The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.
That’s a surprising conclusion, but I think Menand is on the right track here. Only he misses an alternative conclusion that his own analysis points towards:
Who teaches that? Not, mainly, English Ph.D.s. Mainly, ABDs—graduate students who have completed all but their dissertations. There is a sense in which the system is now designed to produce ABDs.
The system works well from the institutional point of view not when it is producing Ph.D.s, but when it is producing ABDs. It is mainly ABDs who run sections for lecture courses and often offer courses of their own.
Maybe he’s too much a product of his professional training and context to see it,* but it seems to me that rather than completely transform the Ph.D., it might be better to acknowledge that the ABD has become a sort of degree without a diploma and then formalize it and confer upon it a legitimate status. That is, make it a terminal degree between the M.A. and the Ph.D., and reward people who teach with an ABD (or whatever it would be called if no longer associated with a dissertation) with a decent salary, benefits, and a measure of job security. That’s a lot to ask, especially in today’s economic climate, but if ABD is going to become a degree with a diploma, it can’t be a degree in diploma only. As for time to degree, I admittedly don’t have any numbers on this, but it seems like it usually takes about the same time to get to ABD within the same discipline across institutions, with variation in time to Ph.D. mostly a function of variation in the length of the final dissertation phase. A formalized ABD degree would have to set its requirements to avoid reproducing that same disparity.
Meanwhile, the Ph. D. – which may still need reforms in other ways – would get to remain distinct as a Ph. D. And the M.A. could remain a shorter, still in-depth but not as in-depth degree. My experience, anyway – and I was in a bit of an unusual situation because in my program you got an M.A. through coursework, but there was no M.A. thesis or M.A. exams – was that I learned quite a lot between finishing the M.A. requirements and passing my oral exams, and that this learning was not just a matter of covering more content but involved learning new ways of thinking about both my field (history) and, for lack of a better phrase, my orientation towards the world. Maybe it’s not always like that. But even though I went on to the start of the dissertation after I finished my exams, I still felt like I’d completed something very real and distinct when I became ABD; that would not have been the case had I left the program earlier.
*Or maybe, as an ABD, I’m blinded by my own status and context.