The “Skills” Argument Sounds Even Worse When We’re Talking about Ph.D.s in the Humanities

[See also ‘The PhD Conundrum‘]

The most recent issue of University Affairs includes these remarks in a letter from Robert Stainton, a philosophy professor and associate dean at UWO:

Notably, there is a new and crucial role for graduate degrees in the humanities. In the 1960s, undergrad enrolments grew exponentially because Canadians recognized that a high school diploma was no longer sufficient. Nowadays, the master’s degree has become “the new BA.” The PhD, in turn, raises a student’s critical analysis and writing skills to the level required for the most intellectually demanding careers.

Well, again, yes, doing a PhD in the humanities will certainly enhance a student’s critical analysis and writing skills. But, again, and even more so than in an undergraduate context, don’t the particular specialized demands of a PhD make it an astonishingly indirect and inefficient way to master those skills? Most PhD students in the humanities complete at least a year of coursework, to increase the breadth and depth of their expertise in the materials and methodologies of their field. In English, that will almost certainly include not just sustained attention to literature from the medieval to the contemporary period, but also exhausting (if not, probably, exhaustive) engagement with esoteric theorists and critics of all persuasions. One goal is to become reasonably fluent in a style of argumentation and writing that is not universally practised, as anyone who has ever coached a student initially trained in, say, Dr. Stainton’s field, philosophy, to do work in literary criticism (as I have) would know. A related goal is mastery of, or at least familiarity with, a vocabulary that really has little or no place outside the academic study of literature. Then follows a year of really intensive reading in preparation for a set of qualifying exams. Precise requirements vary: at Dalhousie, our exam lists are field-specific and teaching oriented. The exam itself is a gruelling combination of written essays and an oral examination–aha! writing to deadlines and oral presentation skills! And of course the final phase is the production of the thesis, a 300+ page document demonstrating your ability to first create and then resolve a critical ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ that hasn’t yet been addressed, or at least not from your unique angle. Anyone who has revised a PhD thesis into an academic book knows that even that step requires changing almost the entire tone, not to mention the supporting apparatus, of the original work, and probably expanding its scope.

If writing a thesis isn’t even altogether good preparation for writing a scholarly book, it is surely disingenuous to discuss it as if it’s a reasonable task to undertake if what you are eventually going to do is become a public servant, a school teacher, a lawyer, the administrator of an NGO, a novelist, or a small business owner. As for the seminars and the qualifying exams, again, it seems to me a mistake to talk about them as if they operate according to the same principles or serve the same purposes as undergraduate courses. PhD programs in the humanities are professional programs, same as MBA or LLB programs : they train people to become professional literary critics, or philosophers, or academic historians. They aren’t a somewhat more elaborate kind of intellectual finishing school. Precisely because the work they demand is so much more specialized, esoteric, and obscure to people on the outside looking in, we need to be particularly clear about defending them on the grounds that that work itself has value. Ideally, that value would be more than (though it would include) the need for professional self-replication.

Now, the same issue of University Affairs includes an entire article dedicated to the proposition that the solution to the job crisis for PhDs is to include more diverse professional training as part of a PhD program’s offerings. My own Dean of Graduate Studies is quoted:

According to the 2006 census figures, 31 percent of Canadians with PhDs who were employed full-time held jobs as university professors. This was little changed from 2001, but down from almost 36 percent in 1986.To be sure, a good portion of those who end up in non-academic jobs do so of their own volition. Dalhousie University’s surveys of graduating doctoral students show that about 40 percent intend to work within academia and the rest in industry, government and non-profit organizations, says Carolyn Watters, dean of graduate studies.

Still, she adds, universities don’t do nearly enough to make students aware of non-academic career options and to train them for these positions. “Really, all we train people for is to be another Mini-Me,” says Dr. Watters, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. “As faculty members we should be more sensitive to the fact that not everybody is going to be like us.”

