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How not to reform the humanities

Broadening the role of humanities education is laudable. How we get there is another matter.

By PAUL FORSTER | May 4, 2015

A recent white paper on the future of graduate training in the humanities in Canada (December 2013) recommends reorienting some PhD programs away from traditional thesis projects and towards research that is “applied,” interdisciplinary, team-based and more varied in format than work currently being done. The authors, who are members of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council’s knowledge synthesis project on the future of humanities graduate training, rely on questionable assumptions, overlook alternative solutions to problems and draw unsubstantiated conclusions. While some of the proposals they make have merit, the white paper as a whole is not a compelling blueprint for PhD programs in the humanities. This essay is a response to some of the main conclusions of the white paper.

The question of enrolment cannot be ignored
The authors of the white paper reject the suggestion that PhD programs in the humanities should admit fewer students. This ignores a fact evident to any active professor, that there are students in PhD programs who are not doing strong work. Among the factors that have contributed to this are the neglect of undergraduate teaching, elimination of master’s theses in some fields, fast-tracking of master’s students into PhD programs, grade inflation and a funding model that encourages growth in enrolment. At present, smaller programs are considered weak, and weak programs are ripe for funding cuts and, too often, elimination. There is every incentive to lower grading and admission standards to boost enrolment, even to the point of encouraging mediocre students to continue their studies. Should funding become tied to the number of students graduating rather than the number enrolled, as has lately been suggested, there will be even greater incentive to pass marginal students. And, although admitting poor students to programs has implications for the issues about attrition and employment discussed in the white paper, the authors make no mention of it. Nor do they consider whether PhD programs might be strengthened academically by raising standards and taking on fewer students.

Expectations of academic employment
The authors note that many PhD candidates have unrealistic expectations about the prospects of getting an academic job. Far more students are admitted than gain employment in their field at a university, and competition for jobs creates anxiety and even despair among students. It isn’t clear, however, that PhD programs need to be reoriented to fix this problem.

An obvious way to correct unrealistic expectations is to provide accurate information to incoming students. In the 1980s, philosophy departments in Canada explicitly warned PhD applicants that no academic openings were expected for the foreseeable future. Students pursued PhDs anyway. These programs were not deemed to be failing simply because graduates were not getting academic jobs: there simply were no jobs to be had. It is only by assuming that PhD programs in the humanities exist to produce professors that the authors of the white paper can view the inability of many graduates to get academic jobs as evidence that their programs have failed them. They draw this conclusion even while acknowledging the benefits of advanced study in the humanities, including marketable skills.

Are rates of attrition unreasonable?
According to the white paper, roughly 50 percent of PhD students in the humanities fail to complete their degrees, well above the rate of attrition in doctoral programs in the sciences. This discrepancy is taken to signal a “chronic problem” with PhD programs in the humanities. However, given that grades are lower and failure rates higher in undergraduate science programs than in humanities programs, it is possible that the difference in attrition rates are due to more science students being weeded out before they get to the doctoral level. We don’t know whether this explains the discrepancy but this possibility isn’t considered in the white paper.

As the white paper observes, PhD students abandon their studies for many reasons: debt, family commitments, difficulty of the work, alienation, inadequate supervision and pessimism about getting a job. The list could be expanded: some students come to realize advanced study is not for them, that it is harder or less enjoyable than they anticipated. Some tire of being poor. Some fail their courses. Given the cost and demands of doctoral study, high rates of attrition are hardly surprising and don’t necessarily indicate something wrong with the content of PhD programs. They may simply be the result of students making mature decisions about their lives after experiencing graduate study. To conclude from current rates of attrition that PhD programs are failing is hasty. 

Still, we could be doing more to help students finish their degrees. When talented students quit for financial reasons, there’s a case to be made for greater financial support. When talented students drop out because they feel alienated, there’s a case for greater emotional and intellectual support. No doubt there are supervisors who leave PhD students too much to their own devices. This must change. The point is that even if there are cases of attrition worth preventing, it is far from clear that this requires changes to the form and content of PhD programs.

