One reason that I feel free to try my hand at blogging all of a sudden after all these years on Earth is that a great weight is about to be lifted from my shoulders: the weight of being my department’s graduate program director. When I agreed to take on the job just over three years ago, the “state of the field” with respect to doctoral programs in the humanities seemed still to be one of anxious hand-wringing. Not (yet) having any PhD students of my own, though hoping to, I aligned myself spiritually with a frank-yet-not-ultra-pessimistic Chronicle piece I can no longer locate that counselled letting students decide whether their happiness depended upon going for the degree, and if it did, to let them go. They are adults, after all; and, a voice on one’s shoulder might add, someone is going to get the few jobs that still exist. (Probably someone from Yale.)
Now, whether because the landscape has changed or because I know it better, the prevailing sense seems very different. The academic jobs crisis – that is, the collapse of the tenure track – is the norm, and the question is not how we prepare our students to ride it out or beat it but what we do with doctoral programs now that we know they won’t. A burgeoning consulting industry now exists around “transitioning” from doctoral study to the worlds of government/non-profit/private sector employment, created and driven by savvy, energetic examples of the genre and bolstered by a handful of impressive – though in some ways shockingly rudimentary – studies of what happens to people who get PhDs. The language of “alt-ac” careers, nervously bandied about when I was a student in the early 2000s, has become that of “post-ac”, reflecting the fact that “ac” is itself now not so much a career as a preliminary and quite possibly superfluous phase in the search for one.
Meanwhile, universities go on calling for ever more graduate students (perhaps especially in Canada, where the system is funded largely by provincial governments), putting pressure on departments and GPDs to “grow their numbers” or face cuts to their already meager budgets and course offerings, and chasing down wavering recruits through March and into April with increasingly desperate offers of money to enroll. They do so in contempt of established trends, but also in convenient and willed ignorance of their programs’ specific situations: retention data – how many students finish their degrees – can be cobbled together ad hoc by those with access, but is rarely systematically kept and never publicized, at least in Canada; job placement data is only beginning to be gathered, through such cutting edge tools as looking people up on Google. What universities don’t admit can’t hurt them in the eyes of uninformed applicants.
I have enough faith in the responsibility and awareness of my own PhD student (I have one now) not to issue a personal mea culpa here. He’s informed about the world he’s entering (he’s heard Maren Wood in person!), and he’s elected to stay the course. Apparently our tutorial discussions are that engaging. Good for him, good for my sleep at night. Still, the larger question of what PhD programs are or should be for remains, and as an outgoing GPD I don’t have any more compelling answers now than I did when I took the job. Only more questions. The studies mentioned above aren’t all bad news. Besides savouring the schadenfreude of learning that the STEM fields their uncles thought they should pursue are also in crisis, humanities PhDs can rejoice in the knowledge that they are most likely bound for gainful employment in areas where at least some of their skills – research, analytical, writing, language, logistical, and so on – will be put to use. (One surprising caveat is that teaching talents will apparently, for most of them, be irrelevant.)
But they can also contemplate the fact that while pursuing the PhD may have honed these skills, it is not usually the only way to acquire them. It is, on the other hand, a great way to build debt while postponing one’s climb onto the salary ladder by eight or nine years. Whether or not intelligent people continue freely to choose this fate, it’s not one that is easy to justify devoting a lot of resources to preserving. The quaint claim still lingers in some university documents that PhD programs confer “prestige” on the institutions that house them; that’s a poor rationale, ethically speaking, and, given the status of scholars in the public mind, it’s also a dubious one. This leaves the “apprenticeship” argument: if you want to have historians, this is how you make them. I’ll certainly agree that I learned my craft in my doctoral program, and I’m very grateful to my mentors for it. But it doesn’t really follow that just because this is how professional historians have been trained for the last century or so, this is the only way to do it; and, anyway, professional historians are no longer what history PhD programs mostly produce. So it seems to me that the real question is: what is it that only a PhD program can do? And for how many people? And for how long?