On the MLA Task Force about PhDs: Two Things On My Experiences

The MLA released a report today, “Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014).” The CHE reported about it here, “Ph.D. Programs Should Change but Not Shrink, MLA Says,” Inside Higher Ed here, “5-Year Plan,” Alex Reid blogged about it here, “MLA, doctoral education, and the benefits of hindsight,” there’s been lots of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and I am sure more is coming.

I’ve blogged lots of stuff before about how the problems of academic employment for PhDs in the humanities are largely about supply and demand and I don’t think anything– including the steps this report recommends– is going to do anything about that anytime soon. Some of what the MLA report recommends– for example, alternative formats for dissertations, an emphasis on technology, and an emphasis on preparing PhD students to be teachers– seem a lot like what many (most?) students in composition and rhetoric are doing right now.

But I’m not going to go there now; instead, I want to focus on two aspects of the proposal based on my own experiences as a PhD student back in the mid-1990s.

First, the issue of time toward degree. I finished my undergraduate degree in four years, mainly because I never switched majors, I got a fair amount of credit from “CLEP” tests, and I went to summer school a couple of times. I finished my MFA in creative writing in two years because it was at the time a two year program (with two years of funding) and because I was kind of burnt out on going to school and I wanted to get out. I took a break (more on that in a bit) and then I finished my PhD program in three years because that was how much funding I was guaranteed, I settled on a dissertation topic in my first year, I took summer courses, I cut a lot of corners (“a done dissertation is a good dissertation” was my mantra), Annette and I didn’t have to worry about kids and the like, and because I worked my fucking ass off, pretty much every day/all day for three solid years. So, from freshman year to PhD hooding was nine years, with a three year break in-between.

Now, I will admit my experiences are probably not typical, but this speed is not the result of me being so brilliant. Far from it; ask anyone who knows me. Rather, I finished my BA in four years and my MFA in two years in part due to good timing and luck, and I finished my PhD in three years because I was determined and worked hard. Arguably, I might have been better off taking a fourth year to work on my dissertation, but I have no complaints given how everything is turned out.

Anyway, my point is this:  there is absolutely nothing the MLA as an organization or PhD programs can do to make students finish more quickly.  The sad truth is there are really only two reasons why students take too long to finish their PhDs. One is the job market in various fields is so shitty that there’s no point in finishing quickly– or for that matter, finishing at all. I don’t think the MLA report addresses this issue in any way.

The second reason is a little more abstract, but I saw it again and again as a PhD student and I see it now: a certain not insignificant percentage of students in PhD programs do not have the ability to “get it done” in any timeframe, not three years, not five years, not 100 years. Period. It’s not that these folks aren’t smart– that is usually the least of their problems; it’s just that they are incapable of sitting down and just finishing. Some folks have shitty and sabotaging advisors. Some are unreasonable perfectionists and feel like they need to read everything on their topic before they can begin to write. Some of these folks have some kind of mental block/depression/anxiety/illness/or other problem that essentially causes a breakdown. Some are just lazy, though that’s something they probably don’t see in themselves. The road to hell is paved with all kinds of ABD students trying to get one more chapter done.

In terms of the issue of “alt-ac” careers, as in “broaden career paths” and “validate diverse career outcomes:” this is silly.

I don’t teach in a PhD-granting program, but if I did and a potential student came to me and said “I’m thinking of getting a PhD in English so I can pursue a career in writing government grants or advocacy in the arts world or writing technical documentation or (insert non-academic job here),” I’d say “you are in the wrong program because the only reason you’d get this kind of degree is because you want to pursue an academic career, ideally as a professor.” At best, the alt-ac path for PhDs in English is a “plan B” for those who can’t get an academic job.

But beyond that, the vast majority of academics just don’t know anything about careers beyond academia. I had a “real” job once upon a time. Between 1990 and 1993, I did temp office work and I had a “real” white-collar job where my title was “public relations representative” but what I really did was more or less tech writing and desktop publishing. I haven’t had a job outside of academia in over 20 years, and as far as I can tell, my experience is unusual in that most of my colleagues have had zero employment experience outside of academia: that is, most of the folks I work with went from their undergraduate program to their graduate program with perhaps a few stops at service jobs along the way. They don’t know anything about the “alt-ac” track.

As Steve Newman said on Facebook, “Do we have any dependable data that the skills we teach in doctoral programs transfer to this variegated range of careers? If not, we had better see if there is any and if that doesn’t pan out then 98% of the tt faculty in English, myself included, need to take 3 year sabbaticals to acquire the knowledge and skills to train grad students properly for alt-ac. ” I don’t know Newman, but I think he’s spot-on. Ask a tenured or near-tenured professor about whatever it is that they specialize in and be prepared for a long long answer; ask this person about how to get a job of any sort outside of academia, prepare for a lot of silence.