Alternative career paths
The authors of the white paper think viewing the humanities PhD primarily as a path to university employment is a mistake since it discounts the potential contribution of the humanities to pursuits outside the academy. Given the dearth of academic jobs, they recommend changing the focus of PhD programs from producing professors to producing graduates ready to apply their knowledge in careers outside universities.

It is true that thinking of PhD programs as aimed solely at preparing students for academic careers is overly narrow. However, the suggestion of the white paper that their main value is to produce employable graduates is similarly limiting. It encourages the misguided ideology, touted by politicians, business leaders and journalists, that investment in education is wasted if it does not have immediate economic payoffs. It ignores the value of intellectual work that accrues to individuals and society quite apart from its economic benefit and threatens to reduce universities to career-training centres.

Of course, people need meaningful work and it would be cruel to ignore the employment needs of PhDs.  The authors acknowledge that humanities PhDs often pursue non-academic careers that pay well and are fulfilling. But this is to concede – what has been documented time and again – that humanities graduates possess marketable skills and that the prevalent view that they are living in their parent’s basements, on welfare, driving cabs or waiting tables, is wrong.

The authors warn us not to conclude that PhD programs are successful “in spite of themselves,” but their reasoning is hard to follow. PhDs in the humanities aren’t marketable in spite of their degrees but rather because of them. Advanced study yields marketable skills such as critical thinking, intellectual subtlety and the ability to write. People who are smart, mature, quick to assimilate information and able to solve problems are, as many managers realize, assets to organizations and businesses.

Still, the authors insist that PhD programs in the humanities are an economic failure. To defend this view, they cite high rates of attrition and the difficulties faced by graduates who fail to get an academic job – neither of which bears on the question of the employment success of graduates. The authors claim the available evidence is insufficient to support any conclusions concerning the employment success of PhDs in the humanities, and then they draw one anyway.

The white paper suggests that making PhD programs directly relevant to careers outside the university will help graduates better transition to the job market. Even though job markets can be hard to predict, this may be a promising strategy for some PhD students. The sort of applied work they recommend has been undertaken for decades by students studying philosophy of law, political philosophy, environmental philosophy, applied ethics, feminism and a range of social policy issues.

But, it is one thing to argue that PhD programs be expanded to include applied work and quite another to argue that PhD programs be reoriented to focus on it.  The content of traditional PhD programs gives people insight – into people, culture, lines of thinking – that is directly applicable in work and life. It also has value quite apart from its contribution to career success.  In promoting a radical overhaul of PhD programs, the white paper appears to discount this.

The white paper puts the blame for low employment rates among humanities PhDs squarely on universities. It doesn’t mention such contributing factors as prejudice and ignorance among journalists, business groups, and politicians who perpetuate the myth that humanities graduates are unemployable. Nor does it consider the reduced commitment of the business community to hiring students and to training. These are obstacles that universities did not create (though they may have done more to fuel than combat them) and that they could take steps to address.

Interdisciplinary teamwork, not a panacea
According to the white paper, working in teams and across disciplines will help solve many of the problems PhD students face. There are several things wrong with this argument.

First, interdisciplinary work is different from teamwork. Many solitary scholars work across disciplinary boundaries without being part of a research team. Conversely, many research teams in the humanities are not interdisciplinary.

Secondly, in the humanities, there is no evidence of a straightforward connection between interdisciplinary work and reduced rates of attrition or enhanced job prospects.  Interdisciplinary work runs the risk of being superficial and burdensome, as students have to master more than one field. Good interdisciplinary work is not impossible but it is not without challenges and is, in any case, just one option and not a model for all PhDs.

