December 14, 2005
So You Want a Ph.D. in Digital Humanities, Digital Studies, New Media, Electronic Literature . . .
I occasionally get asked where one should go for a Ph.D. in one of the above fields. I thought I’d offer up a general response to that question here. Please understand that this information is very subjective and far from comprehensive; if you feel there’s a program I’ve neglected don’t hesitate to make mention of it in the comments below (
at least until I have to close them because of spam UPDATE: I have had to close them; feel free to email me with comments and I will post them here manually). My remarks are also heavily biased toward opportunities in the United States since that is the academic community I know best. And they are heavily biased towards literary studies, as opposed to other humanities disciplines.
The problem is this: if you want to teach Victorian literature at the university level, the path to doing so, while not easy, is straightforward: you go to a Ph.D.-granting university English department, take a doctorate, and apply for suitable jobs in other university English departments. But because all of the various fields and subfields in the digital humanities are so new and by definition interdisciplinary there’s no one equivalent path to the appropriate credentials. I did my Ph.D. in a large, traditional English department that happened to have several faculty members and a number of institutional resources devoted to the field. That’s one model, and it’s viable in a number of places around the country.
As of this writing, the following English departments are all good places to be. All of them include one or more faculty working at a very high level in some aspect of the digital humanities, in addition to institutional resources in the form of centers, institutes, programming, etc. In no particular order then:
Plus there’s an awful lot of digital humanities happening up in Canada these days: McMaster, Alberta, Victoria, Waterloo, Toronto, and New Brunswick are all places to look at. To the best of my knowledge none of them offer a doctorate in the digital humanities as such, but all of them have faculty working in these areas and centers or other resources. (In the U.K., King’s College London has a Master’s in Digital Humanities.) Write to me if you like and I’ll suggest who you can contact at a particular school.
If you get a doctorate in English literature then you’ll be able to work in any English department that wants to hire someone with your expertise. That’s the advantage of a Ph.D. in a traditional field. I’m also aware of a couple of places that offer a doctorate in aspects of the digital humanities. They are:
Many humanities departments may be nervous about hiring people with new-fangled interdisciplinary degrees. That’s not intended as an absolute red flag, but before you enroll in a brand-new Ph.D. program in a field that didn’t exist ten years ago you should ask for some straight talk about the program’s placement strategy.
The disadvantage to doing your doctorate in a traditional field like English is that even at the institutions I’ve listed above you still won’t be in a program that’s fully tailored to your needs. You will likely have to complete coursework, perhaps even take qualifying exams or meet other requirements, in something besides your core interests. Here at Maryland many students combine a concentration in digital humanities with a literary period, for example 20th Century American literature. I started out as an Americanist myself and did most of my coursework in that before switching full time to digital media. This actually proved to be an asset on the job market. Ideally you will find a program where there are enough faculty who have interests close to your own that you can bounce from one of their seminars to another. And once you get to the dissertation stage you can essentially do whatever you like so long as you can assemble a committee who is willing to read your work. By the way, never go to a particular program because of the presence of any one single individual on the faculty: people go on leave or take fellowships, change jobs, and get hit by buses. Or else you might find you two simply don’t get along. Always think about whether there’s enough in a program to support your work should any one faculty member disappear tomorrow.
While the credentials path to teaching in the digital humanities is not yet as straightforward as that for Victorian literature (and may not be for a while), the general advice is still the same: think about the people you admire in the field, find out where they are, look at what their graduate programs have to offer, see if you can get a sense of whether they’re an isolated maverick or if they’re at a place where there’s a critical mass of institutional support for the field, cross index this information with your own personal, financial, and geographic variables, and try to arrive at some options. Find out about funding, teaching (will you be able to get a teaching assistanship in your field?), fellowship support, and placement records. Try to get an inside scoop on what individuals are like to actually work with (often the best way to do this is to talk to graduate students who are currently in that program). Is so-and-so already swamped with dissertations to supervise (maybe not a good sign). Does so-and-so not have any dissertations to supervise (also maybe not a good sign). Common sense and a little backchannel checking will go a long way here. Finally, if at all possible, visit any place you’re serious about attending before accepting their offer. Good luck!
Update: Stéfan Sinclair add somes suggestions.
