Transferring in to American Studies?
August 20, 2006 2:15 AM   Subscribe

Should I transfer into a PhD in American Studies? My supervisor just accepted a job in an American Studies department and I’m not sure if I should be leaving a PhD in English Literature to go with her.

Here’s the story: I started a PhD in English Literature in the UK last September that I promptly interrupted in order to take up a scholarship to obtain a second MA in comparative Indigenous studies in New Zealand. This leave of absence was agreed to by the university since the MA would help to fill in holes in knowledge and experience. While abroad, my supervisor accepted a new position at a slightly higher-ranked university in an American Studies department. It’s not possible to stay at the first university – there are no staff members that could conceivably supervise my project. Further, it's actually not possible to continue my project at any (decent) English Literature department in the UK and I'd much prefer a three year PhD over a longer one in either the US or Canada.

I’m very happy with my doctoral supervisor and would love to continue studying with her: she’s well known, established in her field, and goes above and beyond to help her students. She's truly marvellous. I’m concerned, though, about the change of discipline—English Literature to American Studies—and what this means in the academic world and what it may mean for future job prospects. Some academics have strongly advised against studying in American Studies (even though my work will be identical to what I would have done in an English department): they claim that PhDs in American Studies are simply not hired. Others have indicated that the discipline on my degree parchment matters less than networking, research strength, and how well known one’s supervisor is.

I’m also concerned (though less so) about the size of the department – the new university’s American Studies department is quite small. I’ve struggled quite a bit with my department’s size in New Zealand – there just aren’t that many people around and, academically, it can be a bit isolating. The new university in the UK is a major research university and I would imagine that opportunities for collegiality would exist somewhere, if not directly in the American Studies department.

While in funding limbo (though I've now been funded at the new university), I began looking at schools in Australia and New Zealand and have made some promising contacts and will be visiting a bunch of departments over the next couple weeks. These universities, especially those in Australia, have a number of well-regarded staff members working in areas closely related to my research, have strong postgraduate communities, and enviable climates to boot. A couple of these universities have shown considerable interest in my work and all of them have assigned supervisors – it’s now just a question of obtaining funding. I will be visiting these schools over the next couple of weeks to check things out.

I'd be most grateful for any advice from academics or postgrads. Is it career suicide to contemplate a PhD in American Studies? Would it be better to do a PhD in English in Australia, given the considerable research support and number of staff members working in areas directly related to my research?
posted by lumiere to Education (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea of career prospects in English vs American Studies (Doktor of French myself), but I would like to stress that having a compatible supervisor — someone you can say anything to, and do — is extremely valuable during the quite quite onerous process of giving birth to a PhD. That said, there are many great people out there and I think if you felt more comfortable sticking with the English descriptor it would be an excellent use of your time to check some of these people out, as you are doing.

Bon courage! Je vous salue!
posted by Wolof at 5:41 AM on August 20, 2006

I teach in American Studies at a "new" UK university.

Generally, American Studies in the UK is going through one of its periodic declines - recruitment to undergraduate programmes has dropped dramatically in the past five years (General anti-Americanism in Britain? General feeling it isn't vocational?) and last year alone applications dropped 30%. Departments are closing - Reading, Lancaster recently. Rumour has it that established Depts like Nottingham are finding it hard to fill their places. But... Departments in prestigious institutions are doing OK, and their reputations remain strong. Oxford's American Studies centre was just opened by HM the Queen for instance.

Undergraduate recruitment obviously isn't directly linked to research, but it does result in closures or amalgamations into English Departments. Ironically, this only recognises that many academics working in American Studies Depts can as easily teach and research in English Lit (or Film, etc. etc).

I think academia will consider far more a) where your Ph.D is awarded and b) who you worked with than the discipline on the parchment. Furthermore, my advice to any Ph.D student is to get out and about at conferences and to publish as soon as possible. Getting noticed and having a CV with more than just Ph.D mattersl. When you are competing for jobs and everyone applying has a Ph.D, it will be other things like publications or contracts that impress.

