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Bill Tierney

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Rethinking the Ph.D.

The Ph.D. has traditionally been thought of as a degree that prepares people for the professoriate. When I arrived at USC our Ed.D. and Ph.D. was a jumble; it was impossible to differentiate one from the other. The Provost then put forward a consistent message: the Ph.D. is to train people for the professoriate and that is how departments will be judged. Indeed, we not only had to train graduate students for faculty positions, but for faculty positions at research universities.

There was a great deal of harrumphing. Why should we judge the quality of a unit’s Ph.D. simply by whether students got jobs at research universities, complained the faculty. We had many people who became superintendents of schools. Many of our foreign students went home with degree in hand and became ministers of education or captains of industry. The provost nodded and said all that was great, but that’s not how we would judge the quality of the Ph.D.

We eventually changed both of our doctoral degrees. We still seek to train people for faculty positions. There is still harrumphing. Some wish to add think tanks to the mix of how one judges quality. The university has not given any signs of changing their attitude.

However, as we all know the academic world is changing. Tenure-line faculty positions are becoming scarce—none more so than in the humanities. The humanities always have led with the idea that one gets trained in English literature or American history in order to become an English or history professor. What happens, however, when there are no jobs?

Irony of ironies, the humanities is now rethinking the purpose of their Ph.D. Some of the changes that are being discussed are admirable; we discussed them a decade ago when we changed our degree. Time to degree takes too long for too many graduate students. Students need to be able to take courses in the summer. A wide selection of courses may be like a buffet—it seems good at first glance, but it’s ultimately unfulfilling. Students need better and more consistent advice rather than be left to wander around the intellectual vineyards until they find something compelling to study. All of that is to the good.

But there’s a larger issue that I don’t think they’re dealing with very well, and that’s if we need all these people walking around with Ph.D.’s. Sure, it’s certainly possible that we can train individuals with a Ph.D. in history to get a job working on Wall Street or running a travel agency.  But do we really need to spend the time and resources required to educate someone for the Ph.D.—the costliest degree—in order to perpetuate graduate education at our institutions?  Wouldn’t a more rational approach be to cut back on graduate education rather than invent ways to train students to get jobs that heretofore have not required a doctoral degree?

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