One more thing that Menand mentioned in passing in his talk at Swarthmore was that the median time to completion of a Ph.D in the humanities is over nine years. Even if the job market in academia were wonderful that would be a very hard pill to swallow.
There are a lot of reasons why time to completion is stretching out as long as it is. One, of course, is the job market itself. Considering that a full-time doctoral student is almost certainly either teaching (for her own institution or adjuncting elsewhere) or is being supported by a partner or family, if the market is especially terrible it might seem to make more sense to wait it out one more year and keep reworking the dissertation. Or it might be that the need to work is keeping a doctoral student from devoting the time necessary to finish the dissertation, or keeping them from having the money for necessary travel to another archive or fieldsite.
Another reason might have to do with the generally weak or diffuse nature of graduate pedagogy. A student who needs devoted attention from a mentor–or who needs to be told to finish up or quit–may well never get what they need, and just go on struggling alone for years and years.
But attention is understandably centering on two things: graduate study before the dissertation and the dissertation itself. A few courageous programs are tackling one or both of these problems, most notably Stanford.
I think something even bolder might be called for: first, no more than a single year of coursework and study, culminating in a proposal for a program of research. Accept only the students who are already well prepared in their discipline and thus accept that they are in fact ready to go to work. If that standard suggests there would be fewer students who met the criteria for admission, then that’s a bonus: it cuts down on the number of students doing doctorates and reinvigorates the separate M.A. as a concept: that’s for students who need further disciplinary preparation or who have changed the nature of their interests in between receiving a B.A. and preparing to undertake doctoral study.
You shouldn’t need more than a year–a year that would be directed at sharpening your possible research interests–because the process of scholarly research involves learning about scholarship in every relevant specialized literature and acquiring the necessary methodological skills.
Second, the research needed for a doctorate should not be a completed book-length manuscript, at least not in the humanities. A humanities scholar should prepare the following: an essay-length commentary on the disciplinary literature that addresses the research problem they’re working on; two article-length essays on the research subject; an executive summary of the overall area of research interest directed at a broad interdisciplinary audience; a plan for continuing research and inquiry on the subject; and a plan for making archives, notes and other materials connected to the study available digitally via some common depository supported by a consortium of academic institutions. In the same time, the doctoral candidate should prepare a syllabus for a thematic course in their area of interest and teach it. All of this should be complete by the end of the fourth year of study, with no more than a single additional year of extension possible.
This has to be done all at once, and every tenure and promotion committee in the country at every institution with even modest ambitions should adjust accordingly. The idea here is to move the expectation of a book deeper into a professor’s career–or to rethink that ambition entirely.
The idea of research as a basic part of the apprenticeship of a scholar isn’t broken, but the dissertation as we have known it is. Anthony Grafton says at the Chronicle , “‘The dissertation makes intellectual sense only as a historian’s quest to work out the problem that matters most to him or her, an intellectual adventure whose limits no one can predict…There’s no way to know in advance how long that will take. Cut down the ambition and scale, and much of the power of the exercise is lost.’” Much as I love Grafton’s work and his frequent attention to the state of the academic profession, this really feels like an extravagant view that’s out of touch with the reality of the actual market and the actual jobs available to the dissertating. Once it’s put like that, it’s not clear to me that we should ever have thought that way.
More importantly, it’s not clear why a process that can take as long as it needs has to run to its conclusion before we award a doctorate and admit someone into the profession. Why not keep working out the problem, keep travelling on the adventure, make the exercise a life-long one? All we should need to see is the evidence that the journey is well begun and the scholar has steady feet upon the path. Not the least of the good things that might follow from such a change is that doctorates might feel like there is more than one path available to them after they’ve finished, and the cost of setting foot on it, whatever might come of it, will be far smaller in human terms as well.