What do humanities PhD students actually study?

What sort of research does a humanities PhD student carry out? If you have a PhD in English, for example, what would be a “typical” subject for your thesis? Further, how is this work evaluated? Obviously, the student would have a viva, but how is the “worth” of the work evaluated?

(I don’t intend this to be a slight to the humanities—I’m curious, that’s all).

I can only speak for my field (early modern English literature) and my side of the pond, but typically, research questions might involve:

– Tracing a common theme, idea, etc. in multiple texts throughout the period. Ex.: “How are scenes of popular revolt portrayed in early modern literature?”

– Exploring a particular historical topic that has literary import. (In some cases, this may involve archival research, the same sort of thing that historians do.) Ex.: “How were manuscript copies of poems exchanged and circulated in the seventeenth century, and what can this tell us about who was reading poetry and why?”

– Exploring the relationship between a little-known text or group of texts and more canonical works. Ex.: “Why do so many of Shakespeare’s history plays include references to popular ballads? How do these ballads depict kingship, and what might Shakespeare be trying to do when he alludes to them?”

… Or some combination of the above. Anyway, the final product would be evaluated by a committee of professors, usually chaired by the student’s advisor, sometimes including a reader from outside of the student’s field. At the defense (viva) these readers have the opportunity to ask the student questions, express any reservations they have about the work, and give suggestions for revising it for publication. Generally, they’ll be looking for the following things:

– Does the student’s research make an original contribution to the field? In other words, does it tell us anything that other scholars haven’t already covered, and has the student successfully persuaded us that the topic is important?

– Is the student’s scholarship thorough? Have they overlooked or failed to document primary or secondary sources that have bearing on their topic?

– Is the final product well-written? Does it make a clear, cogent argument?

I’d like to throw in a related question. Do people who study history or any historical period/author/etc. worry about running out of things to study? For instance, Shakespeare’s not writing new plays–isn’t there some limit to what you can say about the old ones?

Usually, you are getting a degree in a specific field, which is simply in the general College of Humanities.

Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time before the monkeys write a new Shakespeare play.

Work in the arts and humanities proceeds exactly as it does in the sciences. You get published by finding a tiny niche that nobody else has written about. You make your mark by disproving everything that was said before you. That allows for infinite adaptability.

Check Dissertation Abstracts for Shakespeare and see what comes up.

Plus, a lot of the sciences aren’t exactly bursting with opportunities. For example, Biology has expanded only by branching out into genetics and biopsych and other such fields, as even the fundamental biological processes are pretty well understood. But there’s no basic questions just waiting for you to go answer them as once existed.

In my experience, historians constantly come up with new things to write about by ripping others’ works and ideas to shreds, which leads to lifetime-long feuds between rival groups. I’m only being partially unserious; not for nothing did my supervisor’s husband, Clive Holmes at the University of Oxford, refer to the collective noun for historians as “a malice of historians.”

But it was also my experience that most history doctoral candidates survive by either (1) writing about things that have already been written about, but using new research methods, (2) writing about things that have already been written about, but using a different historical perspective, or (3) writing about things that have already been written about, but going into unsurpassed fantastical detail. My own dissertation was a lot of (1) and a bit of (3), none of which prepared me for working in academia, and so I work in university fundraising.

It is amusing–or discouraging–to read history of mathematics in which the invention of calculus is being ground finer and finer while all the great 20th mathematicians are dying off, never interviewed for future history. Similarly, Shakespeare has not written a new play in nearly 400 years, but there are always more obscure archives, new angles to examine things from, new outlandish explanations of things, to keep them going forever.

The great new thing in 20th century literary studies was deconstruction, a theory so esoteric that I would not try to explain it even if I thought I understood what it was about.

This is at a slightly lower level than you’re thinking of (MA, not PhD), but there’s more to be examined than you may think.

For example, I’m currently researching the 1919 elections in New York County. There’s been quite a bit written on NYC politics, but not much on that election, and most of what has been written has been in passing, with too great a focus on a different topic, at least forty years ago, has flaws, or a combination of the above. I’ve managed, in that way, to find a niche, and there’s a lot more to that niche to be filled.

The same thing was said about physics over a hundred years ago, by several leading physicists of the time. It is left as an exercise to the reader how many “fundamental physical processes” have been discovered since then.

Biology is a particularly bad example, as we’re just now learning about the role of epigenetics in inheritance, which is definitely one of those fundamental biological processes that we thought we understood so well.

