The purpose of the Project Steering Committee’s September meeting was to share notes from the Core Working Group’s first meeting and continue the discussion of possible curricular changes with this larger group.
As the inaugural meeting of the Project Steering Committee, the first portion of the gathering focused on practical aspects of the planning grant. The Graduate Center’s three planning themes were discussed at length, as was the intended relationship between the Core Working Group and the Project Steering Committee. Time was also spent sharing ideas and best practices from other institutions and updates from the NEH and Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) regarding the Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. grant.
However, the majority of the discussion centered on sharing out and discussing possible curricular changes to (humanities) doctoral programs.
Possible Curricular Changes
The discussion began with the question of using qualifying exams to develop real world skills.
The Ph.D. Program in English recently revised its qualifying exam following a survey in which students expressed feelings that the previous exam felt stressful without any clear pay off. As a result, the program re-engineered the exam with a focus on (academic) professionally-oriented tasks such as preparing an annotated bibliography. A committee representative from the English Program admitted that the program’s Executive Committee hadn’t considered incorporating non-academic professional tasks into the exam. Nevertheless, the portfolio exam model is an example of a curricular requirement already at place in a doctoral program that might be reframed in order to interweave academic and non-academic skills.
The Ph.D. Program in Art History has begun such skill development with their Mellon grant for curatorial training. The program has twelve curatorial fellowships, which allow students to take off one year from their Graduate Teaching Fellowships to work in a museum. Although museums are often most likely to choose candidates with prior curatorial experience rather than career academics, the skills that lend themselves to teaching also lend themselves to curatorial roles. Students in the program also complete an exhibition proposal, and the student with the best proposal has an opportunity to bring their exhibition to the James Gallery. Unfortunately, the Art History Program also suffers when ABDs leave the program in order to pursue non-academic careers.
In contrast, one committee member noted that students in the Ph.D. Program in Theatre are often interested in academe because of the scarcity of stable, full-time theatre careers. Nevertheless, practical experience in professional theatre often helps students succeed in securing academic jobs. Those who do seek professional careers in the arts often must compete in an international job market. Key concerns for Theatre Program faculty include being more responsive to students interested in cultural or arts activism and supporting the endeavors of students who participate in their own theatre companies. However, best practices for building these types of practical careers have not been gathered.
Committee members familiar with the Graduate Center’s STEM programs were able to offer some insight into some developments outside of the humanities as well. For instance, the biomed programs have shifted to making their qualifying exam a grant application. Additionally, two students launched a biomed club to figure out what kinds of skill sets can help students succeed in biopharma. Meanwhile, the Ph.D. Programs in Math, Physics, and Computer Science are experimenting with courses in mathematical finance since so many students are interested in that pathway. One problem that many students within science programs face is the fact that many non-academic jobs require lots of writing. This is often a considerable challenge for international students in particular.
Confronting Current Curricular Requirements
The discussion progressed onto the question of developing multiple tracks within each Ph.D. program. Within the History Program, the question of a public history track has been a recent topic of conversation. Such a track could provide students with practical experience. Unfortunately, such experience often requires financial support. There are potentially summer opportunities through various institutions and organizations, such as the Morgan and the Altfest Internship Program, that are supposed to give students this type of experience pre-graduation, but it is unclear whether students who partake in such opportunities share their experiences with their colleagues. Reporting back might help students understand the link between their field of study and non-academic paths and subsequently generate more student interest.
The Graduate Center has a digital Praxis course already in place. The course is built around the idea of getting students to engage with digital methods early on in their graduate study. Perhaps there is a way to get students involved in professional development early on in their graduate study as well.
One hurdle that the committees must face is the problem that Ph.D. programs at the Graduate Center are already requirement heavy. The ultimate goal of the NEH initiative must be to change the programs themselves, not to add additional tasks.
Trimming requirements for doctoral programs would need to be an institution-wide initiative. Faculty buy-in would be imperative to reduce requirements. One idea that came up was the possibility of faculty development grants for developing courses geared towards a more flexible vision of professional development. Some programs have already begun to have conversations about helping students get to the dissertation earlier, but there exists, at least in some places, cultural anxiety about reducing requirements as faculty worry that this is a chance to cut staff.
Committee members generally agreed that it would be useful to collect and aggregate data regarding graduate career placement. Notably, the percentage of students who pursue alternatives to academic careers is likely to vary widely between programs. Understanding where Ph.D. graduates end up might help the grant committees determine what additional skills students need to build in order to succeed in these settings. The Graduate Center has previously completed a “Linked In” study, and there is a possibility that career outcomes data could be pulled from that report.
Regardless of what careers students peruse, the institution needs to be more flexible with curricular pathways. Early research leads to early degree completion.