Graduate Life / PhD

Is it time to overhaul the PhD?

Recently I wrote about the dirty little secret in academia: That the majority of PhD students do not end up in faculty positions, but instead work in government, for NGOs, or elsewhere in industry. In that piece, I argued that (1) this situation isn’t entirely new, (2) interpreting it as a type of failure makes assumptions about the intentions of grad students that are almost certainly false, and (3) these assumptions are made because there is a taboo about talking to PhDs about non-academic career options. Finally, somewhat separately, I argued that the PhD as it is currently designed is actually quite well suited to training students to become leaders outside academia, all its flaws notwithstanding.

The taboo of industry track PhDs lives on, however, as does the shame among faculty for leading students to their apparently hopeless fates of lives beyond the university gates. In a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Rob Jenkins, an Associate Professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, argued that training so many PhDs is a form of insanity, and that not only should we stop, but that instead of mentoring PhDs we should train students much more narrowly, to prepare them exclusively for exactly the hell that currently they purportedly tumble into only by default.

The problems with this picture are, roughly, threefold (only because we’re short on time):

  1. Jenkins assumes that PhD students begin their studies with the clear intent of becoming faculty, and thus that it can only be a disappointment to not succeed in this endeavor. We already know, as I pointed out before, that this is probably not true for a large percentage of students. Still, these facts may differ by discipline – it may indeed be the case that in the humanities most students see no other option than to teach or become tenure track faculty. But this may also be false. The details matter, and we need to know what they are before we begin to reform the system.
  2. Jenkins assumes, without any evidence, that because non-PhDs can teach undergraduates, they are in fact just as qualified to do so, that undergraduates benefit just as much, and that the quality of education is similar. Again, this is an interesting thought which may be true in some cases, but which is in need of very strong evidence across disciplines before we begin to reform an entire system. My intuition is that specialization does not merely result in specialized knowledge, but that students also learn to think about their topic – and about ideas in general – in a way that they did not before beginning a PhD. And this, in the end, is the product that we alone can offer students – an opportunity to discover new ways of thinking about the world.
  3. Jenkins advocates what I can only describe as an atrocity for the education system and for the people who make it up when he proposes training students to be teachers. The problems with this aspect of the piece are alone grounds for an entire blog entry. But roughly:
    1. The training would take almost as long as a PhD, but provide a narrower qualification.
    2. The training would place the very same individuals into the very same sub-optimal jobs that currently Jenkins bemoans, but with much less knowledge of their discipline.
    3. The proposal assumes that we can train individuals to be inspiring teachers of a topic – e.g., philosophy or literature – through training pedagogy.
    4. Most critically, the proposal raises the question of why, if we don’t value PhDs in the humanities outside of the faculty realm, we should be training undergraduates in the humanities (etc) at all. The entire proposal presupposes that there is no intrinsic value to education in a specialized area like literature outside the bubble of academia. Perhaps this is true in some circles. But to me, an educated, diverse, and creatively productive society is a value in itself, whether the members of this society are trained at the undergraduate or graduate level.
    5. Finally, the proposal would require entirely new groups of faculty dedicated to teaching outside their area of expertise – namely teaching pedagogy to future adjuncts.

It’s difficult for me to see much merit in such a proposal, as much as I appreciate the good intentions that fuel it. Yes, we should be concerned with the future of the students we train. But no, the answer to this is not to supplant PhD education with an advanced teacher training institute that grinds out an army of self-replicating pseudo-experts, who teach future generations of humanities teachers, and so on. The proposal undervalues the contribution of PhDs to society at large, undervalues the intellectual contribution of expert teachers to their students, and threatens the very notion of a university education itself, by moving one step closer to an advanced community college, where ideas are saved – and go to die – in the labs of the anointed few who remain in the academy.

My intent here isn’t simply to pick on Dr. Jenkins, whose heart is in the right place. Instead, it is to highlight how academics have begun to embrace what’s best described as a corporate conception of the university, wherein there are two types of training: That which serves the academy alone – i.e., training to become a faculty member – and that which serves everyone else – some kind of technical or applied training, which prepares people to do specific tasks – like teaching. Embracing this logic is a disaster for all concerned.

In fact, I think that the way that we currently train PhDs is not terribly far from how we should train them, and that the problems Dr. Jenkins highlights are not due to a shriveling job market so much as a massive growth in the number of undergrads universities are training, paired with a steadily shrinking public investment. Here are two simple facts. First, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions was 17.5 million students in fall 2013, an increase of 46 percent from 1990, when it was 12.0 million students. By 2024, total undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.6 million students.” Second, all but two states in the US have reduced public funding to universities between 2008-2013, with the range being from 54% defunding in Arizona to just over 3% defunding in Alaska, with the median being 27.7% (Iowa), not far from California (29.3%) where I teach. It strikes me that our problem is not that we are training too many PhDs, but not nearly enough, because the money to continue offering quality education in the form of tenure track professors is simply no longer there.

Economics aside, and the situation being what it is, what can we do to help our graduate students find their way through the PhD and into the world beyond? Here are three things we can do to start, which don’t involve gutting the system as we know it. First, as I argued in my previous piece, one step is simply to acknowledge that not everyone enters the PhD with a hard plan to become a faculty member, and to ask students what they wish to gain from their experience so that we can help them accomplish these different goals. Second, as part of embracing the fact that many will end up outside the university – and many by choice – we can do more to interact with the world outside the campus, rather than sequestering ourselves in a two-track mind-set of academia vs. the real world. This means bringing former students who are in industry back to the university to talk to students about their lives and career choices. And funding workshops and campus groups that seek to inform students about their options outside academia. And so on. And third, having learned what students want and what their options are, we can try to build individual bridges between the expertise that they will gain as thinkers, writers, and researchers and their goals as future contributors in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean training English majors to code in java. But it might, particularly if coding in java can be part of what it means to be an expert contributor to an evolving field in the humanities. In my view, the only future for the university is one in which we take a collective step back in time, to a time in which students were trained in disciplines across the university, pollinating ideas and techniques across areas of inquiry, rather than toward a model of ever more narrow training. If the latter is our future, it’s indeed quite possible that we have no future at all.


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