Is the PhD a problem?

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). Continue reading “Is the PhD a problem?”