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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Some Troubles with Doctoral Study, Led by the Humanities

Undergraduate student debt has become a well-publicized national problem, but graduate student debt has ramped up with much less attention. UC began to increase its professional school fees in the last downturn that began over ten years ago, and debt loads for those degrees have increased rapidly.  The thinking was that medical, business, and law degrees endow their possessors with the high incomes that can cover high debt. Whatever one thinks of this logic in those cases, it doesn't apply at all to doctoral students, who experience long degree times, protracted periods of reduced income, and moderately good rather than high incomes afterwards, assuming they avoid many years of postdocs and adjunct teaching.

The materials for the UC Regents' meeting on doctoral education have some good graphics for the University of California version of the problem. The first of these is above.

The percentage of indebted students in each category hasn't increased that much in 10 years. The amount of debt for those who borrowed has increased by 23% in the Physical Sciences, Math, and Engineering (inflation adjusted), and by exactly twice as much in the Arts and Humanities -- by 46%.   Average total debt is 50% higher in the humanities than in the life sciences.

Studies suggest that a college generation graduating into a recession takes decades to catch up economically, if it ever does. The same might be said of humanities PhDs.  Their funding structure graduates them to the rear, and most will never catch up.

The next figure shows the median number of years it takes to finish a doctoral degree at UC and some comparator groups.
The median is nearly six years, or twice that of a law degree.  UC isn't worse than these other research universities, but the Arts and Humanities are worse than other fields.

The higher debt of humanities PhDs probably reflects the extra years required for degree completion.  So why do humanities doctorates take longer and therefore cost degree-holders more?

There are many pieces to this puzzle, but some big ones are easy to name. One is that humanities doctoral students spend several years in postbaccalaureate coursework: coverage happens all over again at the doctoral level before specialization begins.  Books have been written to critique this practice, but given the integrative nature of humanities research--which is not well understood in other fields--not all streamlining will be good.

A second piece is that humanities PhDs teach too much, and are too consistently responsible for the quality of the large lecture experience for undergraduates at research universities.  Most I know work beyond their formal limits, out of conscientiousness, and it's easy to see how one could work 70 hours a week for 5.7 years and still not be finished with a humanities dissertation.

A third piece is that humanities faculty have next-to-no extramural sponsors to provide large grants with which to hire graduate students who can spend those 70 weekly hours doing research related to their PhD, as opposed to spending half of them prepping, teaching, advising, and grading undergraduates. The structure of humanities funding spreads rather than concentrates humanities graduate students' attention.  They become good at understanding and teaching all sorts of things, but this in itself doesn't help them finish their dissertation.

There's much more to say about this, but my main reaction to this report is not only that UC needs to do quite a bit more to improve funding for grads overall (see Display 8), which the Academic Senate has documented in a series of reports over the last 10 years, but that the system can improve humanities PhD graduation time only by increasing research funding for these disciplines.  Hanging onto the status quo won't rectify the inequitable time-and-money hardship of humanities graduate study, which, in spite of our obvious fiscal problems, needs to be fixed.


Susan said...

Another piece of the debt picture is that even when humanities faculty get big grants, the tradition that grad students work on a topic that they have defined, separate from their advisor. So working on your advisors grant doesn't get you your dissertation: you have to do your own research,

I think this is one of the big differences between the sciences and humanities, one that works both ways: faculty don't get publications off their grad students work, but grad students are responsible for the whole shape of the research proposal. This may change in large DH projects, but to my knowledge, it hasn't yet happened.

Chris Newfield said...

this is very true. There's a long groping process that doesn't seem compressible and that is a prerequisite for originality. There must be ways of increasing the cycles of project drafting and improving feedback but that gets us to another issue, which is that hum grad advising comes on top of existing commitments, rather than being part of one of them (research), and that limits its intensity.

Anonymous said...

If humanities research grants do not lead to students finishing their theses, but to yet another diversion of their time, then the solution for improving time-to-degree in the humanities is not research funding, but fellowships directly to the grad students.

It is fairly common in engineering for a PhD to require 2 years of course work in addition to the thesis. Do the humanities PhDs require more than 2 years years of course work?

Chris Newfield said...

it's usually 3 years of coursework in the humanities. You're completely right that fellowships would be better for shortening the time. A historian at U of Cambridge was telling me the other day that they never hire their grads for research and they rarely teach, and 4 years to PhD is fairly common

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