Posted by mgk at December 14, 2005 02:59 PM
Spot on! Loyola in Chicago has turned out to be a "happy accident" for me, since I came in definitely interested in medieval literature and have found faculty to nurture my burgeoning interest in digital media. The trick is to pay close attention to faculty interests and then communicate with them about shared interests.
Hello! Interesting post. Just like to point out that you can also come to University College London, UK, to do a phd in digital humanities, and we run a very comprehensive MA program in Electronic Communication and Publishing, which includes most aspects of "Digital Humanities".
I would also suggest that there is another route... it is possible, and desirable in many cases, to actually do a MSc or PHd in Computing or Engineering Science to complement an undergrad in humanities subjects. Its another potential (and better funded) route, and the resulting qualification means that you can contribute to understanding of the computational aspects of Digital Humanities. Granted, this route is not for everyone.... (but it stood me in good stead when getting a job after my doctorate). Something to think about.
I would certainly add Brown to the list. There are several grant projects in digital humanities going on, and the Scholarly Technology Group - http://www.stg.brown.edu/ - continues to rock my world.
Although Brown does not have a digital-new-manities program as such, it does have something like an independent major on a doctoral level: if you are already a student in one of the departments and none of the available programs (including the one you're in) suits your research needs, go ahead. Get a faculty committee together, write an extensive description of the program, go before the Graduate Council and hey, maybe they'll approve you. This is how I'm doing a PhD in Humanities Computing, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin is pursuing one in New Media.
Originally I came in to the Italian Studies Department, and it is there that I'm now project-directing the Virtual Humanities Lab for its two-year grant period. As for job prospects... well, we'll see next year, but it doesn't look too bleak. There's a lot of work to be done.
Matt, your post seems to take for granted that within literary studies, digital humanities are to be associated with English departments. That being a sore spot, I'll point out explicitly that one can do digital humanities in any humanities department, including other languages and literatures. In my time at Brown, I watched my university's English department gain standing while foreign-literature departments lost it.* I hope that the digital humanities crowd will not make the same mistake that U.S. universities have been making for decades and summarily dismiss literary studies' "little" guys. Because dismissal is the cultural default in the U.S., we've got to have an actively inclusionary attitude, and so here I am. :)
* A few years ago, under a prior [nightmare] administration, the German, Italian and Slavic depts. at Brown had their PhD programs more or less scrapped, in some cases to *possibly* be re-instituted after several years pending nebulous review. Part of the story was, we weren't financially feasible. A major research university with the best hors d'oeuvres in any Rhode Island institution told us that.
There was much fighting, there is now a new university president, and the programs are back. But do you see this ever happening to an English department in the U.S.? Yeah, me neither.
During the whole bruhaha, the man then in charge of library circulation wrote in a newspaper letter to the editor something like: "We don't *need* PhDs in Italian. If I want to learn Italian, I'll go to Italy." That tipped me off as to how deeply rooted this anglo-centric problem is, if a librarian goes around making statements like that.
At the time, I wrote a scaaathing, seething rebuttal that got published along with another one from a graduate student in French (whose program wasn't even in danger). We made our points, he wrote a response that didn't address those points, the conversation died: nobody was listening anyway, with the university in general administrative upheaval. Lo and behold, a couple of years later this person was sitting on the Graduate Council when my special-studies-PhD application went through. We had an interesting conversation after my hearing.
So, yeah. Digital humanities. Not digital literary studies, not digital history, not digital philosophy. But most especially not digital English-Language Disciplines.
Thanks for the comments everyone. As I said at the outset, my view is partial and idiosyncratic. Please keep further suggestions coming!
Having to complete coursework outside of my field has definitely not been a liability for me. Often I can find some way to do work for the course that is also relevant to my interests (like my paper for Theresa's medieval seminar), or else it's just a nice break and some practice in thinking about literature from a different direction. I'm still taking non-digital-studies courses now that I don't have to anymore.
I'd also suggest the community college for a good place to start for students with limited money and other resources but with deep aspirations in these areas. At my own institution in Connecticut writers, programmers, and designers in a developing new media program are ready to prepare students for transfer, and we'd love to send people to London, Iowa, or Maryland.
Due to the proliferation of comment spam, I've had to close comments on this
entry. If you would like to leave comment, please send email
to me at mgk =at= umd =dot= edu. Thank you.