Blog Post

Doctors of Philosophy

The yearly conferences in the humanities--MLA, AHA, and others--have brought an onslaught of handwringing over the purpose of graduate education in a collapsing academic job market (not that it was ever that good, even during the bubble years).

William Pannapacker, a.k.a. Thomas H. Benton, Dean Dad, Tenured Radical, and others have weighed in on what graduate students, potential graduate students, and graduate programs should do. Basic message: don't go! Do something else!

Tenured Radical has some particulary intriguing recommendations for humanities graduate programs, her overall point being:

While I don't think Ph.D, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways.

Lots of valid points made in these critiques, reflections, and comments, but there is one thing that always bothers me about them. We seem to pretend that the job market for intellectual work in the "public sphere" is robust compared to academia. Curating? Working in a library? Not so easy to get jobs in those fields, even if you train directly for them. Journalism? Not doing so well lately. "Content providers" on the Internet? Business isn't exactly booming like it was in ye old digital revolution days.


Perhaps the larger problem is not that the academic job market is collapsing, but that the "public sphere" of "intellectual life in the twenty-first century" itself needs reimagining.


I don't mean that everyone should start twittering and blogging and chattering away right now. What I mean is that the problem of the academy is also an opportunity to imagine a "public sphere" and an "intellectual life" whose institutions, economies, and values are not dominated by neo-liberal ideologies of efficiency, productivity, and profit, but also thought, interaction, care, deliberation, reading, and time-consuming investigations. Less banking, more seminars!


Maybe the answer, weirdly, is not that graduate admissions should be limited, but actually that more people should be going to graduate school rather than fewer.


They should be spending more time studying, and part of this study should be about developing a robust graduate education that connects the time-honored traditions of scholasticism--specialization, mentoring, arguing, getting a bit lost in a corner of a discipline--to the reimagining of the public sphere as a place in which the peculiarities of the academia and the general good intersect.


This would mean a dramatic turn in the kind of institutional work of academics, universities, and others. It would mean building a counter-movement to the corporatization of everything that for so many people now feels like the only path. It would mean a lot of struggle. But maybe if things keep getting worse, this struggle will make more and more sense.


Instead of all the banter about how liberal-arts training is the key to finding employment, let's start talking about how we could imagine the kind of employment that would suit people with a liberal-arts orientation.*


For intriguing takes on the Ph.D. job situation, see:

*Admittedly, this kind of talk occurs more at the undergraduate level, but it's part of the same mindset that dismisses Ph.D. training as pointless and irrelevant.



You do not need a ph.d. nor even a b.a. to participate in the intellectual life of the current age.  This has been amply shown by the participation of teenagers. 

I think what needs reimagined is the humanities ph.d.  

Perhaps, since we overproduce humanities ph.d.'s  and there aren't enough jobs of the sort some of them want, what we should do is just add another qualification on top of the ph.d. for those jobs, so you get your ph.d. and that qualifies you to do academic labour at a very inexpensive rate, but if you want to be a tenurable professor... you should also have a doctor of excellences or something.  This is what happened with the masters degrees and related higher degrees when things became too popular, the qualification bar was raised, let's just do it again.  Then as an added bonus, the new professoriate would be able to look down on the old professoriate as being less qualified.  


Thanks so much for the comment.

I think we might disagree about fundamental principles here. Your comments tilt toward a market model as the underlying assumption: credentials such as the PhD are commodities affected by perceptions of their worth for employment. I'm thinking about a different, non-market-based model.

In other words, the idea I'm playing with here is that the substance of the PhD, the kind of work and experiences one acquires, and the desires among certain peoples to pursue this kind of training, suggest that the market model isn't doing us right as a society. Of course teenagers should participate away in intellectual life, but what are we losing by equating the kind of knowledge and perspective one gains through training for a Ph.D. to the "participation of teenagers"?

Okay, I know I'm striking a traditionalist pose here instead of a populist one, but I think the question here is what kinds of institutional intellectual life are made possible if we were to focus on creating rewarding, fulfilling jobs that suit those who want to achieve the PhD rather than giving in to the logic of the market and keep "raising the bar" as you put it, for the elite class of intellectuals. I think we should shape the market in service of people's happiness rather than vice-versa.

