Louis Menand’s new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is mostly the ‘backstory’ of American higher education; it is lucid and erudite reporting as readers of his New Yorker articles would expect. He has not set out to be ‘prescriptivist’ (his word). But clearly he doesn’t like the American PhD.
To start with, it’s not clear that the PhD is fit for purpose. It can’t be a qualification for university teaching, since most PhD students are already teaching. Nor do PhDs clearly provide a contribution to scholarship, since many PhD theses are not of high quality (and probably even more are not read except by the student, his/her supervisor, and the examiners). Menand – a Professor of English at Harvard – suggests that ‘if every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.’
Then there are what Menand calls the ‘humanitarian’ considerations. PhDs take a huge amount of time – though in the US they are nominally 4 years, most people take much longer. Median time to completion is 7 years in the natural sciences, 10 years in the social sciences, and 11 years in the humanities (including time out).
Then there is usually a long period of insecure and part-time employment before a permanent academic post can be found. Family formation often has to be put on hold. Student poverty endures well into people’s 30s. These things compound the emotional-psychological problems often caused by the PhD experience itself – the isolation, the not knowing if you are on the right track, or whether what you are writing is any good (I speak from personal experience). Many people decide it is not worth it and drop out (again, I speak from personal experience).
And to this Menand adds the ‘huge social inefficiency’ involved in spending so much money putting people of high intelligence into ‘programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get’.
I’m not sure that things are quite as bad here, though a study 10 years ago found that only just over half of people who started a PhD in 1992 had completed eight years later. Since then the inclusion of completions in the PhD funding formula may have helped focus university attention on the issue. But I expect that things are still pretty bad, and that not many people look back nostalgically on their time as a PhD student.
High barriers to entry are bad for universities as well as students. The long and tortured process of becoming an academic must surely deter many who could make a positive contribution to academic life. Indeed, given that those with good alternative job options are perhaps the most likely to not start a too-long PhD with uncertain employment outcomes, it is the people with more wide-ranging talents who are self-selecting out.
Menand argues that the PhD obstacle contributes to the political imbalances with US academia. Perhaps the difficulty right-of-centre students have in finding a sympathetic supervisor, and the risk that political discrimination will make a tough academic job market even tougher, does entrench the left-liberal orthodoxy on campus. In any case, Menand thinks that political imbalance is a problem. ‘Liberalism needs conservatism,’ he says, ‘and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.’
But what to do about it? American PhDs already typically have coursework, as opposed to the mostly dissertation model here, so they have already minimised the more problematic aspect of the doctorate. But perhaps a literature review submitted to examiners plus one or two published articles in a peer-reviewed journal would be a sensible alternative to the multi-tens-of-thousands-of words dissertation, though presumably the requirements would differ by discipline.
Whatever the merits of this idea, Menand’s book gives little hope that it will happen. Those who have survived the current system and control the universities have no incentive to change. Not only do they want to avoid greater competition in the academic job market, but they want to keep getting the army of PhD hopefuls to do the teaching, so the permanent academic staff can get on with their research.