning about 40% of the diss and adding new material). An extra year wouldn’t have been a panacea, but it would have made the revision process easier and made tenure more manageable. Discussing the writing of dissertations without getting into their role in tenure and promotion misses something essential.


  30. HistoryMaven: thanks for the extra info. Yes, it’s profitable to write books that fulfill conventional “wisdom.” I wish I could write books called HIGHER EDUCATION ACTUALLY WORKS, GIVEN THE PROPER INVESTMENT BY GOVERNMENT AND EFFORT BY STUDENTS, or DON’T BLAME THE TEACHERS,BLAME THE BANKERS, or FEMINISM WORKS FOR EVERYONE. Sadly, they’ll never find publishers. But publishers line up to publish books by professors telling everyone what’s wrong with academia, or books by young women about how feminism ruined their lives, or books about how third-grade teachers making $35,000 a year should be held more accountable for their work than bailed-out bankers making $80 million a year.


  31. thefrogprincess: I absolutely understand the concern about time-to-degree from the perspective of the student. Believe it or not, all of the people who now have faculty positions once lived on beans & rice, or Ramen noodles for years at a time, and wondered if it would all be worthwhile. (At least I sure did. The nadir of my life was sobbing in a laundromat in Cambridge, Massachusetts after discovering that a thief had reached into my dryer and stolen my good towels. I was convinced I’d never get a job, I’d never have a house or apartment with my own washer and dryer, I’d always be poor and would have to do my laundry in a laundromat, jealously guarding my clothes against thieves, for the rest of my life.)

    But my point is that in a world that’s already full of un- or underemployed Ph.D.s, is reducing the amount of training required for a Ph.D. really in a student’s best interest? Understand that that student’s competition will not be a student with a 4-year Ph.D., but someone with a 7 or 8-year Ph.D., plus a few years teaching full time, plus maybe a postdoc or two. See also John S.’s comments about the value of an additional year or two working on a dissertation, remembering the pressures for publication once the tenure clock starts.

    Faster Ph.D.s are not better Ph.D.s, neither as intellectual experiences nor as job training in the current market. Everyone here would wave a magic wand and make full-time, tenure-track jobs for all of the hopeful ABDs and Ph.D.s out there if we could. But we do not decide the amount of money in our departmental budgets, and we do not get to make the final decision as to whether we hire next year.

    Given the fact that those of us on the tenure-track have more work to do that’s spread around more thickly because of the loss of other tenure-track positions, who do you think we should hire to be our next colleague: the person with an 8-year Ph.D., more teaching experience and several articles out, if not a book contract, or the person with a 4-year degree, no publications, and TA experience but no teaching? (Remember well that we might lose that tenure line if we fail to tenure the new occupant.) Who would you choose? Even though the 4-year Ph.D. might be the Second Coming, given enough mentoring and time for professional development, but who’s got that kind of time? We need people who are ready to roll.


  32. Historiann, I understand all of that and under the current system, you’re exactly right. I think Menand is making an argument for a radical shift across the board rather than suggesting that individual programs shorten up their timeframes and churn out PhDs that don’t compare well to those who have spent longer and done more. What I said over at my blog is that time-to-completion rates can only go down if the expectations of what a hireable PhD looks like go down as well (and John S’s point about books suggests that maybe tenure needs some rethinking as well). I’m not sure this is ever possible but I think it’s a good place to start the conversation.


  33. I happened to catch the interview right at the quote you indicate. As a non-academic, I was appalled(?) by his comparisons. I do know something about Ph.D’s and MD’s and I couldn’t believe my ears. I was sure that you would pick up this thread today. I was reading a novel this morning and one of the characters, a research scientist with an archeologist “girlfriend” made the statement that “all these brilliant, analytical minds should really be doing something important with their brains.” He indicated that they would certainly be better utilized in the scientific arena. I was stunned! I hope it was the character and not the author’s real thoughts on the matter.


  34. I think both a lot of the stress of undertaking a PhD and the extended time to degree are a result of the ratcheting-up of expectations for a tenure track job. If there are, say, randomly, 2000 grad students on the market one year for 200 tt jobs, then a lot of us just aren’t going to get the jobs. But we don’t accept that; instead we frantically look around for that special thing that will make us “stand out” or “be competitive” against the rest.