Much the same goes for research conducted in teams. Many solitary scholars work collaboratively without being part of a research team. Although being part of a team may reduce the alienation some PhD students experience and help them finish sooner than otherwise, teamwork also involves challenges the white paper does not mention. Teams are harder to manage than individuals; personalities can clash; balancing workloads fairly can be a problem, especially with different levels of talent, commitment, personal responsibility, financial burdens or personal difficulties. Students can feel just as alienated and incapacitated by bad team dynamics as they can when working alone. Students can fall through the cracks if they have more than one supervisor, if these supervisors are in different departments or do not get along.  There is no reason to think encouraging teamwork is a quick fix for the problems the white paper considers.

Good research deserves support in whatever form it takes. Where students and professors see opportunities for fruitful collaboration, they should be encouraged. However, research should not be shaped to fit a specific model through top-down institutional incentives. Again, it is one thing to open PhD programs up to collaborative and interdisciplinary work, quite another to suggest that they be reoriented with a view to promoting it.

To conclude, the white paper fails to make the case that the problems of retaining and supporting good PhD students, giving them realistic expectations about academic employment, and helping them transition to jobs inside and outside universities imply the failure of PhD programs and a need to reorient them. Insofar as it raises questions and offers ways to broaden the nature and scope of advanced study in the humanities, the white paper is helpful. Taken as a blueprint for the future of PhD programs in the humanities, it is seriously flawed.

Dr. Forster is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Ottawa and a member of the faculty of graduate and postdoctoral studies.

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  1. Daniel Laskarin / May 6, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    A good article. Many of the principles outlines here apply as well to undergraduate and Master’s level education in the Visual Arts … another area of study that is too often under pressure to increase enrolments and which is often on the edge of funding reductions, and threats of elimination.

  2. Ivana Djordjevic / May 6, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    An admirably clear and nuanced article, which should be very widely disseminated.

    • Elizabet Vasiljevic / October 12, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      Fully agreed! Excellent article, should be widely disseminated, as Ivana said.

  3. Hélène Cazes / May 6, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Merci. It seems that a sort of panic leads us, headless and fast -running, to disavow the depth of our disciplines and of the intellectual training that research both requires and provides. I am struck by the fact that the most articulate critics of the Humanities had themselves the opportunity of following the courses, writing the long thesis, and discussing in real classrooms that they now present as counter-productive. I am also struck by the fact that the critics aimed at the difficulties encountered do actually point not to a failure of the humanist studies but to a lack of them: communication, teamwork, interdisciplinarity, these are the new keywords for rhetorics-clarity-composition, collaboration, bibliographical enquiry, contextual and cultural enquiries, curiosity. Why not build on tradition, as tradition is, precisely, at the centre of many humanist projects and is crucial to their recognized relevance (as transmission, legacy, discourse, language, identity etc.)? I am grateful to Paul Forster for resisting the trend (or the fad) of caricaturing Humanities as a disconnected outdated remain of a student-disorienting past: the vitality of thinking is not measured by the “completion” of career paths but by the possibility which is given to all kinds of paths, creations and positions. Our PhD students will certainly invent positions that we do not imagine, and the best preparation we can give our students, at every level, for this future we do not control, is the mastering of their culture, their thinking and their expression. Whether we teach classics, history, languages, theory etc., we aim to empower our students and bring them to recognize and exercise, in all rigour and depth, their freedom. The traditional thesis, an independant and autonomous work of research, along with collaborative encounters and seminars, is a way, for all of us, to learn, share and practice this ever-expanding freedom. Our duty stops there: PhD students know what they choose, for themselves, and it is their right/our respect of their right to engage in the path that they find most suitable for their growth. Yes, some of them will leave, some of them will fail, none of them will have wasted time in regards to their learning. Is it our role to assign “success measurements” to individual choices? This is not what I read in the old books…

  4. Paul Yachnin / May 7, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Paul Forster’s critique of the White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities is heart-felt and even shares a number of key commitments with the authors of the document it criticizes. By way of full disclosure, I should say that I am the co-lead author of the White Paper.

    There are a number of problems with the critique, and I will get to them, but the principal one is its tendency to ascribe ideas to the White Paper that are not in fact there.

