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From the President

Reforming Doctoral Programs: The Sooner, the Better

Reprinted from the Winter 2011 MLA Newsletter

Doctoral programs are expensive. At universities that provide generous, multiyear fellowships, the cost falls largely to the universities themselves. Elsewhere, where graduate study depends on teaching assistantships, students must bear the costs by having to accept low wages. Lengthy programs everywhere cost young scholars years of their professional lives, freezing them into student status and postponing their entry into careers. The result: humanities PhDs leave graduate school with twice as much educational debt as their peers in engineering or the sciences (Laurence 5). That prospect of long-term indebtedness presents a high barrier, especially to prospective students from lower-income backgrounds: the longer the structure of our programs, the less accessible they become to a diverse demography.

It’s time to proceed with a long overdue reform of humanities doctoral programs, not only to meet the current economic realities but also to respond to the intellectual changes of recent decades. We must start to work, in our departments, with higher education leaders and through foundations to reshape graduate education. Here are some key points.

To maintain a place for humanities doctoral education, we have to bring it in line with other professional programs and target a four-year time to degree. According to data from the 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the average time between entry into graduate school and completion is 8.7 years in “Foreign language/literature” and 9.0 years in “Letters,” the category that includes English and comparative literature (table 62). The time elapsed since completion of the BA is 10.6 and 11.0 years, respectively. Students who finish college around age twenty-two should not hope to complete their doctorate until they are well into their thirties, when they first get a shot at the disappearing job market. (Time to degree may be shorter at some elite universities but only because of generous fellowships and negligible teaching requirements.) To understand how bleak this picture is, we should recall that the corresponding time in graduate programs was 5.4 years in 1967. Doctoral education in the humanities now takes nearly twice as long as it did in the 1960s—and it takes considerably longer than degrees in law or business; indeed time to degree for a literature PhD currently rivals the length of full medical preparation: the MD itself is a four-year degree. If humanities doctoral programs do not significantly reduce time to degree, they will become unaffordable and, eventually, extinct.

Departments should design regular course series that expeditiously prepare students for examinations. Such organized curricular design is vital to achieve an accelerated time to degree. It is a common practice in some social sciences for entering students to face an articulated set of required courses with clear benchmarks and learning goals.1 In contrast, in some literature fields, annual course offerings vary in accordance with individual faculty predilections. Instead we should design a curriculum for student learning needs. Graduate students ought to be able to complete course work in two years. This realistic goal depends on effective management of both faculty teaching responsibilities and student course enrollment.

We need to design a wider array of capstones to doctoral programs and to move beyond the traditional dissertation. In literary studies, the nearly exclusive form of completion is the dissertation, which has come to mean, effectively, a draft of a book manuscript. We maintain this expectation, despite the crisis in academic book publishing. Let us be honest: most academic books, especially those derived from dissertations, have little distribution. In this critique of the dissertation imperative, I echo the work of my predecessor, Sidonie Smith, who has been forging the way toward alternative culminations of graduate study. Some disciplines work with the model of three articles as a capstone project. Technological change and the digital humanities suggest other shorter genres of scholarly writing; moreover, such genres might be able to bridge the gap between scholarship and the public, which has hurt us so badly in the current wave of budget cuts.2

We should design graduate programs to provide the broad professional development and skills that, while central to an academic career, can also be transferred to other paths. Although some fortunate graduate students land tenure-track positions in research universities or liberal arts college, many do not. Rather than bemoaning this situation, we must recognize that the literature PhD is already a gateway to many different careers. These varied professional directions—which deserve our validation—include opportunities as teachers throughout the educational system as well as nonfaculty positions in higher education (see Grafton and Grossman; Jaschik). In addition, the literature PhD can lead to careers in the public humanities, in cultural sectors—publishing, translation, journalism, the film industry—or, frankly, anywhere in business, government, or the not-for-profit world where intensive research skills are at a premium.3 High on my list would be digital abilities, which must become integral to every doctoral program. I would add teaching and other communication capacities, including especially a robust multilingualism—our graduates at the very least ought to have a comparative advantage in language skills.

Opportunities for advanced study in literature make vital contributions to our culture. Precisely for that reason I call upon the profession to recognize the need to make our doctoral programs affordable and accessible. If we do not change them, we may lose them. This means reining in the time to degree with the implications for curriculum, capstone, and career objectives I have described. Let us redefine the current crisis of the humanities as an opportunity to build the literary studies of the future.



1. That an articulated curriculum is not the norm in the literary humanities is discussed by Gerald Graff: “We still think of teaching in ways that are narrowly private and individualistic, as something we do in isolated classrooms, while knowing little about what our colleagues are doing in the next classroom or the next building” (728).

2. According to Kathleen Woodward, “One of our main challenges today is to integrate new forms of digital publication with the wealth of traditional forms of printed knowledge, creating powerful hybrid forms, a synthesis of printed and digital media, knowledge that circulates widely. And here it is that the digital humanities and the public humanities forcefully intersect” (121).

3. Regarding the preparation of translators, Catherine Porter writes, “It is one thing to recognize a need for competent translators in the world and quite another to take responsibility for their nurturing and development. Yet no one is better positioned to take on this task than we are, as postsecondary language and literature professionals” (2).

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald. “Presidential Address 2008: Courseocentrism.” PMLA 124.3 (2009): 727–44. Print.

Grafton, Anthony T., and Jim Grossman. “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” Perspectives Online. Amer. Historical Assn., Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Jaschik, Scott. “No More Plan B.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 3 Oct. 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Laurence, David. “A Report on Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2009.” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 3–12. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Porter, Catherine. “Why Translation?” MLA Newsletter 41.3 (2009): 2–3. Print.

Smith, Sidonie. “An Agenda for the New Dissertation.” MLA Newsletter 42.2 (2010): 2–3. Print.

———. “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.” MLA Newsletter 42.1 (2010): 2–3. Print.

Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2009. Natl. Science Foundation, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Woodward, Kathleen. “The Future of the Humanities—in the Present and in Public.” Daedalus 138.1 (2009): 110–23. Print.
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Russell Berman
2011–12 MLA President Russell Berman
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.