    And so a lot of what slowed me down in my PhD program was writing a dissertation that was more like a book than a diss (and having the chapters each be kicked back to me six or seven times to make the writing _really_ polished) and working up additional stuff for publication, doing tons of conferences (note to self: totally not good for the cv compared to articles), and trying all sorts of ways to “professionalize.” I know that when we hired our latest person before the hiring freeze, our advisors pointed out with satisfaction how this person already had a book and an edited collection of essays in press; it was made pretty clear to us that this is what you’ll need to be considered ABD at an R1 now. (God, I hope I’m wrong. We have enough ulcers as it is.)

    The other thing that slowed me down was that about the time I went ABD I went off guaranteed funding and then had to “compete” internally to find funding in other departments — January was usually shot applying for TAships, March for campus fellowships. Just keeping on top of having a teaching gig from one quarter to the next was a lot of work and very demoralizing.

    And to add to the compilation of data: English MA, 2 years, English Ma/PhD, 8 years. They claim our “standard” is 5 years to finish the whole PhD but I only know of one or two people who did that. Plenty people in my dept. took longer.


  35. Well, well, NPR’s ATC aired this afternoon a letter from a listener, a medical doctor, taking issue with Menand’s characterization of medical training. I’m awaiting lawyers’ laments.

    I agree with you, Historiann: Menand’s book has all the appearances of describing problems (in quotation marks or not) as a rhetorical exercise–after all, the academy has been in crisis since I was a young’un.

    Did I read Robert Siegel’s question correctly: That “the number of professors who teach graduate students … assign them dissertations”? Wha-a-a-a-?


  36. I entered my PhD program with a terminal MFA. The MFA took me two years, the PhD 5. In those five years, I taught as an adjunct–up to 8 courses/year–in several NYC boroughs. Indeed, I taught in Queens and the Bronx, took my own classes in Manhattan, and slept in Brooklyn.

    In those five years of insane teaching, I completed course work, acquired two languages (Anglo Saxon and Latin), and wrote my dissertation. The diss. took about 18 months.

    It was rushed, but I was broke, and there wasn’t any way I could continue doing what I was doing. I finished my dissertation teaching a 3/3 and then immediately took on a VAP with a 4/4 load.

    I’d love to have had 9 sweet years to research and think and polish my sentences to a shine. But I wanted out of there, and so I finished quick. I know only one other person in my dept. who finished in the same length of time.


  37. Heh–I just heard the letter to ATC from the shirty doctor, pointing out that pediatric cardiologists have 10 years of training AFTER med school. (But then, he says he “agrees” that 9 years is a total waste for a humanities Ph.D. Nice!)

    All of your stories of grad school confirm what I’ve been saying: the crap job market has dramatically distorted graduate training and the standards for hiring of Assistant Professors. This has been good for the students we teach, IMHO, because even students at Smallville U. get top-notch scholar-teachers these days. But it’s bad for the faculty involved (as Sisyphus notes, hiring people we could immediately promote to Associate Professor) and it’s really bad for the students who are looking at more years and more debt (or more years of marginal employment & not being able to shed debt), not to mention, what about the rest of your life (if you want to have a romantic partner/get married/have a child/save for retirement/have your own washer and dryer/etc) as thefrogprincess notes. And she rightly notes that different people have different abilities to weather years of grad school and marginal employment, b/c of class differences.

    That being said, I do not see grad schools unilaterally disarming by creating 3- and 4-year programs for Ph.D.s. Their students will get plowed under by the competition, and it won’t do anyone any good at all. I think there is a better chance that some schools will limit graduate enrollment than that they’ll decide that more, faster Ph.D.s are the way to go. (Lord, no!) I would hope that Ph.D. programs would start looking more carefully at who they enroll, and try to enroll fewer students but fund them more generously.

    But–and there are good things about this as well as bad things–there is no professional association that sets policy for any discipline. The AHA and MLA issue reports and policy papers, but they’re merely advisory: individual departments and unis do what they do, and that’s also part of the reason we’ve seen the proliferation of Ph.D. programs in spite of the job market for the past 40 years.


  38. Menand’s been flogging this peculiar horse for a long time now–he published a piece in the NY Times Magazine almost a decade ago making the same critiques and proposals. He raises some thought-provoking points, but then undermines them all with the sorts of false analogies and specious reasoning that Ann points out here.