    Contrary to what is said in the critique, the White Paper doesn’t assume that PhD programs exist in order to produce professors. It points out that the university and those who populate it tend to assume that. All the studies we reviewed report that the primary goal of a strong majority of doctoral students is permanent academic employment. We also noted that most faculty members and universities make the same assumption. That helps explain why departments report only on those graduates who secure academic jobs or postdocs, why universities don’t usually provide career services for humanities PhD students, and why that kind of work is normally done by a faculty “job officer” whose focus is the academic employment market. The prevalence of the assumption that doctoral programs exist to produce professors helps us understand why PhDs who don’t secure academic positions usually find themselves working through a period, which can take years, of coming to terms with their “failure” to fulfill the one and only goal of their doctoral education. Finally, the prevalence of the assumption helps us understand why it has been so difficult for members of faculty to begin to grasp the need to rethink the PhD.

    Contrary to the critique, the White Paper does not recommend changing PhD programs so that they produce job-ready graduates. It argues that the PhD needs to be redesigned so that it leads and is seen to lead to a multiplicity of career pathways rather than to only one. The idea is not about the wholesale thinning out or instrumentalization of humanities research and teaching—indeed the White Paper makes a strong argument for the value of the deep, disinterested, critical, for-itselfness of the humanities. The idea has to do rather with the reorientation of the humanities toward an active and productive life inside and outside the academy and the cultivation of our students’ and our own ability to take our ideas, questions, methodologies, and ways of understanding into sectors outside the university.

    One of the arguments in the White Paper is that we need to rethink PhD programs not only in relation to the job market but also in light of the responsibilities of humanities researchers and teachers to contribute to the social and political advancement of Canada. The White Paper does not seek to transform the PhD into job training.

    Contrary to the critique, the White Paper does not recommend integrating PhD students into team research. We do argue for the value of collaborative research, and we do imagine a “workshop PhD” where faculty and students exchange ideas and where one of the four interlinked projects students undertake is collaborative. I might mention that I have led one large interdisciplinary team project and am presently leading a second. The students involved profit greatly from their participation. But the White Paper makes no case for team research.

    There are four other points I want to make.

    Number one is the question of enrolment. This is actually very straightforward. There is no sense in lining PhD enrolments up with academic placement rates. That would yield a one-to-one replacement model—a model more or less where tenure-track professors get to supervise one student only throughout their careers. That scale of reduction would diminish both the funding and intellectual life-blood of universities, would prevent very many young people from cultivating their intellectual selves, and would deprive Canadian society of many humanities researchers and teachers, inside and outside the academy. To be fair, I should say that the critique makes no such argument. It only suggests that PhD students are weaker now than they used to be and that reducing the numbers of PhD students would weed out the weak ones. Nothing follows from this about what these fewer, supposedly better graduates would do with themselves or their education.

    Point two has to do with the claim that students are weaker now than they used to be. Where does this idea come from? If there is no evidence to substantiate it, why is it being made?

    Third is the remarkable observation that the 50% non-completion rate is not a sign of trouble. The White Paper certainly agrees that PhD students are adults and are entitled to make grown-up life decisions. But that half who enter humanities PhD programs leave with nothing to show suggests that there might be something wrong with how the programs are presented to prospective students and something wrong with the shared assumptions that animate the programs. It is important also to note that students who leave tend to leave late, in year four, five, or six, rather than in the first year or two.

    Fourth and finally, the critique seems to assume that there are neither problems nor opportunities facing the university. Is this true? Half of all those who enter the PhD leave without the degree. A majority of those who do complete do not secure the kind of career for which they and their teachers believe they have been preparing. They believe that they have failed. Are not these signs of some kind of problem? It will not do to scapegoat the students themselves, those who are said, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, to be now far weaker than PhD students used to be.

    We need to step back and take a good long look around our own institutional home. Consider the costs in time and effort that capable young people pay because they are led to believe they are moving toward a goal that is in reality reachable only for a small minority. Consider also how doctoral students are led to ignore or even disparage all the other valuable, socially creative pathways that PhD programs could help open for them. Finally, we need to reimagine how we within the university could do a more innovative and more generous job of preparing doctoral graduates in the humanities for their work in the university and in the world.

