Reflecting on the Purpose of the PhD at Ithaka S+R

This is the third in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. You can read her earlier posts here and here.

By: Carolyn Ureña

Carolyn is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and a 2016-2017 Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow. Her dissertation develops a critical framework for understanding the ways in which a sustained encounter between disability studies, the medical humanities, and the racial phenomenology of decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon can generate new conceptions of health and healing.

As a Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow, I have really appreciated the opportunity to meet with organizations outside of the academy that have hired humanities PhDs who are passionate about the work they do. Recently, our conversations have become especially inspiring, as we’ve engaged in lively discussions regarding the purpose of graduate education itself.

In November we visited Ithaka S+R “a not-for-profit service that helps the academic community navigate economic and technological change” that is part ITHAKA, the organization behind the well-known academic database JSTOR. Such mission-driven organizations are important for PhDs-in-training to explore because, as we discussed during our visit, PhDs have a strong desire to do something that matters and to contribute to the broader good, both within and beyond traditional career paths.

Ithaka S+R seeks is to improve student outcomes, increase college access, and reduce costs for college student. Acknowledging that recent institutional hiring patterns, including the increased adjunctification of the university, are not a viable long term solution, the group works with higher education organizations–university, libraries, learned societies–to develop qualitative and quantitative studies to better understand which policies are working best toward advancing the particular institution’s goals, especially with regards to issues of diversity, talent management, and cross-institutional collaboration. For example, this might include developing and disseminating surveys on faculty demographics as well as crafting ethnographic narratives that are then analyzed to better understand how to improve outcomes for students. One of their most recent projects is the American Talent Initiative, which includes 30 partner universities and which “seeks to substantially expand access and opportunity for talented, lower-income students at the nation’s colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates.”

A highlight of our visit was an exciting discussion about the purpose of the dissertation, a conversation that even made its way onto Twitter. How does the use of the document change when preparing for employment in the academy, or outside? Can we break down the components of what it takes to write a dissertation to better understand its value? These questions are open-ended, but what remains clear after our visit to Ithaka S+R is that it will be increasingly important for graduate students to be able to dissect the components of what it takes to make a PhD, in particular what skills we gain that are applicable across fields and disciplines. This shouldn’t be too difficult, though. As proseminar fellows were reminded during our visit, crafting arguments, analyzing evidence, and developing and organizing information are among our most valuable humanistic skills.