A PhD in Theater

Working in Theory to Work in Practice

Whenever I meet someone new I’m always happy to tell them that I am currently pursuing a PhD. “Oh, wow, that sounds really incredible…” and other head-inflating statements about the prestige, honor, and difficulty of such a task often follow that make me feel very good about the educational path I have chosen to take. But, then there is the question that inevitably follows, which usually results in a small amount of anxiety and trepidation: “What are you studying?” But, I always answer with the confidence of someone who has full faith in his life decisions that I am pursuing an advanced degree in theatre. There is often another affirmative shake of the head, a look of interest, and then the conversation is over.

The social, cultural, and educational value of such an advanced degree in theatre is reflected in more than the casual conversations of this PhD student. With every conference I attend and every person I talk with currently holding a PhD in theatre (regardless of their employment status), the mantra is always the same: there are vastly more PhD graduates in theatre than there are jobs for them to fill. Furthermore, the question about the necessity of such a degree and its place in the halls of academia is becoming more and more, well…questionable. Many years of hard work, long hours, plenty of hair pulling and in the end what’s waiting for me?

The Web site for the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) provides a FAQ section for those who may be considering a PhD in theatre. It is a very realistic picture about what to expect, generally, in attempting this herculean task; providing neither a rosy and rich future for theatre PhDs, nor a broke and unhappy life of job seeking. But, much of the research is a decade old and does not reflect a post-recession artistic and academic world, where the practical necessity of theatre in our larger society is increasingly seen as a cornerstone of youth culture that is eventually memorialized once one moves into adulthood and more “realistic” exploits—You can study theatre in college only if it leads to a steady paying job! In essence, it is the professional training value of theatre departments—the acting, design, administrative, and management classes—that are the bread and butter of most departments. The idea of college as a “job factory,” an idea which permeates our cultural view of higher education (something to debate for another time), has pushed theatre departments to look to MFAs and other theatre professionals who have connections in real-world artistic spheres as a way to bolster the claim that their particular department is a professional training program that can get a perspective student a job after graduation. Just look at the advertisements of any theatre department, even from small liberal arts colleges, and you’ll see what I mean.


Thus, when I complete this journey and begin applying for jobs in theatre departments across the country, I will be competing not only with other newly-minted PhDs, but also MFAs, many of which will be moving from the professional theatre world (the commercial and nonprofit alike) into the educational theatre world.


Kyle A .Thomas
Kyle A. Thomas.
Photo by Univeristy of Illionois at Urbana-Champaign.

In an article written for The Chronicle of Higher Education in January of this year, a Phd in theatre writing under the alias, Jody Olson, presents an argument for eliminating the theatre PhD altogether. The crux of his argument lies in the academic equivalency the MFA has gained in respect to the PhD over the past two or three decades. When departments look to hire new faculty many are equally considerate of candidates holding either a PhD or MFA for teaching a mix of practice-based classes (like those mentioned above) and academic classes (e.g., theatre history, dramatic literature, etc). Thus, when I complete this journey and begin applying for jobs in theatre departments across the country, I will be competing not only with other newly-minted PhDs, but also MFAs, many of which will be moving from the professional theatre world (the commercial and nonprofit alike) into the educational theatre world.

Knowing this emphasis on practical work that many universities place when hiring new faculty, I have included a lot of work on directing theory in my studies and I take as many opportunities as possible to direct on campus and off. In addition, I have written about and presented this work at conferences around the country. So, why not just get a directing MFA? The simplest answer is that I don’t intend to become (solely) a professional director. If I receive opportunities to work in commercial and nonprofit professional venues then I am happy to do so, but I intend to advance and appreciate the art of theatre beginning with young performers who are in the earliest stages of their careers. The goal of so many theatre PhDs and the programs they attend is to be an expert in theatre as a holistic art—its history, theory, practice, literature, criticism, etc. Thus, the impact I hope to have on this art that I love starts at the educational level, not the professional. For many MFAs the opposite is the case: they hope to have an impact at the professional level and occasionally or eventually enter into the educational level.

But, as Jody Olson points out, this is not the reality in many of the departments around the country. In contrast to many PhDs who have spent many years teaching, researching, and completing their degree, an MFA (generally a shorter and less expensive graduate degree) who has been working in professional theatre for many years brings with them a practical authority not gained from the halls of academia. This “real-world training” in the face of the larger cultural expectations about higher education as a “job factory” translates into a seemingly more legitimate training program, one which provides students with the ability to do theatre like it is done in the professional sphere. Thus, the argument for eliminating the PhD hinges on the current state of theatre departments—it’s simply not necessary or practical to pursue a degree most departments do not value like they once did (evidenced, according to Olson, by the growing number of faculty and administration that hold MFAs rather than PhDs).