6 thoughts on “On the MLA Task Force about PhDs: Two Things On My Experiences”

  1. I see two key points here Steve.
    1. Why does it take so long to get a PhD? I am still not sure we know the answer to that question. If you can finish your coursework and pass your exams in 3 years, which I think is fairly typical, why does it take so long to write the dissertation? Are the students unprepared by their coursework? Do they lack adequate departmental support? Material/financial support? Or are they choosing to avoid the job market as you suggest?
    2. If students are going from doctoral programs into non-disciplinary careers, then they are going to have to decide that before they write their dissertations. And if they have made that decision at that point, then probably it makes sense to just take the MA and leave the program. It’s hard to imagine there are many careers where writing the dissertation will make you better qualified. Outside of R1 book-for-tenure jobs, I’m not sure what the value of the dissertation is, in terms of career preparation, even within the field.

    1. Alex, as far as your first point goes, I think it’s all of the above because every dissertator is their own unique snowflake of successes and problems. The difficult thing is that I think you can have two students taking the same coursework and one will be prepared and one won’t. Departmental/material/financial support obviously factor in because folks without it are probably statistically less likely to finish, though I recall some folks in my PhD program who had all the support in the world and still didn’t manage to getting it done.

      And I’ve had a small test of these questions from the POV of an advisor/director for MA projects at EMU. Needless to say, I’m not going to go into any details, but I’ve had students who finished solid projects under rather trying personal/professional pressures and finished them within a semester, and I’ve had students who have taken years for no good reason. Like I said, everyone’s a snowflake.

      As a bit of a tangent: I think that part of the problem is we don’t do a very good job of teaching “good habits” of writing and researching, I think assuming that graduate students “just know” how to do it. I credit my MFA program with teaching me the importance of writing every day and not waiting to be “inspired,” to strategies for getting past blocks, etc., etc. I am not saying I always practice what I preach about this, but when I do, I get stuff done.

      As for your second point: I think it’s spot-on, though I think there is something still of value of the dissertation experience even for folks who go on to academic careers at non-R1 kinds of institutions. I am all for dissertations that do something different than the five chapter words in a row monograph that might (but usually not) someday turn into a words in a row first book, but I wouldn’t want to simply eliminate the requirement. I think the experience of doing independent research and writing is really an important stage of growth and learning– at least it was for me. I used to say that the dissertation is just another hoop you have to jump through, only it’s eight feet off the ground and lit on fire. But it’s still a pretty important hoop, IMO.

  2. I’ve been interested in the conversations happening around why it takes so long to complete a PhD. What others have been saying about this – job market is bad, not enough mentorship, and huge writing projects are often just really, really difficult to complete – seems spot on. There’s something else here, too, though. Something I think is interesting about research in our field is how often the documented struggles (especially material/financial/money struggles) that undergraduates face are the same ones faced by graduate students. Grad students leave for awhile because they’re caring for a sick parent or have other pressing family obligations that aren’t negotiable. They unexpectedly have bad health. Or they cannot live on $1,000 or less per month, especially if they have kids and/or are paying back student loans – so they adjunct while finishing a dissertation and working on job market materials, which slows them down. And like many undergraduates who are reluctant to take out loans when they could just take longer to graduate instead, PhD students might avoid loans, especially when they aren’t sure they’ll have a job to repay them. A lot of this is probably self-evident to anyone who’s spent time with graduate students, but it seems like a big factor in time to degree.

    So I agree the programmatic questions about this really make sense: why would it take so long when programs can reasonably be finished in 4 years if you’re single, healthy, have healthy parents and/or kids, etc. But I think even with this set-up, obviously not all programs guarantee 4 years of funding, or funding is competitive, or it might go away without notice. On one hand, it’s good to see MLA at least acknowledge the funding problem, but on the other hand that also opens up conversations about increasing academic pay for adjuncts and graduate students. If the movement forming around labor conditions and college teaching is any indication, programs and departments and institutions are reluctant to engage the problem (or sometimes avoid it altogether). Like a lot of the recommendations in the report, more funding for graduate students sounds good but already isn’t likely for a whole lot of reasons. I’m not trying to say “this report fails,” more trying to figure out how the report might be used then.

    1. There’s no question that one of the reasons why I was able to finish as quickly as I did was because Annette and I didn’t have any of the kind of hardships you mention here, Jessica. I did actually take out a few loans as a PhD student, but the assistantship money at BGSU combined with the very cheap cost of living there made it an attractive arrangement for us. Though it was Bowling Green.

      Anyway, all of the things you’re talking about here are an important caveat for being able to finish a PhD in a timely fashion, no doubt about it. But I’m not so much talking about these kind of unforeseen circumstances, though one of the limits for anyone being successful in PhD programs is some of what you’re talking about here. I mean, if you have a family, kids, a house, can’t move to wherever, etc., you can’t really do a PhD– certainly not in a timely fashion and maybe not at all. There are a lot of sacrifices involved.

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