Whither the PhD?

Historians in the News

Mary Ann Mason is a professor and co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and former dean of the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley. Her most recent book, with Eve Mason Ekman, is "Mothers on the Fast Track." She is one of the authors of "Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences."

"I will be nearly middle-aged by the time I get my Ph.D., I won't have a family, and probably won't have a job." That comment, from a female Ph.D. candidate in history at a University of California campus, is a familiar refrain.

The pursuit of a doctorate—a sometimes decade-long, low-wage quest that may or may not end with a faculty job—has been under more critical scrutiny than ever this year. Why does it take so long to earn a Ph.D.? (Recipients are age 34, on average.) Why do we produce so many Ph.D.'s when fewer than half of them will ever hold tenure-track jobs? Is this 19th-century German model of apprenticeship suited to the 21st century?

And finally, does this venerable male model of graduate training match the needs of its new disciples, half of whom are women?

Not long ago I spoke at a conference at the Johns Hopkins University discussing some of those questions. American universities award more than 60,000 doctoral degrees annually to U.S. citizens and noncitizens. Roughly half of those degrees are from the 63 research institutions in the elite Association of American Universities, and half from other doctoral-granting programs. That total has grown from fewer than 25,000 Ph.D.'s awarded annually in the 1960s when universities were expanding and most Ph.D.'s could find an academic job....

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