I certainly understand the position of Olson. So does William J. Doan, Heather S. Nathans, Patrick Anderson, and Henry Bial who co-authored a response to Olson’s piece in The Chronicle. And while they acknowledge many of the troubles facing so many new theatre PhDs in finding job placement, they point out that the metrics by which the success of new theatre PhDs are measured need to be expanded and more detailed in order to truly gauge the number of recent graduates who find successful and enjoyable employment in a varying numbers of fields. The co-authors of this piece represent the past and present leadership of two of the largest higher education theatre organizations in the country, the American Society for Theatre Research and the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Each of these organizations fights tirelessly for the existence and expansion of theatre in higher education and for an understanding of the importance of theatre as a viable and legitimate academic pursuit at any level of education. And in their article the writers point out the need for more data on the state of the theatre PhD field before jumping to conclusions, especially ones that suggest ending the degree altogether.

But, how does a PhD student advance against the larger cultural expectation that I identified above? What do I do in this environment where I must justify my academic pursuits against their practical implementation? Especially in the current state of budget cutting and subsidy shrinking for the arts and humanities.


So, I decided to pursue a PhD, not only to enhance my knowledge of this art and continue teaching, but also to immerse myself in an environment that would hopefully allow me to find new ways to impact the larger theatre world for the better.


I am currently into the second year of my PhD in the Theatre History and Criticism program at the University of Illinois, one of the oldest and most well respected theatre PhD programs in the country. If all goes well, I’ll be ABD by March 2014. I hold a BA in Musical Theatre from Ouachita Baptist University, a small private liberal arts college in Arkansas (one of the few schools that offered a degree in musical theatre when I was looking at colleges back in 2000). Having a BA rather than a BFA set me on a path for enjoying and participating in the entirety of the art of theatre rather than participating in a single facet like acting or lighting design. After college I worked several great acting jobs, primarily in Miami, Florida, but I found teaching to be more fulfilling than performance. I enjoyed introducing the art of theatre—the risky, scary, unpopular, noncommercial—to students and witnessing them discover things about themselves and helping them cultivate new ways of seeing their world. Don’t get me wrong, I love being on stage and I love directing even more, but I found the professional theatre stale, predictable, and stuck. So, I decided to pursue a PhD, not only to enhance my knowledge of this art and continue teaching, but also to immerse myself in an environment that would hopefully allow me to find new ways to impact the larger theatre world for the better.

But the divide between theory and practice is much wider than I could have anticipated. As a theatre scholar, I study, research, and write about theatre practices, both current and historical, but my participation in the implementation of these practices is often very limited. I love teaching theatre, researching its history, and developing new ideas about how to serve as a director for different theatrical practices. And this is where I distinguish myself in my studies: I use my research and scholarship to inform my practice. I have fashioned myself more as a theatre historian, even working very closely with history faculty in addition to theatre faculty, but, for me, what I do as an historian must have real-world applications in an art form that is about doing. So, while I research the history of theatre I also work to develop methods for making historical plays, especially those that are rarely staged, more relevant to current audiences and more enjoyable to stage for theatre practitioners.

In this way, I hope that I characterize myself and my work as unique and useful. Through the practice of directing I can expose students and professionals alike to the study of theatre—its history (often forgotten), literature, and theory. I hope that I’m able to do this on the stage as much as in the classroom.

I look forward to receiving the PhD in theatre. But, I also hold a different perspective towards the state of the field going forward. I know that the field of theatre in academia has changed. I understand why so many theatre departments in the colleges and universities across the country are offering only BFA programs in individual areas of theatre, where, in contrast a decade or two ago, the only places to find BFAs in theatre were at conservatory training programs in a few locations. This is not (just) a product of the state of theatre, but rather a product of the economic and cultural times in which we live. For many, going to college is about getting a job; it’s about making sure you have the best training to put you in a position to succeed once you have achieved your degree. This is not a criticism. I know that theatre is an art of doing and doing must be a part of the PhD in theatre if I am to hope to find a job doing what I love. But I consider doing to be teaching and I argue there is a place for the PhD in theatre as the educator/practitioner who prepares the next generation of theatre artists for the full spectrum of a life making theatre.


