Putting Forth The Ph.D. Value Proposition

Atlanta University launched its doctor of arts in humanities programs almost 40 years ago, and, since the 1988 merger with Clark College, Clark Atlanta University has continued to award the degrees. This fall, for the first time, its students will be able to earn Ph.D.s in humanities instead.

This is an exciting change that should make our students more marketable,” says Dr. Bettye Clark, dean of graduate studies at Clark Atlanta. “In DAH [doctor of arts in humanities] programs around the country, there’s been a whole lot of research and talk about students wanting the Ph.D. degree and feeling that the Ph.D. degree — just by the nature of a Ph.D. degree — would make them even more marketable.” The same goal is behind other changes occurring in humanities Ph.D. programs, whose graduates have long struggled to land positions on college faculties, more so in the current weak economy.

“I would say that graduate schools all over the country are doing interesting things to make the humanities Ph.D. more marketable in many ways, more relevant to current needs,” says Dr. Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Stewart says the changes include training humanities doctoral candidates to meet the teaching and service requirements of junior faculty positions, promoting interdisciplinary collaborations between different academic fields and building relationships with alternative employers, such as businesses and cultural institutions.

“The graduate schools themselves, I think, are very engaged in trying to better prepare humanities Ph.D.s for the wide range of jobs that exist,” Stewart says.

The University of Colorado Boulder has gone so far as to halve the length of its Ph.D. program in German to four years, making it a better value proposition for loan-burdened students.

The HBCU Experience

Overall, historically Black institutions have been less affected by the academic job crunch. Only 25 offer doctoral programs, and just three award terminal degrees in the humanities: Clark Atlanta, Howard University and Morgan State University. Clark Atlanta has the largest number of doctoral programs in the humanities: five. Howard has three, and Morgan two; both Howard and Morgan already offer Ph.D.s in those fields. More affected are students who receive bachelor’s degrees from HBCUs and then pursue humanities doctorates. HBCUs have long been top producers of Black undergraduates who later earn doctorates in all fields, including professional programs. In 2009, the most recent year data are available, eight of the top 10 producers were HBCUs, led by Howard. A more specific breakdown of where Black humanities doctorates went as undergraduates is not available.

Historically Black universities tend to have “more of a practical spin on the doctoral programs” because of their enrollment demographics, says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on HBCUs.

“You do see a lot of young people who come from lower-income families pursuing more professional degrees,” Gasman says. “I think you’ll also see a lot of people in general, because times are a little tougher, pursuing or going back to pursue degrees that have something tangible that they can get when they’re done.”

Because of data limitations, it is difficult to determine just how tough the college job market is for graduates of doctoral humanities programs, Stewart says. Much of the evidence of serious job crunch is anecdotal or less than comprehensive.

Finding a job in academia, Stewart says, remains “more common in the humanities” than in other doctoral fields. In 2010, all but 16 percent of new humanities Ph.D.s going into postdoctoral fellowships had definite employment plans in the next year. About 60 percent of those with job plans, or about half the overall number of the graduates, were headed for academic jobs.

Other Possibilities

Where else do humanities doctorates find work, besides academia? “Certainly, in cultural institutions — libraries, museums, community outreach programs, public school systems — all have strong humanities dimensions and employ humanities Ph.D.s,” Stewart notes.

At Clark Atlanta, significantly more graduates find jobs in academia than their counterparts around the country. About 70 percent of humanities doctoral graduates land academic positions. The other 30 percent go to work in cultural institutions, Clark says.

“You might have highs and lows in some years, but that’s typically what happens,” says Dr. Viktor Osinubi, director of the doctor of arts in humanities program.

The divergence from the national employment pattern results from Clark Atlanta sticking with the original mission of its humanities doctorate programs.

“I think it has to do with the curriculum, which is centered on teaching for higher ed. It’s designed to prepare teachers in higher ed,” Clark says.

Other universities, Stewart says, are taking a broader view of the job market and potential opportunities for their humanities doctoral students.

She even cited an emerging area of modest job growth: digital humanities.

“Digital humanists, in my judgment, will create more opportunities as libraries are transformed,” Stewart explains. “As the way we do scholarship is transformed, we will increasingly turn to humanities Ph.D.s for interpreting texts and volumes of texts that might have been impossible for one human being to analyze in the past.”

In a globalized economy, some businesses are also coming to appreciate experts in studying culture, which is what Stewart says humanities doctorates are.

“Some companies now are actually hiring cultural anthropologists to help them understand the culture of their own organization,” says Stewart, citing a news account in the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina.

Beginning this fall, the change from doctor of arts in humanities to Ph.D. at Clark Atlanta will improve the job prospects of future graduates in two ways.

Besides benefiting from “the power of the Ph.D.,” students will be able to “major in two concentrations, and so it makes them even more marketable,” Clark says.

Previously, a double major has not been available to students in the five doctoral fields of study at Clark Atlanta: African-American studies, Africana women’s studies, English, Romance languages and history. Now, a Ph.D. student could major in English and history, for instance, and pursue college teaching jobs in both departments.

Clark says two students have already enrolled in the new Ph.D. program. There are still 48 completing a DAH, with nearly half, 20, in African-American studies. About 60 percent of DAH students received their bachelor’s degree from Clark Atlanta. Under a “conversion policy” that is being finalized, past DAH graduates can return and obtain a Ph.D., Osinubi says. The DAH requires at least 48 credit hours, so returnees must complete coursework to reach 60 hours and do additional research beyond the dissertation they have already written.

Like the DAH program, the Ph.D. program will be geared toward jobs in academia primarily and cultural institutions secondarily.

“We are needing faculty in all areas at this university,” says Clark, when asked about job prospects teaching the humanities. Clark Atlanta is a school that doesn’t mind growing its own: six junior faculty members received their doctor of arts in humanities degree there.