Fixing The PhD

Joshua Rothman:

Everyone knows that English departments are in trouble, but you can’t appreciate just how much trouble until you read the new report from the Modern Language Association. (The M.L.A. is the professional association for teachers of literature and language.) The report is about Ph.D. programs, which have been in decline since 2008. These programs have gotten both more difficult and less rewarding: today, it can take almost a decade to get a doctorate, and, at the end of your program, you’re unlikely to find a tenure-track job. Motivated by “concern about the future of humanistic study,” the M.L.A. asked a committee of eight scholars to go on a listening tour, talking to professors, administrators, students, and “employers outside the academy” about how the system might be fixed. Professors are always complaining about “committee work”; judging by the report this one produced, this was the least fun committee imaginable.

The core of the problem is, of course, the job market. The M.L.A. report estimates that only sixty per cent of newly-minted Ph.D.s will find tenure-track jobs after graduation. If anything, that’s wildly optimistic: the M.L.A. got to that figure by comparing the number of tenure-track jobs on its job list (around six hundred) with the number of new graduates (about a thousand). But that leaves out the thousands of unemployed graduates from past years who are still job-hunting—not to mention the older professors who didn’t receive tenure, and who now find themselves competing with their former students. (The report name-checks these groups, but, strangely, makes no effort to incorporate them into its overall estimate.) In all likelihood, the number of jobs per candidate is much smaller than the report suggests. That’s why the mood is so dire—why even professors are starting to ask, in the committee’s words, “Why maintain doctoral study in the modern languages and literatures—or the rest of the humanities—at all?”