In History, a whole new host of research options have opened up with the advent of social and cultural histories since the 1960s. Here are some topics being written on in my History department:

  1. Scottish global connections to Brazil via exported wool and Holland’s short-lived control of the region.

  2. Early modern beliefs around male menstruation.

  3. Early modern “pneumatic medicine” involving newly-isolated gases.

What “basic questions” are you talking about? There’s a hell of a lot that isn’t understood about ecology, evolution, behavior, and many other fields of biology. I assure you there is no shortage of potential thesis topics in many areas of Biology besided genetics and biopsych.

I was never a graduate student in English literature, but if I were, I would want to explore the development of English humor. There are characteristic features which are evident at least as far back as early P.G. Wodehouse, and in the work of later authors like Douglas Adams and Frank Parkin, and the whole British comedy TV thing as well. Damn, I bet if my Middle English were better I’d find it in Chaucer too. Hmmm…he could have written something like Mr. Creosote, couldn’t he?

“Ponderysly he bulged in,
His geant bely on a bedd of lytle whyls”

I am a mature age PhD student in the English Department at La Trobe University, Australia. I come from a very different background - my first degree was engineering, then education, followed by postgrad in computing and then a Masters in Education looking at fractal geometry and chaos theory with gifted kids. I am an author of 14 books, with my last two being natural history - Crocodile: evolution’s greatest survivor and Spiders: learning to love them. Spiders has just gone to press and comes out next February. Previous books have all had a science theme, but more physics and math, as well as skepticism about claims of the paranormal.

I am researching animal narratives - any sort, not just straight non-fiction, including those from oral traditions. The goal is to help with the new direction I am taking as an author. As someone with a science background examining narrative, I see it the stories differently. With the input from the humanities, I am seeing ancient narratives in a way which those from a straight humanities or a straight science background couldn’t. It is leading to some exciting findings and at least two more books! The first year has been mind blowing going to seminars to learn the language and thinking of my new discipline.

I think the trend to multidisciplinary work will reveal a large number of areas of human knowledge which are far from understood. Some universities are very receptive to crossing the disciplines. Some are still very conservative.

As for biology being basically all known, I can’t imagine where that would come from. Having just spent a few years obsessed with spiders and learning all that I can about them, there is a huge amount requiring research Arachnologists are still trying to classify them (they are probably about 15-20% done), so almost nothing is known about the behavior of most species. No real idea how they do that silk making trick of theirs - certainly not enough to replicate it. No idea about most of their biology. Little known about their ecological role. And so on.

And that’s just spiders!

I, for one, suddenly find myself fascinated with this topic. I don’t suppose you have an overview handy?

I’ve often thought the uncomfortable pathos that is central to much British comedy to be a topic I’d like to study. Alas I’m saddled with the sack of shit I started four years ago. I cannot wait to be finished my studies.

I can tell you something only slightly related- in many areas around the world that have poor sanitation, schistosomiasis (bilharzia) is a very common disease- even nearly universal in some areas. One of the symptoms of schisto is that you start peeing blood. In parts of Mali, at least, this tends to happen to kids in adolescence and is considered to be male menstruation.

There’re virtually no new species, new phenomena, new ideas to look at. We can delve deepre and deeper into old known stuff, but at some point it loses its savour.

This is actually your second post in response to one of mine, so on the physics question: assumign that “we found a new way once and therefore we will never run out of them again” is an insane argument. The fact is that there may be no vastly deeper understanding of physics - or anything else. I hope that is not the case, but we may well have nearly deciphered the universe. We understand virtually all its physical properties, how matter works, and how forces interact.

Likewise with biology. We understand darn near everything about how proteins, cells, tissues, organs, and organisms act, interact, live and die. Sure, we’re only beginning our study of genetics, but that’s an innately limited field, and we’re already climbing through it at an enormous rate.

It prolly won’t be that long before we can simply make designer creatures wholesale, or alter the genes of current ones. We seem quite likely on the very doorstep of regeneration technology with stem-cell research. But these are all applications of existing knowledge.

The fact of the matter is that we know upteen ways to do anything. Our limitations are primarily technology development or energy resources, and there may be no way around some of them. Other limitations may be fixable but only with awesomely long lead times: e.g., we might be able to warp across space but only with ample amounts of exotic matter, which may or may not actually exist or have the properties we need.

The last fundamental discovery I can think of was genetics, and that was long before I was born. In my entire life, I have never once seen a shift in our fundamental knowledge of our world or ourselves. And I’m not convinced that there’s definitively many more out there to get. There might be, but maybe not.