Reforming the Phd program?

Phd economists talk a lot about reforms in their respective fields. How about reforming the source of their learning – their Phd Program?

Louis Menand has written a fascinating article about the same:

My aim has been to throw some light from history on a few problems in contemporary higher education. If there is a conclusion to be drawn from this exercise, it might be that the academic system is a deeply internalized one. The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way that knowledge is produced. It lies in the way that the producers of knowledge are produced.

Despite transformational changes in the scale, missions, and constituencies of American higher education, professional reproduction remains almost exactly as it was a hundred years ago. Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall.

People are taught—more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability—to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they have had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently.

Still, as is the case with every potential reform in academic life, there are perils. The world of knowledge production is a marketplace, but it is a very special marketplace, with its own practices, its own values, and its own rules. A lot has changed in higher education in the last 50 years. What has not changed is the delicate and somewhat paradoxical relation in which the university stands to the general culture. It is important for research and teaching to be relevant, for the university to engage with the public culture and to design its investigative paradigms with actual social and cultural life in view. That is, in fact, what most professors try to do—even when they feel inhibited from saying so by the taboo against instrumentalist and presentist talk. Professors teach what they teach because they believe that it makes a difference. To continue to do this, academic inquiry, at least in some fields, may need to become less exclusionary and more holistic. That may be the road down which the debates I have been describing are taking higher education.

But at the end of this road there is a danger, which is that the culture of the university will become just an echo of the public culture. That would be a catastrophe. It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate. Academics need to look to the world to see what kind of teaching and research needs to be done, and how they might better train and organize themselves to do it. But they need to ignore the world’s demand that they reproduce its self-image.

Read the whole thing. He talks about barriers to entry in phd education, time period taken to get a proper job after phd etc.

On social sciences he says:

The median total time it takes to achieve a degree in the humanities including stop-time is 11.3 years. In the social sciences, it is 10 years, or 7.8 as a registered student. In the natural sciences, time-to-degree as a registered student is just under seven years. If we put all these numbers together, we get the following composite: only about half of the people who enter doctoral programs in English finish them, and only about half of those who finish end up as tenured faculty, the majority of them at institutions that are not research universities. An estimate of the total elapsed time from college graduation to tenure would be somewhere between 15 and 20 years. It is a lengthy apprenticeship.

That it takes longer to get a Ph.D. in the humanities than it does in the social or natural sciences (although those fields also have longer times-to-degree than they once did) seems anomalous, since normally a dissertation in the humanities does not require extensive archival, field, or laboratory work. William Bowen and Neil Rudenstine, in their landmark study In Pursuit of the Ph.D., suggested that one reason for this might be that the paradigms for scholarship in the humanities have become less clear.

People are uncertain just what research in the humanities is supposed to constitute, and graduate students therefore spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with a novel theoretical twist on canonical texts or an unusual contextualization. Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.


On a serious note, there is an urgent need to revamp Phd program in economics (and could be other areas as well) in India. This blog has argued about the issues of phd economics program in India.

Given the attention Indian economy gets, one is surprised to see the low quality of research being done at university levels. One hardly gets to read any useful papers/theses on various facets of Indian economy. Most good papers on Indian economy this blog gets is from foreign sources. Or it could be we are not aware of the quality of research. In that case, efforts need to be made to put the papers on  websites etc. Even professors at top universities don’t have links to their papers.

Applying for a phd program at Indian universities is a huge task. First getting through the administration process is a task. Second even if someone fights the admin process, even more frustrating is the interest shown by faculty members. Instead of encouraging one to take up phd he/she is just discouraged. The obvious choice remains then to go abroad (which is also the advice of faculty here). But this way the quality will never really improve. When we have a Prime Minister who is a Phd in economics (from Oxford though), we surely deserve better economics phd programs.

2 Responses to “Reforming the Phd program?”

  1. unicon india Says:

    Since the late 1990s there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations (UN). However, there is little clarity or consensus about what reform might mean in practice.

  2. select your broker Says:

    Phd economists talk a lot about reforms in their respective fields. How about reforming the source of their learning.

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