How goes the PhD?

Report on doctoral research in the humanities (this is for the UK, compiled by the Arts & Humanities Research Council).

Some interesting statistics. (And they think there should be more money for postdoctoral funding, with which I’d heartily concur. The AHRC, as far as I can recall, currently has no postdoc fellowship schemes of any kind. OK, the British Academy is sort of the substitute for that, but it still doesn’t seem quite right.)

Plus a section on the purpose and use of a PhD in humanities subjects (which is less specific to the UK situation than some parts of the report). Nearly/recently completed PhDs looking for jobs take note of the right things to say in interviews, if you apply for jobs outside academia.

13. There is broad agreement in the sector that the key qualities of the completed arts/humanities doctoral researcher should be a capacity for original and autonomous thinking, an ability to command a field of knowledge, research skills (the ability to frame and explore research questions, the ability to frame and test a hypothesis and to manage a project), an understanding of the appropriate research methods, the ability to produce a cogent argument and conversely to engage in critical thinking, and an ability to communicate at a high level.

14. During the last three decades the doctorate has emerged as a crucial entrance qualification to the Academy to a degree which was not true a generation ago. A key purpose of doctoral research is and must be to develop the next generation of researchers and teachers in higher education. However, this has never been its sole purpose. There have always been researchers who elected to use their research skills in a wide range of public and private sector roles. And there has always been a significant demand for places from individuals primarily interested in the intellectual challenge of doctoral research. […]

15. The view of the disciplines nationally, reflected both in the consultative seminars and in the online survey, indicates a wide acceptance across the arts and humanities disciplines of the principle that doctoral study has not one but two aims: the production of high-quality research and the training of a highly qualified researcher. Colleagues nationally are equally firm in the view that a doctorate in the arts and humanities is a valuable preparation not only for a career in the Academy but also for a wide range of research-related and management jobs in the public and private sectors. Researchers from the subject domain enter a broad range of professions outside the academy, including public administration, corporate management, library and museum work, publishing and marketing. …

The report also comments that “transferable skills developed by doctoral research must be made explicit both to researchers and to potential employers. At present it seems that both researchers and disciplines undersell themselves.” Well, it seems to me that that’s often because departments and supervisors themselves are pretty clueless about it.

People do PhDs for a number of reasons, not least in order (they hope) to become academics, and for personal fulfilment and intellectual satisfaction. (Few students, I suspect, embark on a PhD in humanities with the intention of using it as a way into an entirely non-academic career.) It’s important to know that if you don’t make it in the hideous competition for academic jobs, you have other options. But the crucial question, in the end, is not whether you get valuable transferable skills from doing a PhD. You do. But do you get enough of them to justify the extra investment of time and resources in the years of research over and above doing a Masters? In terms of useful professional research skills, what does a PhD add to a MA thesis for the non-academic workplace where most people with humanities PhDs will end up?

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4 Responses to How goes the PhD?

  1. Caleb says:

    It’s an interesting question. Having done an MA thesis in another discipline, I think the main difference between it and my dissertation has to do with what the Report calls “autonomous thinking.” Because of the time and length constraints on my thesis, it turned out to be more of a lengthy report on existing scholarship, whereas the dissertation-writing process encourages–requires–me to think of my work as a scholarly intervention of its own. I still think that distinction would be useful in a non-academic workplace. I don’t want to generalize from my thesis-writing experience to all MAs, however.

  2. Sharon says:

    The time limits on MA theses over here seem to vary. My department insisted that f/t students had to fulfil all the MA requirements in one year (basically, you had 6 months to research and write the thesis once the taught part of the course was done. That was intense). Whereas at Aber the f/t MA students have an extra year to write up the thesis if they want it; I’m not sure how usual that is.

    I think it could be argued that the skills required for the MA thesis – small project, much shorter deadlines and often more restraints in terms of resources – might be *more* useful to most employers than the ‘extras’ of the PhD (much more long-term, more complex organisation, more in-depth knowledge of the field, the ‘originality’ component – all the things that make it both so much more interesting and more demanding than doing the MA).

  3. Caleb says:

    I see your point about the value of the shorter work, Sharon. I guess it all depends on the kind of job and the kind of thesis.

  4. I think if humanities PhDs really have two purposes this needs to be drummed into candidates from the very beginning. My feeling is that supervisors who have been in universities for decades are ill equipped to advise students on other careers and professionals from other industries need to be brought in as consultants.

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