I admit, the idea I'm playing with here is more utopian than yours, which is a much more practical solution. But I was trying to connect the immediate problems of the "oversupply" of Ph.D.s to deeper assumptions about the economy and culture of contemporary intellectual life: why does it have to operate through market models of supply and demand? Must everything be administered by market logics or perhaps we could imagine that intellectual life (like family, like education, hmm...maybe even like healthcare!) might thrive more if placed into a different economic and ethical dimension?

So I'm disagreeing with you, but I also appreciate your much, much more practical take on the topic. The one thought I have is that you seem to be splitting credentials from the substance of intellectual life in your model. How come? On the one hand, you suggest that everyone can participate in intellectual life, even those rascally teens, but on the other, you write (half-jokingly I think) that "the new professoriate would be able to look down on the old professoriate as being less qualified." So yours is at once a populist proposal at the level of "participation," but strangely elitist at the level of institutional and economic position (only the doctors of excellence would be able to lord their status over everyone else). What would it mean, I'm wondering, to really go populist -- a system or model in which the desire to partcipate in intellectual life fed into satisfying, egalitarian labor models that mitigate or find a way to rechannel the drive for status and superiority?

Really appreciate that you would take the time to think about this stuff. Thanks! And feel free to continue your thoughts about the topic here or on your own blog! Do let me know if you post more thoughts somewhere besides here.



I think we actually can equate participation from teenagers with participation with humanities ph.d.'s  in regard to participation in intellectual life.   The training has nothing to do with providing substantive contributions to humanity and discourse, what it does is provide a very specific understanding of ways of thinking, reading and interacting which as a whole likely prevent active participation in the greater society(we build and live in an ivory tower).   Perhaps you could change the training, for instance one of the florida universities has a ph.d. program that is supposed to train people in some respect to be a public intellectual, i think its basis is history.  As best as I can tell..., none of its graduates have become public intellectuals, though several of its faculty are or were, I've not kept up with it.  

One thing that I always like to be clear about.... is that there is nothing special to a ph.d. it just produces scholarship and scholars, and scholarship and scholars do not need the ph.d.  The doctoral degree is only a credential, there is nothing more, nothing particular that differentiates it from other forms of expertise or even similar forms of expertise gained outside of the institution.  That was actually the basis of my comment on teenagers, more than age.  We do not need a ph.d. to do history or most other research.  Diligent students can and do turn out good work at all levels of education.  What those people need to perform as well as a ph.d. without a ph.d. is just time and practice.  Ph.d. training just institutionalizes that time and practice in service of the institution, it shouldn't be viewed as providing anything different then could be had outside of the institution.  There is no 'magic' in the interaction of ph.d. students and faculty members that cannot occur between any other two parties who are interested in the same topic of research.  There is nothing special about a ph.d. other than the tendency of any given ph.d. to want to produce more ph.d.'s, which seems to be the case across all levels of education though, social reproduction...

So i would and have argued that the 'credentials' have no relation to intellectual life. Credentials matter to the institutions and the holders.  Similarly, 'intellectual life' does not require credentials and should not be seen as different from the everyday lives of large sections of the population.  I think sometimes we idealize intellectual life to mean the lives of a certain form of scholar, and I find that model of intellectual life to not actually exist for most people, even most scholars.  

So we have credentials and institutions in my view, and both are part of a capitalist system, market.  The market is co-constructed to the benefit of the institutions and credentialed individuals.  The problem has nothing to do with intellectual life at all really.  We add the term to make a claim about greater purpose, much as sociology does with its claim for a public sociology.  That is an attempt to legitimize or justify through appeal to practical worth, but what I've argued above is that there is no necessary practical worth to the ph.d.  It only has worth in terms of the institutions that require it.   Thus I think you can conclude that the appeal to greater worth will likely be received internally as adding additional requirements, and externally with a degree of credulousness.