Not long ago, I began the arduous process of applying to PhD programs. I didn’t make it far. What stopped me was not a lack of desire to push learning further, to what most graduate students see as the logical end of journey that began with their first university class. I was stopped by the nagging sense a PhD would simply take more time and resource than I had available.
Because I disliked falling prey to so utilitarian an impulse, I began looking into the PhD itself, to better understand why such a worthy intellectual endeavor appeared unsustainable and to find out if other students felt the same way. My search led me to numerous blogs and reports about the PhD in today’s world, some of which can be found in my blog post about alt-ac careers. (alternative academic careers).
Wondering what to do with a PhD is, however, not the same as wondering why one would do a PhD at all. The latter question is better answered by examining the process rather than the outcome of earning the degree. The Academica Group’s Top Ten list featured a short round-up of current positions taken on the future of PhD programs, some of which were presented at a round table discussion during the 2014 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Two of the projects featured were McGill University’s White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities and the Modern Language Association’s Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Both of these documents recommend extensive changes to the PhD, as well as investigating career outcomes.
Both documents recommend shortening the time to completion and increasing engagement with the world outside academia. To speed up the process and increase engagement, both explored the possibility of replacing the PhD dissertation with, for instance, “a coherent ensemble of scholarly projects,” recommended by the White Paper.
Simply speeding up the time to completion would certainly reduce the opportunity cost of a PhD program, but is this a realistic goal, even if the traditional dissertation is abandoned? Alicia Peaker, development editor at GradHacker responded in this interview, “what Graduate students need is not more or less time – it’s more support.” The debate continues and is worth following, particularly if you are a student currently looking at PhD programs.