Dr. Watters is right, both about the “Mini-Me” syndrome and about the need to stop imagining that all of (or even most of) our graduate students are headed down the academic path. But what to do about that? As another interviewee points out, academics aren’t in a position to “give knowledgeable advice about non-academic careers because most of them have only worked in academia.” But even that practical obstacle, which can be somewhat mitigated by bringing in outside experts with real-world experience (ahem: is there going to be funding for departments to do this? people outside the academy often have the odd idea that they should be paid for speaking elsewhere…) is only part of the problem. The actual degree requirements will continue to emphasize the arcane and highly specialized discourses of the academic field. They must do this, because after all, we do need to train up more professors (don’t we?). Sure, we can add, as apparently Western has, a week-long seminar on “Preparing for Non-Academic Employment,” but what’s one week, out of what is on average a seven-year undertaking? And how are we justifying those seven years, to ourselves and our students, if most of the work to which they will be devoted is not in fact in any way essential preparation for what will come next?

There’s the intrinsic merit argument, of course: the experience itself may in some ways be intellectually exciting and personally fulfilling, and there’s the satisfaction of contributing to one’s field and to the larger project of expanding the horizons of knowledge and understanding. Given how oriented most PhD programs are towards professionalization, though, I expect that to most graduate students those lofty ideals sound like–well, like lofty ideals. Most PhD students I know, including myself, have found that graduate school dampens rather than nurtures their idealism. The article quotes a PhD now working “in the private sector,” as saying he “has no regrets about getting his PhD and would happily do it all over again. I wonder how many recent PhDs in the humanities would say the same.

5 thoughts on “The “Skills” Argument Sounds Even Worse When We’re Talking about Ph.D.s in the Humanities

  1. Sisyphus January 24, 2010 / 3:13 am

    This brings up the interesting notion for me: does sending students to the MA or PhD in English mean that undergrad, like high school, has somehow "failed?" What are the students supposed to get out of the MA or PhD that they _did not get_ in undergrad? If it is just more of the same, then that doesn't seem useful (big heavy scare quotes there). If it is different, then what exactly is different and why is that a good thing?Maybe it means that our undergrads _should_ be going to grad school, but in a more "professionalizing" field whether that be admin or publishing or technical writing, once they've had the wonderful life-changing deep-thinking experiences of an undergrad English major. (And I do agree that the BA is wonderfully useful, and that anyone with the slightest interest in English should go ahead and major in it. It's just that grad school doesn't seem intrinsically worth it the way undergrad did.)


  2. Jeanne January 25, 2010 / 10:56 pm

    Hmm. This reminds me of what my housemate's fiance, an engineer, said the first time we met. He asked what I "did" and I said I was in grad school. "What is your field?" he asked. "English." I replied. There was a pause. "Haven't you learned it YET?" he asked.As an adjunct for 25+ years now, I think I have a more practical–certainly a more desperate–perspective on whether the PhD was worth it than someone who made it through the tenure track. But I find I'm not unusual in being even more of a lofty idealist than many of the settled department members I know.


  3. Rohan Maitzen January 26, 2010 / 11:20 pm

    Sisyphus, that's an interesting set of questions for me. For me the biggest shift is away from primary texts and towards criticism, though to some extent this may be a result of my particular teaching style and also my field: because I assign such long books, I tend not to assign critical material except sometimes in upper-level seminars. Obviously, my own reading in criticism affects the kinds of questions I raise and the kinds of interpretations I encourage them to develop, but in most cases the metacritical aspects remain implicit. So it isn't just more of the same: it's the same, but different….and with more of an eye to generating criticism, rather than interpretations (by "criticism" meaning something deliberately taking part in an ongoing critical discussion, as much concerned about other critics as about the primary materials). This is why it's less "useful" activity in a general way: who needs to know how to meet the standards and follow the arcane procedures of professional literary criticism, except those who intend to do more of it, presumably as professionals?


  4. A Reader February 2, 2010 / 12:12 am

    Interesting thoughts on the state of graduate studies in the humanities. Have you read William Chace's essay on the decline of the English Department?– has a cogent, if depressing, summary of the internal and external pressures that have caused the English Department to come under siege. As he notes, the problem has been present for four decades, and growing worse.


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