Monthly Archives: November 2011

A four year PhD?

So, MLA president Russell Berman says we need to reform the literature PhD. He frames the argument in terms of cost: “Doctoral programs are expensive.” They’re expensive for the universities who fund their doctoral students, and they’re expensive for the students who assume the cost of their education at programs where they’re not funded. And time to degree takes forever: 9 years on average in English and comp lit. Those two things are not unrelated, although Berman doesn’t talk all that much about that. Students in poorly-funded graduate programs take a lot longer to finish the PhD because they’re doing things like working extra jobs, adjuncting on the side, waiting tables in the summer. Across the board, there are other things that affect time to degree. Parenthood’s a big one, but other life-related things also get in the way. People rethink the work they’re doing. And in my program at least, folks will often defend a dissertation but not graduate for a semester or more so that they can remain funded by the department while taking a second go at the job market.

But sure, no one wants graduate students languishing in grad school for almost a decade. Berman’s solution is to completely reform the PhD in literature to make it a four-year professional degree. To make that feasible, programs would have to streamline the coursework required for the degree so it can be completed in two years. They would replace the dissertation with a capstone project. In addition, Berman emphasizes the importance of language facility and digital literacy, as well as increased professionalization for careers outside the academy.

That last part sounds great to me, but everything else seems pretty ill-advised. Berman doesn’t even address the MA that many graduate students receive in the course of the PhD–I assume MA theses and reports would have to go, as well. It’s also not clear where teaching would fit in. Berman divides graduate programs into “universities that provide generous, multiyear fellowships” and places where ” where graduate study depends on teaching assistantships.” My first two years of graduate school were funded with teaching assistantships, but after I completed my MA, I have taught classes in introductory rhetoric and writing, a survey of American literature, and an introduction to  African American literature. Designing and teaching these courses has been essential professional training, not only in the event that I manage to land a tenure track job, but also for any teaching I go on to do. But it’s also taken time on my part. Teaching literature courses have required a significant amount of knowledge and preparation, knowledge built through two and a half years of coursework, an MA report, and a field exam, not to mention observing tenured professors’ courses as a TA. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach the classes I do without that preparation.

But teaching doesn’t seem to be among Berman’s primary concerns in reimagining the literature PhD, which strikes me as odd, given that I and most of my colleagues came to graduate school because we wanted to teach. According to Berman, “the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.” All true, and I’m glad to see these options being publicly discussed as valid career choices, rather than some sort of shameful course of last resort for those who can’t hack it in the academy. Graduate programs should absolutely prepare students for these careers, and should work to integrate professionalization outside the academy into the curriculum.

But does that necessitate the creation of a professional degree in literature? And will that professional degree also prepare to teach literature at the university level? More practically, would departments looking to hire assistant professors want to hire someone with a four-year professional degree in literature? I’m betting no on that last question, and I can’t say I’d blame them. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to teach graduate students after just four years, and would still have a lot to learn about teaching undergraduates, as well. And we can worry about time to degree all we want, but those lucky folks who get tenure track jobs tend to have spent longer in graduate school. Some of that is because it’s often necessary to go on the job market two or three times. It also takes time not only to write a dissertation, but to publish and develop a solid teaching portfolio. If departments continue to maintain the same requirements for hiring, then I don’t see how anyone with a four-year PhD would be able to fill them. Would I want a professional degree that gave me a shot at a wide and somewhat poorly-defined field of careers but left me unqualified to even try my luck on the academic job market? Not in the slightest.

I’m also unconvinced by the argument that we need to ditch the dissertation. Berman notes that the scholarly monograph is increasingly useless, and he’s right. But why do we have to see the dissertation as a manuscript for a book? Practically speaking, because you need a book for tenure. But if you didn’t need a book for tenure–if you could get tenure on the strength of articles, or other projects–then we might be able to think about the dissertation in different terms. There is a great deal of value in conceiving of an executing a project of the scale of a dissertation. It takes entirely different skills than the seminar paper, which is generally written in a panic-induced frenzy and quickly forgotten about. Just as we must give graduate students the opportunity to teach if we want to train them as teachers, we must also give them the opportunity to write if we want to train them as writers. And the writing skills one acquires in writing a dissertation are far from incidental. Revision, for instance, which is something I never had time for when writing seminar papers. Conceiving of an argument large enough to need multiple chapters, and showing how those pieces are connected. Breaking an enormous project into multiple pieces, and addressing those pieces at a manageable, sustainable pace. Those are important skills.

Finally, it strikes me as disingenuous at best to address the state of graduate training without also addressing the state of the job market and how that might be changed. More to the point, without addressing the inexcusable exploitation of adjunct labor in the humanities. If I were inclined to take a conspiratorial view of things, I might see this proposed four year professional degree as exactly the sort of thing that qualifies people to be adjuncts but unfits them to be professors. Sure, it’s aimed at getting people jobs outside of the academy, but the need for adjunct labor won’t dry up on its own, meaning that people will continue to take these jobs, particularly if they went to graduate school, as many of us do, with the explicit goal of teaching. Rather than seeing the MLA take this unfeasible stand on graduate education, I would like to see it offer some solutions to the problem of adjunct exploitation. Let’s deal with that before we muck around with a deeply-entrenched educational system. Right now, the job options if you want to teach undergraduates are the unattainable tenure track position and the soul-sucking prospect of multiple adjunct jobs. There are a precious few options in between, and there should be many more. It should be possible to teach undergraduates to read and write, work that desperately needs to be done, without committing to the research and publishing work of a tenured professor, while still being paid a reasonable wage and provided with benefits. Why is that a pipe dream? And why is that not a better systemic issue to tackle than time to degree?