    • Paul Forster / May 13, 2015 at 8:07 am

      Rather than discuss the mutual misunderstandings that separate Prof. Yachnin and me, I offer the following remarks by way of clarification.

      While critical of elements of the White Paper’s vision for the humanities PhD, I am not a defender of the status quo. I welcome new fields of study, approaches, formats and technologies whenever they advance scholarship.

      In discussing the future of the humanities PhD I think it important to face complex questions about enrolment, assessment, supervision, the deficiencies of undergraduate and masters education, the damaging effects of the business model and academic vision of Canadian universities, and university governance. On these matters reform is overdue and welcome.

      I am still struggling to reconcile Prof. Yachnin’s appreciation of the humanities PhD with his talk of the need to reform, reorient, rethink and refocus it. In response to his point that the humanities PhD “needs to be redesigned so that it leads and is seen to lead to a multiplicity of career pathways rather than to only one” I only wish to say that the PhD has always led to a multiplicity of career paths. I am all for improving on this record and paying more attention to the fortunes of graduates who do not end up as professors. But I don’t see this as requiring an overhaul of PhD programs.

Nor do I see a need to “rethink PhD programs… in light of the responsibilities of humanities researchers and teachers to contribute to the social and political advancement of Canada.” For my part, educating people is a significant contribution. People who have benefitted from advanced study in the humanities very often make their way in the world without becoming professors and make a difference as a result of their education. This is no less true of those who have studied Beowolf or philosophy of mathematics than it is of those who have explored human rights abuses or distributive injustice.

  5. Sheri Oberman / May 8, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a failed doctoral student who left in my fifth year. I studied doctoral education and I felt a call to action. I’m trying to start a business to bring to the powers that be a practice (ongoing renewal) advanced in book The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century. The book came out of a five year intervention underwritten by The Carnegie Foundation which was called The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID). Eighty programs participated across five disciplines and one inter-discipline. The recommendations in the book are uncommon sense and make a difference.

    Interest in doctoral education gathers steam. Even though 50 000 doctorates are awarded in the US each year and doctoral programs have expanded by 430% in Canada in the last 30 years, only at best two journals advance scholarship of it. On March 30 and 31 2015, the second annual International Conference on Doctoral Developments in Education and Training (#ICDDET) only attracted 150 participants to Oxford, England. ( As there are 170 graduate programs at the University of Alberta alone, the interest is still not great, but at least there is a conference and some journals now.

    Barbara E. Lovitts who wrote, Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure From Doctoral Study calls the lack of interest/ examination/ investigation/ in doctoral education ‘the invisible problem’. Both Lovitts and Len Cassuto, who writes about doctoral education in the humanities, would use the word irresponsible to describe the attitude of the doctoral education providers. In the interests of full disclosure, where is the time to completion data posted at any Canadian university doctoral program website? Which universities even keep this data? Where is the interest in shortening time to completion without sacrificing ‘quality’? Where is the interest in examining every element of a doctoral program through a critical eye with a view toward ongoing renewal of the program and aligning the program to the knowledge economy of the 21st century?

    ‘Set up a process of ongoing renewal and use it to study the doctoral program’ condenses the wisdom of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID). While I applaud the bold new reorientation of the White Paper I do wish it were tied to scholarship and ongoing renewal. Will data be collected to provide feedback and facilitate further development? Will an article be submitted to a journal to record the lessons learned in the experience of reorienting Ph D humanities programs and new areas of investigation advanced? Will administrators solicit feedback from students in exit interviews to learn from their experience? What advantages or benefits accrue to the students who complete a doctoral degree based on the White Paper? How is the difference in the training impacting employment?

    I would like to see changes made to doctoral education with a view to responsibility toward the student which would mean turning that critical scholarly eye back on the education offered to them and joining with other like-minded educators.

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