    For the straw poll: I got my MA and PhD in English from the same institution. It took me six years in all, but that was with a year-long FLAS fellowship that let me plow through my coursework a year sooner than scheduled, and then a dissertation-year fellowship that let me focus on writing the diss. Had I not been offered a job my first year on the market, I was prepared to postpone the defense by a year. In retrospect, it probably would have been a better dissertation had I done so–like John S. above, I jettisoned a great deal of the diss before a publisher deemed it worthy (more like 75% in my case).


  39. Menand is a dumbshit. His complaints make no sense at all.

    For example, many decry the fact that humanities PhDs take so much longer than natural science PhDs. Well, the humanities PhD qualifies you to take a faculty position. Almost without exception, in order to effectively compete for a faculty position in the natural sciences, you require an additional 3-6 years of training. It takes like 10 years of training post-MD to become a neurosurgeon.

    And, of course, he is completely full of shit with his assumption that what humanities PhDs are being trained for is to teach freshman composition. This is no more true than the assumption that my PhD and five years of post-doctoral training was to train me to teach the first-year medical physiology curriculum to medical students.

    I cannot believe that this asshole doesn’t understand all this, and so the only reasonable conclusion is that he is just fucking lying to sell some kind of shit.


  40. Amen to the Sisyphus, frogprincess and Historiann on the phenomenon of the rising bar for dissertations/assistant professorships. Dissertations keep getting longer, dissertation research more extensive, writing more polished, even as grad students are prodded by advisors, “professional development” workshops, and peers to crank out conference papers, articles, etc.. It’s like an arms race: as Historiann says, when there are students on the 8-year plan with polished theses + publications + teaching experience, who’s going to hire the 4- or 5-year student?

    Moreover, it seems that it’s really accelerated in the last decade or so, with the growing concern about the “professional development” of PhD students. When I was in grad school in the 90s, the main conferences in my field/s were leery of accepting paper proposals from grad students, and it didn’t seem that common for my peers to be presenting. But now grad students make up a goodly proportion of programs at every meeting. This has some upside–there’s nothing like a real-world deadline to move writing along! and it integrates grad students into the scholarly community while bringing new topics, approaches, etc. to the field–but it definitely piles additional stress and work burdens onto students already pretty well saddled with both. Recent historiographical trends (towards interdisciplinarity, transnationalism, etc.) also seem to dictate longer completion times, since they require broader training in methods, languages, etc.


  41. No idea where to begin in this tangled but interesting thread, but you gotta be in it to win it so I’ll throw in a few fragmentary points. Back when they broke the news to my cohort that the–as I said in another note, Titanic was going down–a guy several years ahead of me who was understood by us neophytes to be a trust-fund radical from an old line Philly family (and whose last name *did* have the suffix III) stood up and said, “we have to find a way to FORCE the American people to hire more historians…” We thought he was crazy, but now I’m not so sure. He did get a job, I later discovered.

    Back in the ’70s, there was much talk about creating a degree called the Doctor of Arts (DA) that would be focused on creating intellectually accomplished teaching-focused professors but who would not be research scholars as the term was then understood. The terminal product, as I recall, was a 100-200 page synthetic essay. I think only a small number of these programs got off the ground, because when the market foundered, there wasn’t much use even having a lifeboat. I think a few of these programs are still around today, though. I thought it was an interesting idea then, but I’m way too addicted to the empirica of research, and synthetic writing is way hard to do. And I think it would have helped to reinscribe the old line between “teaching” and “research” institutions that Historiann rightly notes was clot-busted as a by-product of the job crisis.

    The prestigious Old Line institutions (read: Ivies) were tending to complain that the fault for the crisis lay with the proliferation of “new Ph.D programs” by small, downmarket institutions, who were dilluting the brand. (And ruining all their hegemonic fun). Alfred F. Young, at Northern Illinois, stopped that one in his tracks in a legendary essay published in the predecessor of AHA Perspectives (1978). He argued that the Old Line places had resisted the various “new histories,” and that the supposedly “dilluting” new programs were the ones that had embraced intellectual diversity and socially useful scholarship. He went on to train a good number of very good Ph.D’s, and then wrote more books as emeritus than I ever expect to write; may be still doing it.

    John S. and JJO: I think we have to blame the Penn Band here on this “time to complete” question, in your cases at least; going up and down between the Frat and the B. School on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings with those snarky, sophomoric songs. Nobody ever got much done too quickly in old Moose Hall. There was a lot of plotting around the idea of liberating the moose, however, when it was time to move on to the next building.

