Future of the PhD in the Humanities, Part I

Question: How many universities does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Change?!

 I heard that at the Future of the PhD in the Humanities Conference (say that 10 times fast!) held at Carleton a few weeks ago. Although it wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t at least partially true, over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to participate in several discussions about the future of higher ed and the PhD degree itself (including an illuminating discussion about comps here at Windsor), which suggests that change is in the air. However, it should be noted that we’re talking about academic time, which has been observed to move slower than other types of time, so the outcome remains to be seen.

The goal of the conference was to continue a discussion (started the previous year I believe) on the fact that the PhD has traditionally trained people to become scholars and academics, but many PhDs are finding work outside the academy – both due to interest and a lack of positions within departments. Coming from a school that doesn’t have PhDs in the humanities (only the social sciences), as well as a program that has an applied focus, it was interesting to observe some of the common challenges and some of the stark differences. 

The conference started with a presentation and discussion by graduate students on some of the key points that emerged from the grad student conference the previous day. The students wanted more focus on non-academic jobs/career paths during their training, possibly including professional development workshops and/or programs, alumni talks, and support for students wishing to pursue work outside the academy. Within the applied social program here at Windsor, the focus is (obviously) on applied settings and we already do these things on a regular basis. From the student perspective, the alumni talks are very valuable because we get to learn about different jobs and how people ended up on their current path, and make connections that will be valuable once we graduate. We have also had researchers (incl. students) from another U who do their work in the community discuss their research and process with our students. In this case, we learned about ways to build community-university partnerships which was neat. One thing that we do that could be adapted are internships and practica. In our program, the students go out to conduct research with an organization, but many of the non-academic careers that were discussed at the conference could be adapted (e.g., archivist, work at historical sites, research for organizations, etc.).

The second area highlighted by the students was the need for increased transparency and data sharing from departments and universities. Some of the things that students wanted were more information on the university structure and processes, clearer information about funding packages, opportunities and costs of living/associated costs of the program. Are the documents accessible? Understandable to incoming students? Do they paint a realistic picture of what it will be like to be a student at the institution? Programs do a disservice to incoming students when this information isn’t available. My own experience has been that information can often be hard to find, outdated, or confusing – which is very frustrating and can also lead to confusion over course selection, timelines, etc. One thing that the Psychology Graduate Council (a departmental student committee with representatives from the different tracks/programs) does is compile a package for incoming students with things to do in Windsor, basic information about the program, and things like information on the cost of living in Windsor. It’s not perfect, but it could be adopted as a temporary measure in the absence of centralized info provided by the school. Focus groups with grad students about their experiences finding information online and in-person could identify areas for improvement.

When we discussed this at our table, it was mentioned that one program had been tracking the outcomes for their grad students, which revealed some interesting patterns (i.e., women with children dropped out more often than men with children) and useful information. This data could be used to identify areas or students that may need additional support or to help adapt programs to student needs. Things like typical time to completion or where grads have ended up working would be super helpful for incoming students.

Particularly interesting to me (coming from the social sciences and also currently fighting with my own dissertation) was the interest in non-dissertation models of scholarship (thesis artifacts). Students felt that having the option to do a non-monograph-based artifact could better feed into non-academic career paths. It seems possible that some artifacts of this type could be directly used to help recent grads find work and demonstrate skills and competencies to future employers. The students suggested that if programs aren’t willing to abandon the dissertation altogether, perhaps build in an applied piece. In our program, we complete both a dissertation and a 1,000 hour internship, which often leads to jobs for our grads (and at the very least, work experience!).

The final point was about the 3 Ws – Workload, Work flow & Work/Life Balance. For workload, the panel indicated that there was a need to help incoming students understand the workload and set realistic expectations at the outset. Included in this are all the unofficial program expectations, such as to present at conferences or serve on departmental committees. One suggestion from the attendees was to consider including professional expectations (conference attendance, research presentations, exhibits) in the graduate handbook so that students can plan appropriately. Related to this, work flow (and completion times) could be improved with clear, explicit and consistent program criteria. If there were program-level learning outcomes in place, it might help programs to prioritize and help students focus on achieving a fewer number of meaningful objectives instead of jumping through pointless academic hoops. Problems with work/life balance aren’t limited to the graduate student experience, but it remains an area of significant concern in many (if not all) programs. The panel stressed the importance of flexibility on the part of programs and the need to destigmatize survival strategies like leaves of absence and accommodations. Access to free or low-cost mental health services for graduate students is also crucial. One suggestion brought up at our table was the option to attend part-time. Another colleague mentioned cultivating a departmental culture of support and communication, and mentioned that they have an informal weekly coffee hour where students and faculty can drop in and chat.

Since this is already quite lengthy (and it’s quite late), I’ll continue with my thoughts on the rest of the conference in my next post.

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