More on the Executive Literary MBA, aka the “New PhD”

First of all, now that I know he agrees with me, I want to thank my friend and very-admired-person Gerry Canavan for the Twitter conversation that inspired the longer post below on the MLA Report. I’d also like to thank Michael Bérubé for the heartfelt correspondence in response–if you’re going to get “spanked” by a Fullprof, make sure it’s the best! At any rate, the post inspired some serious criticism from friends  of mine (though mostly wild and wide agreement across academia, where the Report is being met with heavy cynicism), and I wanted to clear something up.

In the post (which is directly below this one), I express bafflement that anyone should be expected to want to go through a PhD with no intention of being a professor. Some people, including a former colleague of mine in HumCore back at UC-Irvine, found this assertion “incredibly insulting.” This was not my intent!!!! If you want to go through all the years and sweat and toil of a PhD for whatever reason you want, you do you. Bérubé also scolded me heavily. I won’t quote his email because privacy, but here’s a paraphrase: “YOU KNOW, OTHER PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT THAN YOU and NOT EVERYONE wants to be in ACADEMIA.”

I find this really funny, given that I VERY PUBLICLY left academia in a blaze of non-glory, “before it was cool,” so to speak. I am the hipster of academia-leaving. I make most of my money now doing “alt-ac” things. I am the person–ironically enough–that the “new PhD” is trying to create, and it is because of this experience that I cry foul.

I of all people know how difficult it can be to leave academia and be treated poorly for it, and in no way do I mean to say that budding scholars should only want to be professors, or that any budding scholar who does not wish to become a replicant of his/her advisor should be bullied for it, as so many now are. But the fact is that most PhD students do go into the doctorate because, and only because, want to be Very Serious Scholars. This is because the rigor of dissertation work requires a singular level of scholarly commitment that would be rather strange to commit to without the end goal of professional scholarship, and that–professional scholarship or no– (most) people who enter into graduate school really, truly want. That is why I went–I wanted to do the most rigorous work in my discipline possible. I enjoyed how hard it was and how specialized it was, and the act of producing completely new knowledge was, and remains, extremely important to me.

At NO POINT in my doctoral studies did I even come close wanting an Executive Literary MBA, and I can’t imagine most current PhD students do either. Watering down the PhD until it is nothing but a poorly-organized b-school program  is truly, truly baffling to me.

Let me be clear: I see no problem with seeking myriad ways out of the chasmic abyss that is the academic job market. I did. But just because it worked out for me does not mean it will for anyone else, and I am not arrogant enough to expect anyone else to take the path I took . Sure, there are some of you out there who never wanted to be professors ever, and who now “use your PhD every day” in whatever non-academic jobs you have. That is great. You are the tiny sliver of a minority, and if anything the MBA-ification of the PhD–which implies that the “skills” you now have could and should be watered down considerably, since it’s not like you’re going to be a professor or anything—is more of an insult to you than anything I could ever say.

16 thoughts on “More on the Executive Literary MBA, aka the “New PhD”

  1. My guess is that they want to have the same high enrollment of PhD students, but know that if they imply there’s a tenure track job at the end of it they could be sued for fraud. The “new PhD” is a way to acknowledge the realities of the job market while getting the customers to come in the door and lay their money on the barrelhead.

    I left academe and use my PhD for something other than being a professor, but that was out of necessity, not choice. At no point in graduate school did I or any of my peers view our studies as anything other than being on the road to professorhood. It’s ridiculous to point to examples of survivors of the current catastrophe who worked their education into a Plan B and act as if that’s an option people should be pursuing from day one. I think encouraging the “alt-ac” (or whatever) path is good for those who already have their degrees and are struggling (and it’s a path that’s rescued many of my friends from adjunct hell), but completely dishonest for graduate students who want to complete their degrees.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Because people are different than you doesn’t mean we should justify the crappy neo-liberal, adjunct centric, exploitive job market as personal preference. Scholarship is valuable and we need more of it: and there should be more tenure track jobs—for scholars like you. Executive Literary MBA is a great description. Lets have more professors instead: and more Full Profs who stand up for profession. Great work, Pan.


  3. This reaction to your previous piece is straight up bullshit. There are fields in which some people get PhDs and never plan to be professors; there are industry jobs in STEM fields, people do PhDs in Art History to prepare for museum careers, PhDs in econ and finance frequently find jobs in the business world, people do PhDs in Education for careers in school administration. But with VERY VERY few exceptions anyone who STARTS a PhD in English literature or French or German literature or Spanish linguistics and DOES’T want to be a professor needs a good and serious talking to. There are other graduate programs and other forms of training and experience building that are faster and less painful paths to the various alt-ac careers. Alt-ac careers are an option for those who decide mid-PhD that they don’t want to be professors and for those who don’t get lucky in the job market lottery.