    I’d be embarrassed to list MY time-to-complete stats, but I never took a course that I’ve subsequently taught, and my diss. landed a good hundred yards off from any of my comps fields. THAT took a little undoing, to say nothing of explaining, I have to say!


  42. Thanks, Historiann, for this as for so many other great posts.

    Two small points. First, Menand (whom I admire very much) claims in the new book that most humanists don’t need to do substantial archival or original research to gain their degrees. It’s very strange: though he is a skillful historian and researcher, he writes as if the normal humanities PhD is someone writing on 4 novels in English. I can’t account for his blindness to the demands of other humanities fields (not to mention the kind of English scholarship that folks like Flavia at Ferule and Fescue practice, which is plenty research-intensive).

    Second, British historians: I recently spent two terms at Cambridge, and I’m sorry to say that undergraduates reading Modern History don’t get good language training at all these days (many native speakers of European languages are teaching in Cambridge and elsewhere in Britain, often after doing British degrees). And they don’t do much original research, certainly compared to what it takes to write a good American senior thesis. But they do master historiography and learn to discuss it critically, and they do a lot of writing–and at Cambridge they enter, even as undergraduates, a small, tight literary world. For those with talent, the path from getting a top undergraduate degree to meeting agents and editors in London is short and smooth, in a way rarely found in the States.


  43. Pingback: The academic job market philosopher’s stone. « More or Less Bunk

  44. It seems to me that Menand has missed a major point between MD/JD and PhDs. MD/JD programs are generally programs where you take classes and demonstrate competence with tests and then a BIG test. Everyone’s supposed to know the same information (and a lot of it).

    In PhD programs, dissertations are supposed to be an original contribution to knowledge in the field. It’s a totally different thing to contribute something original to one’s field than to demonstrate that one knows what other people have produced. Both are difficult (especially with the amount of information MDs are expected to get), but they’re really different.

    You can take classes and exams on a schedule. You can’t necessarily contribute new knowledge on a schedule.


  45. Indyanna–thanks for that view from the “longue duree.” I had never heard about that DA degree–another (failed) example of unilateral disarmament.

    Tony Grafton, thanks for stopping by and commenting. The obliviousness to anyone not reading or teaching “poetry to freshman” was odd to me, too. If there is anything good that’s come out of the job market, it’s that “research versus teaching” nonsense that was (in Indyanna’s evocative phrase) “clot-busted as a by-product of the job crisis.” My sense is that the profession is somewhat more democratic than it used to be, in that folks like me at Big State U’s (or SLACs) in flyoverland can hold our heads up high if we continue to research, write, and publish. People seem less hung up on the perceived “prestige” of an employer and are more impressed by the fact of employment. (Or, so I like to tell myself!)

    Interesting observations on British undergraduate life. I’ve been told all along that there’s more of a market for smart non-fiction in Britain than in the U.S., which is why trade publishers there publish so much more history. (I hear that pipeline from Yale to Jane Garrett is working just fine, but you know we only get the occasional Big City dispatches via Pony Express out here.)


  46. Still looking for the legal perspective? Well, after three years in law school, a bar prep course, and passage of the bar exam in hir state, the new lawyer is universally understood within the legal profession to be qualified to do . . . nothing. Ze can’t write well, can’t engage in sound legal analysis, can’t interview a client, can’t file a complaint, can’t depose a witness, can’t negotiate a settlement, can’t try a case — nothing. Oh, and ze doesn’t know the law, either. In short, ze has neither knowledge nor skills. This is just as true of the brightest and hardest-working as it is of the less talented and lazy. The burden of actual training has historically fallen on law firms, which do an uneven job at best, and which are tired of paying salaries to baby lawyers who may not stick around long enough to justify the investment.

    I suppose it’s obvious from my comment, but you asked about Supreme Court argument, Historiann, so I’ll offer my opinion that a good ten years of appellate practice would be the absolute minimum of preparation.


  47. I suppose it’s obvious from my comment, but you asked about Supreme Court argument, Historiann, so I’ll offer my opinion that a good ten years of appellate practice would be the absolute minimum of preparation.

    The only people who I am aware of ever having appeared before SCOTUS without ten years of appellate practice experience are pro se litigants (i.e., representing themselves), of which there have been a handful over the years.


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