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Thanks for the article, Kyle. As a PhD in Theatre History,Dramaturgy, Theory and Criticism, I have absolutely experienced difficulty inprocuring a teaching position. Ihave continued my practical education (workshops) as an actor, and I act anddirect where and when I can find the opportunity. However, the venues in which I perform tendto be dinner theatre/regional lesser recognized places—that is, my work has notbeen in the more recognized metropolitans such as New York, Atlanta, Chicago,Seattle, and Minneapolis. I have been teaching, on-and-off, for 10 years,however mostly as an adjunct, guest director, or full-time faculty wheretheatre was considered an extracurricular and I was the only person in thedepartment (faculty or staff). But, mystudent reviews are stellar—both academic (theatre history and lit) and “practical”(acting, directing, and as a director). My college productions are successful. I love teaching and directing at the college level. Its what I want to do. I have a lot to offer to students. I’m a good teacher, but I cannot get the MFAs (and I must say that mostcollege programs are absolutely stacked with MFAs—many not even having atheatre PhD on faculty) to look at me because the acronym PhD and not MFAfollows my name. I know this to betrue. People holding MFAs have said itto my face, and even more interesting, people who did not know that I am a PhD(just assuming I hold an MFA) have mocked the PhD to me as people who knownothing about performance. It isexasperating and depressing, and I wish I held the answer as to how to changethis for those of us who have spent years in grueling doctorate work (and bythe way my MA was paid for as I taught, but my PhD loan totaled over $130,000.)while participating in practical work.

How should one read this graph, recently published by the same people (ATHE) who assailed Jody's analysis earlier this year ?

Here's the only way it can be read (without any additional information) ...

In 2012-13, a job applicant with a Ph.D. can apply to only 45% of the positions advertised in the "field" of theatre (down from 51% in 1995-6), while a job applicant with an MFA can apply to 85% of them (up from 84% in 1995-6).

Theatre Studies no longer has a relatively stable subject. Because of the progress of the interdisciplinary Humanities, prospective scholars (graduate students) can just as easily pursue their scholarly interests in English, Literature, and History departments and be better ensured employment prospects within and outside the academy, even in a precarious job market. (A glance at trends in publication in major journals reveals that more and more top-level scholarship in "theatre studies" is being done OUTSIDE of theatre departments, in departments of English, literature, and history, or else in departments outside the U.S.) Because these other fields are larger and more homogenous, quality performance is better assured career success, or at least the chance to prove oneself in the scholarly realm. Not so in theatre, where success is now determined not by scholarly merit, measured in terms of publication, but by "fit" within a culture of production. Indeed, the more scholarship one has accomplished, the poorer the "fit" with those who do not publish, work in only one language, and read less. The more a scholar can "serve" the department's production and teaching goals, the better. Research is valued on the college or university level, but only if a prospective faculty member can prove their humility on the departmental level and ensure a search committee that their scholarship is in "service" to production (often via the slippery concept of dramaturgy). PhDs must learn early on that the stakes are low and that quantity counts more than quality because their colleagues won't actually read their work, just count it to make sure that it measures up to the quantity of their productions. To a search committee (as opposed to a tenure and evaluation committee), a peer-reviewed article in a national journal now counts the same as a theatre production anywhere. Better get busy. Conference presentations, book reviews, and production dramaturgy are elevated to the realm of "publications"; theatre departments' websites are chock full of puffery along the lines of "numerous publications in many important national and international journals" … not mentioning that they are mostly book reviews. But at least it seems that the theatre scholar is keeping up with the MFAs' output. And that's all the chair -- increasingly an MFA who has never written for peer-review -- cares about: the illusion of productivity. The once valued criterion of "scholarly reputation" is now measured as one does hits to a website. In this culture, one is expected to also write a book or two, which also just count as production, perhaps in regional theatre, but certainly not Off-Broadway.

Scholarship has been devalued in Theatre as PhD students are asked to prepare to be "generalists" in production and study, while their MFA counterparts can specialize without worry, investing less time to achieve their degrees, reassured that their three-year program will keep them on track toward completion and, barring catastrophe, ensure their successful graduation. This is not the narrative of most PhDs, who must negotiate their place in a dynamic field as they attempt to create original knowledge in the hope of permanent dissemination as a building-block for a larger intellectual enterprise (rather than the quite healthy regeneration of most theatre production). Neither fish nor fowl, PhD students often sacrifice depth for coverage in the hope of pleasing search committees, refashioning themselves to be whatever is needed at the moment. Meanwhile, they compete with the MFA for work in which production is valued more than scholarship, where their scholarly pursuits are seen as supplements to the "real work" of theatre.

Jody admires the clarity of your excellent and judicious thoughts here, but she would like to point out the sheer bull**** of the ATHE/ASTR statement, "the metrics by which the success of new theater PhDs are measured need to be expanded and more detailed in order to truly gauge the number of recent graduates who find successful and enjoyable employment in a varying numbers of fields." The success of Ph.D. graduates is not at issue; it's the (non-)success of Ph.D. programs in providing _added value_ to those graduates as job seekers that is of concern, and prompt calls for eliminating the Ph.D. in theatre in favor of the cheaper, faster MFA (perhaps in "dramaturgy").

A question - you say an MFA is generally a shorter and less expensive graduate degree than a PhD. I'm with you on the "shorter," but don't respected PhD programs pay their graduate students (because, among other reasons, through research and teaching, they're considered to be already contributing to their field and to their school), whereas MFA students certainly don't make money from being a student and are in fact often charged a steep tuition? This has been my experience; if you have a different one, I'm curious to know which schools/programs informed your assertion.

