In a recent New York Times article, “The Long Haul Degree,” Patricia Cohen outlines many of the hard realities facing graduate students in Humanities programs at American research universities. She begins by pointing to the huge amount of time it takes doctoral students to complete their degrees: “Medical students receive an M.D. in four. But for graduate students in the humanities, it takes, on average, more than nine years to complete a degree.” Not only does it take these students a very long time to complete their studies, but Cohen adds that, “they could spend another nine years, or more, looking for a tenure-track teaching job at a college or university — without ever finding one.”
This is what we call the job crisis in the humanities: it takes students along time to get their degrees, and when they do earn their doctorates, the reward is often unemployment or underemployment. Some of the causes for this sorry state are discussed by Cohen: “Doctoral students are expected not only to master a wide swath of material to pass general and oral exams, but to produce a nearly book-length dissertation of original research that, depending on the subject, may ultimately sit on a shelf as undisturbed as the Epsom salts at the back of the medicine chest. These students must earn their keep by patching together a mix of grants and wages for helping to teach undergraduate courses — a job that eats into research time.” In other words, students are not only supposed to produce original work, but they also have to support their studies by teaching undergrad courses.
One of the results of the system that forces grad students to spend most of their time instructing undergraduates is that many doctoral students never actually complete their degrees, and the ones who do finish often end up with large loans and no job prospects: “About half who enter a humanities doctoral program drop out along the way. The average student receiving a Ph.D. today is 35 years old, $23,000 in debt and facing a historically bad job market. Adjunct jobs — with year-to-year contracts, no benefits and no security — may be the only option.”
One thing that Cohen does not examine is the fact that because so many grad students are teaching undergraduate courses, there is not reason to hire professors with doctorates to teach undergrad classes. In other terms, grad students unknowingly produce their own future unemployment.
One would think that universities would realize that the current system exploits grad students and trains them for jobs that don’t exist, but instead of reducing the number of doctoral students and increasing the number of professors with PhDs, universities are continuing to hire people off of the tenure track as they accept more graduate students into their doctoral programs.
Making matters worse is the fact that the high-enrollment classes taught in humanities programs are often staffed by part-time faculty and graduate students, and so while the number of students in these courses continues to increase, the large number of enrollees does not result in a need to hire more professors: “At the same time, the practice of hiring off-tenure teachers is growing. According to a new survey of humanities departments by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, half of the faculty members in English and foreign languages — more than any other department — are not on a tenure track. Part of the reason for the large number is that freshman composition classes, which are often required, are taught by those departments, and adjuncts.” Since non-tenured faculty and grad students are teaching the required courses with the highest student demand, it is clear that the same universities that are training doctoral students are engaging in hiring practices designed to reduce the need to hire people with doctorates.
As absurd as it seems, the institutions that are in charge of credentialing new Ph.Ds argue on a daily basis that these degrees are not needed. Since universities continue to place in the classroom people without degrees, expertise, or experience, they send a clear message to students, administrators, and stakeholders that one of the central products of a research university, doctoral degrees, is worthless.
It is also important to stress that it costs at least four times more to educate a graduate student than an undergraduate student because grad students are taught in small classes staffed by the highest-paid professors. Moreover, the use of grad students to teach the small sections attached to large lecture classes actually inflates the cost of undergraduate instruction. In short, grad students are very costly to universities, and yet, these institutions continue to fight for more graduate students. We must ask why universities appear to be working against the best interests of their students and their own bottom-line.
One answer that Cohen provides for the continued desire to recruit more grad students in the humanities is that these students allow professors to concentrate on their favorite areas of research: “If enrollment drops too low, there may not be enough students to justify courses in specialized areas.” According to this logic, if humanities programs reduce their number of doctoral students, there will not be enough students for the graduate faculty to teach. For example, if you do not continue to bring in more doctoral students interested in studying Chaucer, the Chaucer specialist will have nothing to do.
Of course, the Chaucer specialist could teach an undergrad writing course or general literature course, but then the professor would not be concentrating on his or her area of research. Universities thus have to accept people into their graduate programs in order to give the research professors students to teach.
Cohen argues that the other major reason for universities desiring to bring in more graduate students in fields that provide a clear path to underemployment is that doctoral students bring prestige: “Doctoral programs bring prestige to a university and help retain faculty members who want to mentor the next generation of scholars. They also provide the staff for courses offered to first- and second-year undergraduates — a task many tenured faculty members resist.” It turns out that the education of graduate students has virtually nothing to do with the students or their education; instead, departments want to increase their prestige by accepting students with high GRE scores and stellar past academic records. Furthermore, professors need the grad students to teach the undergrad courses the professors do not want to teach.
It should be clear at this point that this system is totally messed up, but how can we fix this complicated problem? One possible solution is to restrict the number of courses graduate students can teach, while we fund students out of grants. This regulation might not only improve the quality of undergraduate instruction, but it also could help to provide jobs for students once they earn their doctorates.
Another way of saving money and improving the quality of instruction is to accept more undergraduates and reduce the number of new graduate students. Since it costs so much more to educate grad students compared to undergrads, it makes sense to reverse this current tendency of replacing undergrad enrollments with graduate enrollments.
To make these graduate programs more accountable and transparent, they should be ranked on how many of their students complete their degrees and how long it takes to earn their doctorates. Ranking agencies and guide books should also look at how many doctoral students get jobs in their chosen field and how much debt that have when they graduate.