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Too many PhD programs?

February 22, 2007

Over at Cliopatria, Ralph Luker took a bold step and called for the closing of what he called marginal PhD Programs. (the issue was also noted at the AHA blog as well) First of all, I appreciate Dr. Luker’s honesty in naming names and proposing a model by which we could examine this issue. If we don’t have these sorts of proposals, we’ll never talk about the issues. So I am grateful to him, and respect his efforts. I just happen to disagree deeply with the method he proposes.

In the course of the post, Luker suggests that PhD programs should be evaluated by a sort of population-based carrying capacity. He does some quick math and arrives at a rough figure of 2M in population/PhD program. There is a decent argument for an idea like this in general. Producing underqualified PhDs is in fact a waste of everyone’s time and money, especially in a tight job market. But focusing on these marginal products really doesn’t do anything about the tight job market. The problem that the job market faces is not a wave of clearly underqualified candidates–those are ignored in job searches. The problem is too many QUALIFIED candidates, and these are being overproduced at the self-proclaimed “top programs.”

As a result, I suggested the following in my post in response to the blog entry:

—-begin posted response—-

Wouldn’t a better solution simply be to limit the number of students in the “top” programs, forcing qualified students to attend elsewhere? This would slowly trickle down the prestige that has gathered around the research institutions that do nothing to prepare their students for the teaching tasks that many of their graduates will face. Increased respect for teaching in the profession will assist ALL departments with changes in university dynamics.

The idea that PhDs should be restricted to the top programs is deeply offensive. Let’s cap enrollments at a few of the programs in the top 25. Aren’t increases in student enrollment at places such as the University of Texas, University of North Carolina, and the University of Washington just as responsible for the “glut” of historians on the job market? (and let’s be clear–by “glut” we mean “glut of people who want a full-time tenure track job at a major state-sponsored research institution where they’ll never have to teach much.” The large, research-institution programs keep churning out students who say the same things and perpetuate the same historiographical dogma because they magnify the intellectual impact of their faculty; this centralization doesn’t result in diversity of thought–it perpetuates a power structure by controlling the mainstream of the profession.

Maybe instead of examining the “PhD program/population” ratio in geographic areas, we should examine the ratio of PhDs produced/professor and look to diversify the field of dissertation advisors so we can diversify the field as a whole. If we simply diversify the faces of those sitting around the table of the “old boys” network, but leave the table the same size, have we really changed anything at all?

—-end posted response—-

Of course, my proposal attacks more than one problem. But I do take research-orientation of the profession as a serious problem, as well as the intellectual class system that has emerged–in large part at the insistence of academics who espouse economic and social justice in so much of their writing, teaching, and public interaction. Let’s diversify the production of PhDs so that we can diversify the pool of active PhDs! This will result in real change in how the field is structured, as the needs, interests, and desires of people who don’t want to (or can’t afford to) spend their time in the ivory tower on the coasts reshape a field that has been dominated by the output of those programs for far too long.

In closing, I’d like to thank Luker once again for opening an important discussion. I hope that it can continue in the halls of programs across the country. Some small programs probably should shut down for the good of the profession. But peeling away at the margins doesn’t solve the problem of intellectual concentration; letting those big programs push through as many students as they can only reinforces the class divide by giving them a larger wealthy alumni base to target. Spread the wealth!

ASIDE: I also disagreed with Luker’s contention that Wisconsin had 5 PhD programs; three of those are at UW-Madison and hardly count as separate institutions. With over 5.5M in population, the state average is about 1.8M/ PhD granting institution–close enough to Luker’s standard to merit some revision of his claim.

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One Comment
  1. CM: The problem clearly centers on how “marginal” is defined. Luker is working with a numerical rather than qualitative sense of the term. That's not adequate, as you noted. Why get rid of a PhD program at a small, “less desirable” school that has a quality diss. director or two (rather than 10)?

    I agree with you, Christopher, in that “top programs” ought to limit admissions. This surely would diversify the pool of new PhDs.

    My only disagreement with your post is the assertion that, by limiting the numbers in large research schools, somehow respect for teaching would rise among new PhDs. That involves a few dubious assumptions. First, are those good directors at presently less desirable institutions actually wanting to teach more and teach better? Second, do “name” professors at destination schools really not respect teaching? The answers to both questions are not definitively in the affirmative.

    The lack of respect for teaching is a structural, across-the-board problem in the profession. Few programs attempt to instruct PhD students/candidates in good teaching methodology.

    But what's with Luker's Wisconsin hating! 😉 That'll make him no friends here. – TL


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