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Why do humanities Ph.D. programs have such high attrition rates?
by Jay Gutman
2014-07-08 09:10:06
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Before starting a Ph.D. in the humanities:

You are a bookworm. You have read everyone from Plato to Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell. You have read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. You have read all the French post-modernist philosophers, and you understand Habermas. You think Anthony Giddens is a joke, he’s an easy read. You are picky about facts like Voltaire never said “I don’t agree with you, but I will fight to death for your right to say it”. You even know the story behind that quote: his biographer made him say that quote.

You have taken every Teaching Company, The Modern Scholar and other MOOCs available in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, art history, contemporary architecture, post-modern feminism and what have you. You have memorized facts like female spiders eat the male spider after sex and bonobos resolve their conflicts by having orgies. Evolution means more than Darwin, and it’s a lot more complicated. You start getting irritated when your friends tell you Spanish is easier to learn than Chinese. You remind them that in Second Language Acquisition theory every language is just as hard to pick up, because you will never master the pragmatics.

You start developing strange theories that could be revolutionary. The 2008 global recession was caused by an overreliance on the internet. The 9/11 attacks were the result Omori-Utsu law according to which a major disaster is preceded by hundreds of smaller ones that were ignored. Or stranger correlations like the taller a president or leader is, the higher his popularity rate. Further work on such laws could get you the Nobel Prize, you’d think.

You know so much stuff you are sure your Ph.D. will be a piece of cake. You will write a dissertation that will revolutionize the way we all think and that will eventually get you lots of prizes, including the Nobel Prize.

First year doing a Ph.D.

You notice that almost everyone is as smart as you are, except for the professors. Professors are so specialized in one area they have no knowledge about the rest. Yet you fail to impress your professors with your work. Your methodology is weak, so they say.

Ah! Simply linking random facts does not make a good paper. As soon as you learn a research method, you use it far too quickly. You see correlations everywhere: correlations between the number of trees in a neighborhood and teenage pregnancies, correlations between the number of mosquitos and murder rates, correlation between textile production and drug smuggling.  Then your professors remind you that correlation does not mean causation.

You borrow more books from the library than you have time to read, and you discover, to your horror, that Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Alvin Toffler, Deborah Tannen, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Micheal Sandel, Bill Bryson, Steven Hawkings, Richard Dawkins are all tertiary sources that you should never quote in a paper. You should only quote primary or secondary sources.

Second year doing a Ph.D.

You find out that the job market is bleak. You start looking at job advertisements for professors and start looking at professor resumes. You realize to your horror that they all have published over 100 papers, received at least 5 grants, and presented over 300 times at conferences. You’ve never been to a conference other than the one your department forced you to go to, you never published a paper, and don’t know what a grant is.

Your graduation exams are coming up, and you realize that means you have to choose a topic for your dissertation. You want a Nobel-prize winning dissertation, but you’ve got no idea what to write. Then you realize you look like one of those people who wants to be famous, but doesn’t know what he wants to be famous for.

Third year doing a Ph.D.

You’ve chosen a dissertation topic and adviser. Yet you think of a new topic everyday. Your adviser wants to see your progress, but after six months, all you have is a shabby and no references. He gives you a speech that scares you and destroys your self-confidence, he lets you know you will probably never graduate (….) Before we get to the ugly ending, I’ll give Ph.D. students a few tips

Tips for Ph.D. students

-Specialize in one or two narrow areas of specialization (one could be geographical, a tiny aspect of economics or any other combination)

-Join organizations that specialize in those areas (they will never reject you, and you will feel at home with peers who have the same research interests)

-Publish in journals specializing in the area

-Write your dissertation about one aspect of the area and don’t expect your adviser to know anything about it (he’ll just help you with the methodology aspects)

-Know your methodology (read as many books about methodology as possible)

-Don’t expect any of your friends to have interest in your area

-Contact university professors who specialize in the area (to help you with your dissertation and for job prospects)

-Never think you are a generalist or a know-it-all. Limit yourself to your area of specialization.

-Embrace failure rather than dreading it (I’ve been accepted dozens of times for conferences and my papers have been published, but I’ve had perhaps twice more rejections).

-Publish in the press about your area

-Build your image as a specialist in the area

-Be a real specialist (you should have read everything that’s been written in the area)

-Don’t go out of the area (most of your future rejections will have to do with you trying to go out of bounds)

-Socialize and be friends with the people specializing in your area

-Join lots of conferences. A lot of times they will advertise that a book is being written and that they need a chapter submission, or that they don’t have enough submissions for the upcoming journals, or that they have grants that are up for grabs.

-Be patient: most responses for submitted papers or conference proposals up to a year to be accepted

Result: you will get your Ph.D. and become one of those professors who is too specialized to understand the generalities and tertiary resources students seem to love talking about in class.

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Emanuel Paparella2014-07-08 11:09:26
Here is a pertinent existential addendum to the above "Third year doing a Ph.D." You fail an important pre-dissertation test and are told by your dissertation advisor that, despite have graduated from college summa cum laude, you are not Ph.D. material: you are too much of a generalist and will never become a specialist. So, you pack an assault weapon, to into a Century theater showing "The Dark Night Rises", kill 12 people and injure 70, then you plead not guilty by way of insanity, driven insane by a deranged disfunctional graduate school syatem that wanted to make you a specialist and discourage you from building a bridge between the humanities and the sciences.

In case you think I am making this up, the town where it happened is Aurora, Colorado, the school is the University of Colorado, the name of the shooter is James Holmes.

How many Holmes are in Academia? More than we care to admit; it's one of the dirty little secrets of academia; there are deranged people walking its august halls, and they did not arrive mad. The other dirty little secret is that guns do indeed kill people, even innocent people, when they are so readily available. But I suppose to arrive at that realization you have to enroll in a Ph.D. program.

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