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.