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.

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