Did anyone else hear this interview with Louis Menand on All Things Considered last night? On the one hand, he gave some important context for understanding that the academic job crisis in the humanities is nothing new–like Historiann, he sees it as directly linked to the halt of the massive institutional expansion of higher education after the 1950s and 1960s. But then he beats (once again!) on the dead horse of the years-to-degree for most humanities Ph.D.s, and says something astonishingly stupid:
[Prof. MENAND:] The other piece of it, which is even more amazing to me, is that the time it takes to get the PhD has been increasing steadily since the 1970s so that the median time to get a PhD in a humanities discipline, like philosophy, English, art history, is nine years. Half of people who get PhDs…
[Host Robert] SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.
Prof. MENAND: …in those fields take more than nine years to get the degree.
Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a medical degree and cut somebody open in four years, why should it take nine years to teach poetry to college freshmen? And there are a number of factors involved in that. One obviously is the job market. Another is the fact of part-time hiring. That is, a lot of graduate students teach college students, and they do it quite full time for very little money because they are still enrolled as students in their institutions.
(Riiiight–because there’s so much more money to be earned by adjuncts who have taken the Ph.D.?) But, back to the silly comments about attorneys and physicians: who here thinks that all you need to be a doctor is to go to medical school for 4 years, and then hang out your shingle? And who here thinks that there are lots of 25 year-olds right out of law school who have argued cases before the Supreme Court?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Now, I realize that in addition to being a Professor of English at Harvard, Menand is also a writer for the New Yorker, where glib and superficial is the house style these days. But Professor, please: you might be happy to be cut by a sawbones right out of medical school, if a back-alley amputation is what you’re after, but the rest of us probably prefer to be treated by licensed and boarded physicians.
As many people know by the time they’re adults–especially if they watched a lot of ER and Law & Order back in the 90s–graduating from medical school and law school just signals the end of one phase of a young doctor or lawyer’s professional training. All licensed and boarded physicians in the U.S. must complete an internship and residency of at least three years (for primary care medicine, like family practice, pediatrics, and internal medicine), or more (from 4-6 years) for surgical sub-specialties, not to mention 3-year fellowships that many doctors undertake for the extremely high-stress and high-skill subspecialties (such as intensivists). During residencies and fellowships, the doctors in training will treat patients, but only under the supervision of the attending physicians. So any licensed physician who will treat you as your physician of record outside of a teaching hospital will have anywhere from 3 to 10 years of training beyond medical school, which also means that ze has passed extensive medical board exams in each of hir specialties or subspecialties order to get a license to practice. Attorneys don’t have as much formal postgraduate professional training as physicians, but they too must pass state-by-state bar exams. I would think that a clerkship with a federal judge or state or U.S. Supreme Court justice would be useful, if not absolutely de rigeur, before arguing a case before the Supreme Court of the U.S., but those of you with more knowledge of legal education, please feel free to chime right in.
So, a responsible comparison of medical and legal education to Ph.D.s in the humanities suggests that graduation from medical school corresponds with a humanities student completing hir coursework and qualifying exams–what we in the biz call “ABD” (All But Dissertation) status. That’s the point at which people can shift from functioning mainly as students to functioning as professionals in training–and functioning like a professional in the humanities means conceiving of and completing a major research project on your own–what we in the biz call “writing a dissertation.”
Now, Menand’s larger point is a reasonable one: should we insist that all college instructors have Ph.D.s, let alone Ph.D.s that take 9 years to complete? It would deserve a serious hearing, if there were anything like a shortage of Ph.D.s and a corresponding surfeit of jobs that need filling. (In fact, as many of you can testify, lots of men were hired in the 1960s ABD, and many of them achieved tenure and promotion even without ever completing their doctoral dissertations! That’s how many jobs there were and how badly professors of the humanities were needed.) But that’s not the world we live in, not for the past 40 years anyway. So, saying that the time-to-degree for humanities Ph.D.s is the biggest problem in American universities today is like saying that the biggest problem with the banking industry today is that Goldman Sachs and other investment banks require that their secretaries and administrative assistants have college degrees. True, requiring that degree to do secretarial work might be unnecessary, but it’s rather beside the point, don’t’cha think?