I would not diminish the possibility of gaining teaching experience in your choice. Except in very few "old" Universities and only if you are exceptional, will your ability to teach not be taken into account. We would not appoint an exceptional researcher who could not teach.

So, if you decide to stay in the UK, I would not say that a Ph.D in American Studies (and it just isn't thought of that way - the Ph.D is from an institution, in a topic, with a supervisor) is a deficit. You don't mention the Universities in question, which would make it easier to rank - but you can find that out on-line from various official and unofficial league tables.

All this being said... my view of the UK academic environment is so jaundiced that I have to say that I don't easily advise anyone to undertake a Ph.D today. Low pay, problems in getting hired, sheer treadmill of it all. You really do have to love it. Is the Australian/New Zealand HE environment and hiring better (apart from the weather)? I think this is the question I would seek to find out more about - presuming that you are thinking that your career would therefore lie downunder. If put up against a wall and made to choose, I would go downunder.

Sorry if this is somewhat anecdotal, but I am writing it while taking a break from revising my institution's Quality Assurance Handbook. Such is the real life of an academic...
posted by A189Nut at 5:52 AM on August 20, 2006

Where do you eventually plan to work? In the U.S., a PhD in American Studies is a terrible idea, there are very places with an American Studies program to hire you. Over here American Studies programs are sometimes marketed as allowing you to apply for either history or English jobs, but the reality is that you won't get hired for either, history and English PhDs will. Also, UK PhDs are sometimes less marketable over here because a US Phd involves 2 years of additional coursework plus researching and writing a dissertation, while a UK degree lacks the coursework.

None of which may be relevant in you want to stay in the UK or Commonwealth. May I suggest you post this question over at the forums of the Chronicle of Higher Ed? It is an American publication but the forums have a ton of UK folks.
posted by LarryC at 7:40 AM on August 20, 2006

I'm not sure agree with that comment about UK PhDs. They involve (at least) 3 years of full time research and a longer dissertation than their American equivalent (ABD is unknown in the UK for instance.) For most UK programmes, an earlier MA serves as the taught (and research methods) coursework element. Most all the American academics I've ever talked to have regarded them more highly, not less, while many British academics don't regard American Ph.Ds very highly precisely because they involve too little original research and too much taught coursework.
posted by A189Nut at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2006

Over here [U.S.] American Studies programs are sometimes marketed as allowing you to apply for either history or English jobs, but the reality is that you won't get hired for either, history and English PhDs will.

This is sort of my understanding/experience. I got my MA in American studies in 1994 at a US institution, and decided not to get the Ph.D. for a variety of reasons, the marketability (or lack thereof) of the degree being a major one. I do know people who went on to get their Ph.D.'s in American studies who do teach, but none of them are in American studies per se, nor English or history -- one of them is in art history, one is the director of an undergraduate composition/rhetoric program, and I believe the others are in communications/film studies and women's studies.

However, since American studies is frequently an interdisciplinary department at many institutions here, the reverse situation is often the case -- that is, American studies instructors very often have their "home base" in English and history departments (and other depts., like communications, women's studies, etc.), with the instructors having their degrees in those primary disciplines. Or to put it another way, none of my American studies instructors (as both a grad and an undergrad) actually had a degree in Amercan studies.
posted by scody at 9:52 AM on August 20, 2006

A good point Scody
posted by A189Nut at 10:28 AM on August 20, 2006

Response by poster: American Studies programs are sometimes marketed as allowing you to apply for either history or English jobs, but the reality is that you won't get hired for either, history and English PhDs will.

This has been my understanding, as well, and is precisely why I'm very hesitant to transfer into a PhD in the discipline. While I love what I do, I don't want to pursue something that could make me unemployable.

