US humanities PhDs ‘produce more employable graduates’

Arts and humanities PhD graduates from the US are more employable than their UK counterparts, a conference on doctoral education has heard.

The extra length of the US doctoral education – on average seven years compared with four in the UK – creates graduates with significantly more experience in teaching and administration, said Dina Iordanova, professor of film studies at the University of St Andrews.

“Those coming out of UK programmes often have little experience in teaching and next to no experience in administration,” Professor Iordanova told the UK Council for Graduate Education’s International Conference on Development in Doctoral Education and Training on 12 April, where she was speaking in a personal capacity.

Both factors contribute to university employers not being certain of applicants’ command of the field at large, she said.

“I always try to give my students teaching experience, but the opportunities are very limited, and what they do not get is teaching design experience,” she added.

“They may have developed certain experience in the classroom, but when left to work on their own, can they design their own courses? My feeling is nobody teaches this kind of thing in the humanities.”

PhD students can benefit from taking on administrative positions, such as on student-staff committees, so they do not receive a culture shock when they enter academia, she added.

Professor Iordanova, who until recently was also provost of St Andrew’s postgraduate and research college St Leonard’s, was basing the views on her international experience, which spanned the UK, US and Canada.

Learning “soft skills” such as presentation and other transferable skills are also vital for UK students if they are to compensate for the lack of a US-style “buffer period” at the start of a PhD, she said. 

The cultural environment in which graduates studied was also important to take into account when hiring post-doctoral academics, she added.

While the standard reference for a graduate trained in the US is a “novel about the student”, applications from places such as Iran are often a paragraph and a half in length  and only include what is necessary. 

Colleagues were sometimes likely to reject applicants on the basis of such short references, she said, despite the fact that they are the result of cultural differences over  what the application should contain, rather a reflection on the abilities of the candidate.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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