  4. I don’t get how this is controversial. The MLA’s own research office has recently posted results of a study showing that over 80% of people who are now in alt-ac careers started grad school fairly or completely certain that they wanted to be professors on the tenure track, and 95% were at least somewhat certain
    (see Figs. 12 and 13 towards the end of this post: The percentage among people who actually landed a TT job is if anything even higher.


  5. “At NO POINT in my doctoral studies did I even come close wanting an Executive Literary MBA, and I can’t imagine most current PhD students do either.”
    Every single person in my cohort across the humanities + history wanted to be an academic, except for a few independently wealthy dingbats who were killing time.


  6. I’ve never solely wanted to be an academic – it was always somewhere around choice #3 on my list – but I knew I needed at least an MA in the fields where I wanted to work, and the PhD looked like a good way to get a free MA, as opposed to the professional programs that cost $40K a year. I figured, “Ok, avoid debt, and get experience on the side – that should be no problem!” But I got sucked in for personal reasons, and because I wasn’t brave enough to leave a graduate stipend for total unemployment, and only found out when I was ABD that apparently a PhD actually hurts you in most job markets because people think you won’t do low-level work. The social scientists I know who went in *not* wanting an academic career spent the year or two post-graduation un- or seriously underemployed. Honestly, I tried to do my research, but I don’t think anyone was really talking about the challenges of “alt-ac” job searching five years ago, and that information wasn’t really out there. SUCKERED!


  7. I also think this reaction has a lot to do with the myth of vocation in which the literary PhD is embedded. Admitting that you did a PhD as a step towards (gasp) an academic job devalues the ideal of doing it for the love of Ideas. I have actually had it suggested to me that my base instrumentalization of the PhD as a means to a job is not unrelated to my failure to procure a job. As in, if I was really in this for the right reasons, my pure communion with Ideas would shine through to SCs and I would be anointed with a job.


    • Yes, but if you hadn’t treated it in that instrumental way, you’d be told that the problem was that you didn’t take it seriously as professional training and that if only you had you’d have a job.

      The thing is my grad school experience really was (until the issues of ABD funding and the encroaching shadow of the job market came in) an intrinsically valuable, surprisingly well-funded life of the mind with relatively small teaching/grading requirements. But that doesn’t make the subsequent employment struggles any less miserable.


  8. Of course, the Tenured will find reasons to deny any change. They know only their own academic world and really have no power over the provosts who decide these things, subject to the Board’s business titans. So they are running universities “like a business.” The only thing that would force change is a drop in the supply of naive Ph.D.’s who are also not counting the lost-wages cost of their student years. So keep on slinging it to the tenured until they stop excusing themselves from an exploitive role. I dropped out years ago—by 1980. An aged stranger-professor told me, as he passed by, “the trouble with you is you’ve done too much.” i.e. they had no senior line and were just hiring new Ph.D.’s under pressure from Title IX. At that point, I quit being a nice married lady who would work for peanuts and publish for nothing. The guys couldn’t care less…that’s what you’ve got to understand. Only parents should be checking the number of adjuncts their children will be taught be if they go to a particular school. That pressure might help, too.


  9. Get ready for the red-herring replete, stunningly illogical, and emotionally overheated rebuttal from a certain well-known scholar. Wait… wait… it’s coming!


  10. While I agree with the arguments here, I can’t help but wonder whether, maybe just maybe, there does exist the possibility of developing and weaving into phd programs some extraordinarily creative programming that could help grad students prep for jobs and be versatile without compromising the rigor of the programs. I recognize that (a) I’m a hopeless optimist and (b) I have a personal bias toward keeping grad school available (job market notwithstanding) because I enjoyed my own grad school experience so much. For me, grad school meant a huge step up in lifestyle, mostly because I suddenly got paid for school related activities rather than having to support myself biking around to min-wage off-campus jobs that couldn’t be easily scheduled around my classes. So I would like to see others get an opportunity like I had; I don’t necessarily see that grad school has to end in professorship to have been a net gain for the grad student.

    So, as for that programming, I wonder whether maybe the key to saving phd programs more or less as is (from a rigor/scholarship perspective! Not from an exploitation or obfuscation perspective !) is to help people find alt/post ac opportunities that share some link, however oblique, with their research subjects/ interests. For me there is a clear link in my own work. I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts on this.


  11. Hear, hear. We absolutely should be preparing students (especially those pre-PhD) about the realities of the job market, but we should be in no way assuming that those in PhDs or applying for PhDs know those realities or have any intentions other than being serious scholars.

    We had this conversation several years ago at my graduate institution and my objection to it then is the same as now: why do you think that a two track PhD program (which is what they were discussing: one track for Serious Scholars and another in the style of literary MBA) would survive past the first few years? As soon as the admin catches wind that some students can finish in 2 or 3 years, why would they fund the Serious Scholars for 4-6?


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