Just in Time for Emily's Defence

The NYTimes publishes an article on speeding the way to the PhD:

The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

These statistics, compiled by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies by studying the 43,354 doctoral recipients of 2005, were even worse a few years ago. Now, universities are setting stricter timelines and demanding that faculty advisers meet regularly with protégés. Most science programs allow students to submit three research papers rather than a single grand work. More universities find ways to ease financial burdens, providing better paid teaching assistantships as well as tuition waivers. And more universities are setting up writing groups so that students feel less alone cobbling together a thesis.

I have to admit, I come to this subject with serious skepticism. Isn't a PhD supposed to be ball-bustingly, ovary-crushingly difficult to obtain? If it weren't, wouldn't everyone have one?

The article singles out English as an exception to these trends because:
...in fields like English where faculty vacancies are scarce, students realize they must come up with original, significant topics
Uh... shouldn't you have to do that regardless of the job market? Maybe I'm an idealist, but... actually, no, I'm not an idealist. I've just seen what happens when you start making it easier to get certifications and degrees. High School diplomas mean you're breathing, can find your way to a building, and (probably) never stabbed anyone in the face. An AA means you either have a talent for taking classes at night while juggling a job and your children's day-care schedules, or you live in your parents' basement. What does a BA mean? Hopefully still something... When I mention my MFA in a professional setting, I try to point out (if I can) that it's a 60-hour degree with a large academic requirement -- I have to point that out, because there are schools out there giving MFAs away for 15 hours of workshop. Programs modeled on the one I went to now call themselves "Creative Writing PhDs" -- which is a stupid non-concept (what, you're a leader in the field of the philosophy of your own writing? A doctor of navel-gazing? Hooray!), but it's taken over. So that'll always vex me a bit. But how should all the PhDs out there feel to discover that there's a push on to make PhDs easier to get?

Lastly, the article has this weird moment of total illogic:
Brian Gatten, 28, an English scholar at the University of Texas in Austin ... has either been teaching or assisting in two courses every semester for five years.

“Universities need us as cheap labor to teach their undergraduates, and frankly we need to be needed because there isn’t another way for us to fund our education,” he said.

That raises a question that state legislatures and trustees might ponder: Would it be more cost effective to provide financing to speed graduate students into careers rather than having them drag out their apprenticeships?

And so, yes, this is a shift in topic, but Joseph Berger, author of this Times article, you shame whatever degree you hold. If you can staff 120 undergraduate classes with 60 GTAs earning $9000/year, that will cost $540,000, with no additional cost for benefits. If you staffed the same classes with 30 instructors at 30000/year, that would cost $900,000, plus the cost of medical and retirement. You don't have to have a PhD to figure this one out.

It did not occur to me as I was writing this post that my fellow Incertian might take offense, and believe that I was in some way disparaging the quality of his degree. I actually wasn't doing that.

What I was doing was referring to the fact that I got my MFA at a U whose MFA program is one of the oldest, and so other Us, as they developed grad creative writing programs, modeled their programs ON it, and then called those degrees "PhDs," while at Arkansas the same coursework is still referred to as an "MFA."

To me this is vexing, because I have the same training as any "Creative Writing PhD," but the shift in nomenclature makes me have to explain that. And that's a little annoying.

When we were still grad students, there were a number of people (Brian included) who lobbied to have the name changed from MFA to PhD on the grounds that we were doing the same work or more work than most of the Creative Writing PhDs in the world. But I personally like the old-fashioned system of naming things (and we are talking only about nomenclature here -- please don't lose sight of that). To me, PhD says "expert in field who researches ass off" (exhibit a); so, to me, "PhD in Creative Writing" sounds like "expert in my own writing" -- and that sounds stupid to me. This is about the naming of things, not about the quality of the education and experience represented by that name.

To me, the logic behind calling the terminal degree (read: all "Creative Writing PhDs") "MFA" instead, is that while the training does include a lot of history, form, theory, etc., what distinguishes the degree is that it is fine arts training. A dancer who busts her toes, studies technique, and becomes a master of her field, a sculptor who dedicates herself to the theory of form and metal and glass, a musician who... I could go on: all of them study theory, all of them are experts in their field, but they practice, they are artists.

This is obviously an issue that people disagree on, and I know and admit I'm on the side that's already lost. But I think being an artist is something to be proud of.

I hope this is more clear now: love and peace!

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