Should students enter PhD programs in the Humanities?

I don’t want to enter the increasingly heated debate over whether talented undergraduates should be encouraged or discouraged from pursuing graduate study in the humanities. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue–as a director of graduate studies in an English department recruiting large PhD cohorts (achieving mixed placement records); as a graduate dean; and, in a few weeks, as a dean of humanities overseeing humanities schools/department with a number of PhD programs. Instead of weighing in on whether students should or should not come to graduate school in the humanities, I’d rather focus on the responsibility that we–those of us who mentor students, create and maintain curricula, and profit from graduate student labor (and the luxury of teaching small doctoral seminars as a major percentage of the work we do)–have to change what we do. If things remain as they are–prospective students should absolutely beware. And that’s because we have shirked our duty to make our programs as productive for students as possible. Our loyalty has primarily been to ourselves and to our “field.” We need to re-orient our doctoral programs to our students and to student success. We need to listen to students to help understand what that “success” might entail.

Also–we need to retire at reasonable ages so that jobs come open! I don’t hear a lot of talk about this issue. A retired faculty member can certainly continue to excel in teaching or research–but can do so at a very small cost to an institution, which can then use the faculty line on other priorities, including new tenure-track faculty.

What would a “student-centered PhD program in the humanities” look like?

I hope others will add their thoughts. My opening ideas are unsurprising:

*an actual, structured curriculum
*reduced time to degree: five years maximum beyond the BA, but preferably four.
*flexible dissertations–flexible in both topic and format
*better training for careers in a wide variety of teaching environments
*deliberate exploration of non-academic career possibilities

Our goal must be to empower our students to do great work. I don’t think that’s how most of our current programs function.

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About George L. Justice

George Justice is Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Associate Vice President for Humanities and Arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, Justice is the author and editor of scholarship on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women's writing. His BA is from Wesleyan University and his MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to coming to ASU, Justice taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Marquette University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri, where he also served as Vice Provost for Advanced Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.

2 thoughts on “Should students enter PhD programs in the Humanities?

  1. Oh, how lovely that would be! As an ABD grad student, I am having a lot of trouble deciding whether to spend another 2 years on a dissertation, or just enter the non-academic job market sooner rather than later. It would help a lot if I could go to my advisor and other faculty and say, “Could I work to speed up this process, like by spending less than a full year revising my draft, or working on it part time, since I would like to explore job options outside the academic timeline?” But I’m honestly not sure how they’d react.

    On the other hand, is it the responsibility of those of us grad students who don’t want to depend on the academic job market to let our faculty know that we may need to strike out on different paths? And is that something we can only do if we have nothing to lose, i.e. if we’re 100% sure we want to exit anyway?

  2. Thank you for asking what faculty members can do to make graduate school a viable option! At a time when the value of the humanities is in need of defending, faculty mentors have a great opportunity to demonstrate why their fields are important by helping their graduate students explore job possibilities outside of academia. Rather than compressing time to degree, rethinking how that time is spent and allocating time for internships or professionalization opportunities could help recent Ph.Ds learn how to apply the skills gained in graduate school to a variety of career paths after graduation. The contacts and practical experience that they gain there would not only likely enhance the quality of their research, but could also provide pathways for outreach beyond the academic community.

    I am also an ABD student and I can definitely sympathize with Anonymous grad’s sense that we can only discuss non-academic careers with advisers when we feel we have ‘nothing to lose.’ Though I found my own faculty mentors to be open to my decision to cast a wide net when pursuing my first post-grad job, many graduate students are afraid about having open conversations with their mentors about non-academic aspirations. It would be great to not only know our faculty were open to such conversations, but that they would be able to help support us in finding the careers that best use our talents and that truly offer us a ‘good fit,’ rather than shaping us to fit a single academic mold.

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