Revitalizing Graduate Education

Engaged graduate students sitting at a classroom table Credit: pressman/ Adobe Stock.

Cristle Collins Judd, former Senior Program Officer in Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities, on the Mellon Foundation’s commitment to the future of doctoral education.

Hopeful young humanities PhDs face a sobering reality: at best, roughly half will secure traditional academic employment.

Yet the need for highly trained humanists who can engage the most complex problems of our day and contribute to the social and cultural fabric of our communities has never been greater. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is committed to helping chart a new course for graduate humanities education through grantmaking for targeted impact.  Working in cooperation with universities, scholarly societies, and other funders, the Foundation is identifying and responding to contemporary needs within and outside the academy while preserving a central focus on knowledge creation and scholarship.

Graduate education programs must urgently address the pressing issues of funding, access, inclusivity, and diversity confronting all sectors of higher education. Additionally, these programs must ensure timely degree completion even as they embrace the imperative to incorporate into the curriculum new areas and forms of interdisciplinary study, new research tools (including those related to digital humanities, new media, and design), enhanced pedagogical training, new modes of collaboration, and new opportunities for public engagement and professional development.

In our mission statement, the Foundation commits to support “exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.”

Engagement with graduate education in the humanities is a cornerstone of this commitment, and the Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities (HESH) program has targeted reforms of graduate education that broaden the intellectual and professional preparation of students as an area for continued grantmaking. The emphasis on broadening the preparation of PhD candidates—both intellectually and professionally—motivates the Foundation’s focus on supporting reforms in graduate education, which aspire to be transformative and integrative, rather than merely additive.

As the Foundation analyzed our grantmaking in this area, we recognized that past initiatives were often not widely known or disseminated, resulting in a tendency to “reinvent the wheel” in ensuing generations. This tendency is exacerbated by the relatively frequent rotation of graduate deans and departmental directors of graduate study, along with the decentralized and autonomous nature of graduate education in the humanities. To combat these obstacles, in 2015 the Foundation commissioned Robert Weisbuch and Leonard Cassuto to undertake a report that would provide an historical overview of initiatives in graduate education over the last twenty-five years. Their report, “Reforming Doctoral Education, 1990-2015: Recent Initiatives and Future Prospects,” provides a comprehensive review of interventions in graduate education and will serve as a useful compilation of past initiatives for administrators, faculty, students, and others concerned with graduate education.

Thematically, our current funding falls into interrelated categories of timely completion, curricular innovation, support for new pedagogies, and initiatives in public humanities, with expanded career opportunities intersecting all of these categories. Sample grants in each of these areas are briefly highlighted below. Animating this activity is the Foundation’s cross-cutting focus on diversity and the goals of supporting the values of inclusive excellence throughout higher education. For example, recent grants such as “Pathways to the Professoriate” link undergraduate and graduate programs among collaborating institutions to develop a more robust pipeline to graduate education for students from historically underrepresented groups, and ultimately the creation of a more diverse professoriate.

Timely completion of the degree is the focal point for “5-plus” programs at the University of Notre Dame and the University of California at Irvine. In both programs, students who complete the PhD within five years are eligible for a guaranteed postdoctoral fellowship that provides opportunities for internships or more wide-ranging teaching in the humanities. In support of timely completion and a meaningful postdoctoral fellowship, curricular and teaching requirements have been repositioned and in some cases streamlined as students are encouraged to think about preparation for the postdoctoral internship over the course of their degree. Students retain the opportunity to receive a total of six or seven years of support in the respective programs, capping off their doctoral training with an integrated fellowship that prepares them more broadly for a wide range of career opportunities.

Curricular innovation has taken a number of forms, as institutions seek to embed intellectual breadth in graduate study and to increase intellectual community among doctoral candidates while promoting interaction and collaboration across disciplines with faculty and peers. These programs often include a component of “just-in-time” intervention, such as the interdisciplinary prospectus and dissertation fellowship seminars at Brandeis University, offered at crucial, formative moments as students make transitions from studying a field of knowledge to contributing to it. 

Initiatives focused on curricular integration have also recognized the importance of permeable boundaries between undergraduate and graduate education and the interrelationship of the two. Yale University is addressing the well-known challenges posed by narrowly focused undergraduate and graduate education by bringing larger questions back into the curriculum and offering team-taught seminars that cross disciplinary and conceptual boundaries.

Institutions have also leveraged individual strengths to create new doctoral pathways, such as the Open Graduate Education Program at Brown University, which allows doctoral students to pursue a master’s degree in a secondary field. Other programs aim at a new generation of humanists and a new kind of artist-scholar, who will complement traditional forms of written scholarship with a wide range of media practices. These include programs like Critical Media Practice at Harvard University, which offers an opportunity for students who wish to integrate media production into their doctoral work to complete a secondary field degree, and  Vanderbilt University’s new dual-degree doctoral program in humanities fields and Comparative Media Analysis and Practice, along with a Digital Humanities Certificate. 

Linked to such curricular developments are new initiatives tied to pedagogy and enhanced training and experience in teaching. UCLA has created a series in teaching excellence that includes a focus on new undergraduate curricula in emerging humanities fields, alongside workshops on inclusive classrooms and innovative pedagogy. The goal is to provide training and mentoring to equip PhD candidates with the skills necessary to teach humanities to diverse undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds and expand these students’ opportunities to explore the full range of the humanities. This grant and a number of others are supporting the creation of new and multi-faceted collaborations among research universities and community colleges. 

A focus on integrating public humanities into graduate training has resulted in new seminars emphasizing public-oriented research and public scholarship, often coupled with summer fellowships and internships. The University of California at Davis has launched a program supporting community-based scholarship, integrating public humanities projects into graduate student training with the potential to foster curricular innovation and diverse career opportunities. The University of Michigan has created programs to broaden career horizons by building a wider range of skills and questions into graduate training with both short-term and more sustained professional immersion opportunities. The “Humanities without Walls” initiative, a collaboration of fifteen Midwestern humanities centers, directed by the University of Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, includes a program to prepare graduate students for careers as advocates and practitioners of the public humanities. Meanwhile, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA), in partnership with a number of universities, and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) have undertaken related initiatives to explore pathways toward broadening career horizons of humanities PhDs.

Finally, we know that the collection and dissemination of data matters for understanding the experience of students during their degrees and, most importantly, the career paths they follow after. The Humanities Indicators project is an important source of information about academic employment in the humanities; with recent funding from the Mellon Foundation and others, the Council of Graduate Schools is working with universities to create surveys to track PhD pathways in the humanities.

The Foundation regularly brings together leaders in graduate education—provosts, deans, directors of humanities centers, faculty, and leaders of national organizations—to facilitate conversations, articulate common challenges, and identify promising initiatives.  What are we learning from these gatherings and our grantmaking? Revitalizing graduate education in the humanities is a subject of keen interest and concern across the ecosystem of American higher education. New models of teaching, scholarship, and community engagement reflect greater awareness of the inseparable bonds between undergraduate and graduate education. These integrative efforts represent hopeful signs, as do evolving initiatives that prepare new PhDs to make their own professional and societal contributions as they enter an array of professional careers.

Cristle Collins Judd served as senior program officer at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation until 2017.



Robert Weisbuch and Leonard Cassuto, “Reforming Doctoral Education, 1990 to 2015: Recent Initiatives and Future Prospects.” Report submitted to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, June 2, 2016.