Brandeis University Rabb Building

In fall of 2020, a team of two faculty members and an advanced graduate student from the English PhD program at ACLS Associate Member Brandeis University attended the Modern Language Association’s virtual Summit on the Future of Doctoral Education. According to Ulka Anjaria, professor of English and then-director of graduate studies, they attended the summit hoping to gain strategies and solutions for a number of issues the department needed to address in their PhD program. 

Students were having an increasingly difficult time on the academic job market, as the number of jobs continued to decrease and the number of applicants per opening trended ever upward. Students were spending longer and longer in the program, resulting in debt, feelings of failure, and imposter syndrome. In addition, dissertating graduate students felt isolated and in need of community. Faced with these issues, Anjaria and her team attended the summit, where program directors, DGS’s, department chairs, graduate students, and others from across the country exchanged ideas and practical advice. Some who presented had made small but significant changes; others had made large, transformational ones. 

Inspired by what they heard at the summit, the Brandeis team returned to campus and began discussing what a completely overhauled English PhD might look like. Over the next year, every single faculty meeting was devoted to this topic; this gave the faculty time and space to really think through the substantive changes that were on the table. 

Early on in this process, Anjaria and her colleague David Sherman spoke to several recent graduates of the program who had gone on to work in a variety of careers, both in and beyond the traditional tenure track, to get an understanding of both what they had gained from the program and what they wished the department had offered them. One alum, who now teaches university writing, said he wished his dissertation could have included a pedagogical component; another, who works in project management, said they wished they had had the opportunity to take a data management course. The department therefore decided that skills-building, as well as the opportunity to innovate with dissertation format based on professional ambitions, needed to be a crucial component of the revised PhD curriculum. 

The unique features of the revised PhD curriculum put into place after a year of faculty discussions include:

  • Several required courses, including one on pedagogy and one on “Writing in the Humanities,” which are offered in alternate years. The writing course not only focuses on academic writing but also on the many different kinds of writing that humanists can do. The program also offers a hands-on course on publishing academic articles but does not require students to take it.
  • A skills-building required internship in the student’s fourth year that replaces teaching for a semester. Thus far, students have done internships with academic presses, translation projects, lifelong learning divisions, archives, and more.  
  • Every student designs and teaches their own literature seminar in the fourth year. 
  • The ability to count one transferable skill from another department toward their required 12 courses. Anything that a student needs for their professional life, but which they would not get in the normal course of their PhD in English, counts (i.e. computer science, data science, writing digital content, audio or video editing). 
  • A transformed field examination. Students take a credit / no credit course in their third year to prepare them for the field examination. By the end of the third year, students must submit a portfolio and pass their oral examination. The portfolio includes:
    • A list of no more than 70 texts. The upper limit was set to avoid students feeling pressured to submit longer lists.
    • A 20-page essay that outlines the student’s intellectual agenda in the field. “Intellectual agenda” is broadly conceived, and might include traditional elements such as a scholarly overview or historical analysis of the field, but might also include elements of pedagogy or curricular issues and/or digital or public humanities components. Its shape is highly flexible depending on the student’s ultimate professional goals.  
    • Two original syllabi related to the field.
    • The optional inclusion of something related to the field but not contained in the field essay, such as a book review (academic or nonacademic) or a translation.
  • The option to submit a doctoral portfolio in lieu of a traditional dissertation. The dissertation is still expected to be a primarily written text with a significant analytical component, but within that there is a great deal of flexibility. Some students write traditional dissertations or include academic articles in their dissertations, while others include syllabi, pedagogical materials, community engaged work (including co-written pieces with community partners), and funding applications.
  • The expectation that students will finish their PhD program in five years. This was crucial in the conception of the program. Faculty members were conscious that they could not necessarily control the department’s PhD funding, but they could control whether students were able to finish in five years, commensurate with their funding. Students coming into the program are doing so with the intent of graduating in five years, and they are supported early on in making a plan to accomplish what they want to accomplish in that time frame. 

These changes all emanated from the faculty’s commitment to making the PhD more student-centered. Anjaria notes that historically, the PhD has been structured around the needs of the faculty; the English department at Brandeis has shifted it toward the needs of the students. This has resulted, for example, in fewer TAship positions, as some needed to be sacrificed for the internship component of the program. However, it has also created a program that is much more democratic and opens the door to many more different kinds of students. 

Although it is too early to have a full assessment of the program, Anjaria notes that morale remains high despite budget issues at the university, because students feel supported and the department feels that it has been proactive in strengthening itself. Current students are excited about the program, and applicants report positive reactions to the updated application, which requires them to name three possible career paths for themselves. Alumni also say that they wish this more flexible curriculum had existed when they were at Brandeis. 

In all, the Brandeis English PhD offers a model of a more equitable and democratic English PhD––one that, Anjaria says, will “be seen not as something elitist, but rather something that trains students to be humanistically-oriented contributing citizens of the country”––no matter what professions those students go on to do. At a moment when PhD cohorts are the most diverse they have ever been, Professor Anjaria adds, the answer to current challenges should not be to shut these programs down. The answer should be to open them up. 

For more on supporting publicly engaged work in humanities graduate programs, please see the ACLS report, Preparing Publicly Engaged Scholars: A Guide to Innovation in Doctoral Education.

  • Consider what it would mean to be truly student-centered in your graduate curriculum. What do your students really need from their education? How much of current curricular structures were put in place to support faculty rather than students and how might those now be adjusted?
  • You may need to persuade faculty and colleagues to accept changes that may not be in their favor––such as fewer TA- or RA-ships––but at the end of the day, the vast majority of faculty members want what is best for their students. Carve out the time and space necessary to engage in substantive debate about topics like ethics, rigor, assessment standards, and efficacy throughout the process.  
  • Talk to your alumni. They will have concrete feedback to give on what they gained from the program and where things could be improved.  
  • Find allies among your university’s administration who are invested in these ideas. Good administrators know which way the wind is blowing and will often be supportive of proactive changes. 
  • Your campus’s humanities center can be a great place to begin having some of these conversations beyond your department. Connect with its leadership early on. 
  • Scholarly associations should consider hosting more convenings of the type the MLA hosted in Fall 2020 to support departments in exchanging ideas and developing strategies in response to common challenges.
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