Grad school and opportunity cost

Okay. Not that we really need yet another voice in this never-ending lament about the state of graduate education in the humanities, especially from someone who’s still a year out from the job market, but I am feeling strangely compelled to weigh in. There’s a nice round-up of the current rehashing of the should-you-or-shouldn’t-you question here, so I won’t bother recapping the whole thing. Besides, it should all feel more than familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to this argument for the last decade plus.

What I want to talk about is opportunity cost, because this is the argument that has struck me as most compelling about why one shouldn’t go to graduate school. The standard line goes, not only do you spend six or more years earning just enough to keep you afloat (or even worse, incurring debt), but you sacrifice the experience, earning power, and salary increases you would have had if you had remained in the workforce. That means you come out of grad school with a PhD, sure, but probably without a job and less the six plus years’ experience and earning power you would have accumulated had you remained in the work force. This post estimates (and I use the word estimates generously) that opportunity cost to be a million dollars. This one provides anecdotal evidence that puts the cost around half a million.

I find this argument compelling because I would like to have some retirement savings some day, and right now I don’t have any because I stretch my graduate stipend a long way, but not far enough to start a 401K. And the idea that instead of having saved the absolutely necessary minimum safety net for myself, I might be actually preparing for the future is very appealing. But it’s not necessarily accurate. Here’s why (and here I’m expanding on Mark Sample’s comment here):

0. I’m assuming here that one is going to graduate school without debt. That’s a big assumption, and one that I know isn’t true of many people. But I’m a firm believer that undergrad debt is to be avoided at all costs for exactly this reason: coming out of undergrad with little to no debt frees you up to take career risks. And the one thing everyone can agree on is that graduate school is a career risk. Similarly, I assume that the graduate program you enroll in is fully funded. Because, again, not incurring debt by going to graduate school frees you to take career risks.

0.5. I’m also assuming we’re talking primarily about people who go to grad school immediately or a few years out of undergrad, rather than those who are making a later career change. The hypothetical argument about opportunity cost isn’t applicable to the latter group, as they’re well able to calculate the specific opportunity costs for themselves.

1. The arguments about opportunity costs tend to offer hypothetical alternative careers. Hooters manager is popular. Sometimes people mention law school, but these days that’s a terrible example. Sean Takats uses his career at IBM as an example. The implication always seems to be that someone in any career will be building earning power over the course of six or seven years. That’s not so much the case, though, particularly for people starting a career with a BA, particularly today. My younger sister graduated literally at the top of her class in 2009 and couldn’t find anything other than part time jobs for two years. She’s in grad school now earning an MPP, and will have more job options and make more money when she’s done. But with just a BA, she and her friends were all struggling to find jobs. Some people get lucky or have connections and land a career (as opposed to a job) right out of undergrad, but that’s certainly not the norm. But the idea that there’s this land of alternate careers that recent graduates are walking away from is ridiculous.

2. Even if there was a land of lucrative, stable careers to run off to, we can’t assume that’s what people considering graduate school would do.  Before I decided to go to grad school, I was all set to get a master’s in library science and become a children’s librarian. Wish I’d stuck to that plan–I’d really be raking it in. Of my grad school colleagues, many of them were teaching high school before going to grad school. One was working in a youth shelter. People are drawn to graduate school because they’re interested in certain kinds of work that they’re likely to end up doing even if they don’t get a PhD. And those kinds of work tend not to pay so well.

3. That’s not to say all my colleagues were out saving the world before grad school. Another friend made a ton of money in real estate. She took something like a 90% pay cut to come to grad school. But she was working 90 hour weeks and was miserable. She still works a lot, but she enjoys it. Another friend worked for a health insurance company and made quite a bit of money. But man, is she glad to be doing what she’s doing now.

4. Finally, I don’t think we should look at the years in graduate school as wasted, career-wise. Graduate training develops many relevant, marketable skills. You may need to have a bit of luck or to know the right person to land a job outside of the academy after you get your PhD, but you need to have a bit of luck or know the right person to land any job. Seriously. Job hunting is hard for everyone these days. You’ve got to be ready to promote yourself and your skills and your contributions. But you know what, you’d have to have been able to do that in the hypothetical land of alternate careers. Because all those claims about raises and promotions assume that you’ll be good at your career out there in the non-academic world and that you’ll be able to promote yourself and articulate your contributions and network, etc., etc. Those are the same skills that will turn six years of graduate training into a set of marketable skills.

Okay, I’ve said my piece, although not as coherently as I’d like. I don’t want to imply that there aren’t a million problems with the academy and hiring and graduate training. But (and this is my increasing pessimism speaking) there are a million problems with everything in the American workforce. There is no land of jobs for everyone, and free market capitalism is crushing us here in the academy, but it’s crushing everybody else as well. We can talk about opportunity cost, but we also need to acknowledge that the alternatives to graduate school have their problems as well.