As Wolof indicated above, I do agree that one's relationship with one's supervisor is incredibly important and I'm very fortunate to have an exemplary supervisor in the UK. Apologies for not including the names of the institutions - they're both Russell Group schools, for what it's worth - but the academic world can be small and I'd prefer that this not be googleable!

I will post this question over on the Chronicle forums - it's been a struggle to find people who can properly advise me on this issue - and I will be sure to look closely at programs down under.
posted by lumiere at 12:59 PM on August 20, 2006

I agree with the comment about "inter-disciplinary" PhDs that *can* get you into either the English or History departments. In my experiance as a International Economics/International Finance PhD, I got absolutely no academic jobs in either field as both Finance and Economics departments felt that they were better served by someone with a degree in their respective fields alone.

Industry (I realize that this may not apply to you) on the hand, was a different cup of tea!

Good luck.
posted by rasputin98 at 5:23 PM on August 20, 2006

Is it possible for you to continue at the same university but maintain your links with your supervisor at her new place? Do your university regulations allow this? You could perhaps look for an appropriate secondary supervisor at an institution closer to you as a back up.

Does the University your supervisor is moving to have any kind of English Lit dept? Is this a possibility at all? You could have a 2nd supervisor there maybe so still having an English degree but maintaining contact with your primary supervisor.
posted by biffa at 2:48 AM on August 21, 2006

Response by poster: Does the University your supervisor is moving to have any kind of English Lit dept? Is this a possibility at all? You could have a 2nd supervisor there maybe so still having an English degree but maintaining contact with your primary supervisor

I'm looking quite seriously at this and it seems as though this would be the best possible outcome: I'll have a degree in a more established discipline while still working with my very good supervisor. Nonetheless, I still plan on looking around at universities in Australia and New Zealand just to cover my bases.

I'm not sure that it will be possible to stay at the first institution owing to the absolute lack of anyone working anywhere remotely near my area of research (I'm not exaggerating here, I promise!). If I were further into my PhD, I'd probably feel a bit more comfortable with this option but, as it is, I'm only three months in (having left to do MA #2) and feel it'd probably be a good idea to have a more accessible supervisor.
posted by lumiere at 3:29 AM on August 21, 2006

They involve (at least) 3 years of full time research and a longer dissertation than their American equivalent (ABD is unknown in the UK for instance.)

Actually, that's not true that British dissertations are longer, not in the humanities, and not likely in the sciences. I'm doing an American PhD, my husband is finishing a British Phd, both in History. I've read both British and American history PhDs - the American ones are substantially longer than the MAXIMUM allowed length for a British dissertation (about 300 typed pages or less at his university - many American and Canadian theses are 400-600 typed pages).

Theorectically, they have the same research time (3 years in the UK, 3 years after the first two years of coursework in the US and Canada), but the reality is that UK students really spend the first 1/2 year to a year planning the project, while North American humanities and social science students normally average 6-7 years for their Phd, giving them 4 years of planning and research, plus any summers during their coursework.

The end result of the two systems: exactly the same. The British PhDs are pushed toward a more focused, concise project, but gain breadth and teaching in post-doc positions after completion. North American PhDs do more diffuse research during their PhD - and end up in the same place. Basically, 5 years after beginning the PhD, they are in the same spot. I think there is more discipline in focusing projects here, but at the same time, I have relished the options coursework gave me in exploring different ideas.

As for the hiring bias - it may exist, but it has no basis in reality. Many of my professors at my Canadian undergraduate university had British PhDs, and my current advisor at an American university has a British PhD. The best people in my field tend to be in Britain (it is British history).


Back to the question: I would have said that your PhD and the topic is more important than whatever department you are in, but as LarryC points out, departments may have uinfounded hiring biases.

That said, having an advisor you work well with is probably the most important factor in completing a good PhD.

Is there any possibility of being joint enrolled? At my university, all people in Rennaisance Studies are joint enrolled in another department (History, English, Art History, etc). That would solve your issues about both department size and bias against interdisciplinary departments.
posted by jb at 5:03 AM on August 21, 2006

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