I'd like to address Jane's comments. I'm not sure where your quotation is coming from and it seems to be one person's opinion that you've implied is the opinion of an entire field of artists and scholars. You mention several ideas and combine them without regard to whether they actually overlap or not so I'm going to attempt to tease them out. 1) Yes, theatre can be about commerce but that doesn't mean it can't also be an art. Before I went back to school to get my Ph.D I worked for professional NY theatre and I worked in Broadway tourism. I understand first-hand how commercial theatre works but educational theatre is different. Educational theatre doesn't rely on profits because it's an academic program. You wouldn't expect the history department to have their students selling their papers in the street to fund the department? No. Theatre happens to be able to make a little money to fund itself but no one really expects productions from a university to fund a whole department. So professional theatre and education theatre are different things. Or they should be (for those in the know we could have a conversation about neoliberalism here) 2) Most Ph.D programs offer funding because they need students to teach, research, and work for the university as cheap labor. In exchange, you get a small stipend and your tuition is covered. Now, before you think someone else is paying for it - actually the university is getting a HUGE DEAL on not having to pay professors and researchers a real salary and real healthcare. It's how major universities run. This is actually a pretty big difference between getting a Ph.D and an MFA. Most, not all, but most MFA programs don't offer this. So, actually getting a Ph.D you end up with fewer loans. I mention this because you seem very concerned that students don't know they need to pay their loans. They do. But I would add that these students loans are very different from students loans in the past. They get sold to other banks, the interest rate changes, and they've already gotten rid of the government subsidies grad student loans program. On top of that, it not just grad students but all students who are seeing the cost of college rise in ways that would have made it impossible for our parents to go to college. 3) Theatre can be very inexpensive. Even in New York, where theatre tickets can go well over $100 for the best seats - there are tons of small theaters where you can see theatre for under $20. And that's only NYC - there are theatres all around the country that probably run in the $10-$20, that's basically the cost of going to a movie and we don't charge $ 9 for coke. 4) A University is a school. But sadly, no, Obama still won't pay off my loans. I do however also volunteer in a prison teaching - no one has offer to pay my loans there either. 5) Unless I missed something, the whole point of this article was that academic theatre needs to be more connected to professional theatre. So what Mr. Thomas is saying is that, yes - it needs to be working both inside and outside the university. You are, in fact, arguing - in a much more aggressive tone - what he just wrote. 6) I don't expect anyone to pay for me. I also recognize that I pay for other people all the time. That's a community. When someone goes to the hospital but they don't have insurance. I am part of paying for that. The roads I drive on, part of that. The public school I don't use because I don't have children, part of that. You might not want to pay for that arts or this loan forgiveness plan, that I now hope is real, but there are a lot of things I don't love paying for like coach's salaries for teams that can't win a game but I'm part of a community. 6) I think the major unspoken element of what you wrote is that you don't think artists work. They are a drain on society. I could give statistics about how little government money actually goes into the arts or how crazy hard theatre people work at every level but what's the use. You see this huge gap between what we do and what "real" people do. My kind of art doesn't think that about you.

Thanks for this post, Kyle. (I just finished my grading for the semester, and so, at last, I have time to catch up on HowlRound conversations.) As often as I've thought about the issues you raise, I've never really framed it the way you do: that people who pursue Ph.D.s know they want to teach. So often true. I know that was part of my thinking when I decided to earn a Ph.D. That said, I am surrounded by colleagues with MFAs who are excellent teachers. I know you have no intention of drawing such a hard line between the two paths; you've simply planted a seed that has, once again, inspired me to explore the boundaries we manufacture for ourselves. And with that exploration, I feel the impulse to resist (in Ph.D. parlance) the binary.

I think theatre PHDs can certainly be practitioners of theatre as dramaturgs and literary managers. As you said in your article, you look for ways that older, less produced scripts are accessible to young audiences. Is that not one of the jobs of dramaturgs? I would argue that a BA makes more sense in terms of job security than a BFA in theatre. With a BFA in theatre, aren't you limiting yourself to only a career in theatre? What do you do if it does not work out? With a BA, admission to law or med school might be more likely.

Many PhDs certainly serve as dramaturgs, literary managers, etc. But, except in a few markets, these jobs are few and far between. Yes, I agree that the BA is more flexible and "secure," but in today's world of higher education it simply isn't valued in the halls of academia. Most undergrads are advised towards the BFA (at least in my experience).

All of this is great But don't expect to make a living - I read an article this week about people saying "We are artists and we are deserving of making a living because we are artists, if we don't make a living wage then we are doing this as a hobby, and why shouldn't the arts be paid for, so therefore the government should be making grants to us to make art." -- and I say no way. Because why should the nurse and the doctor and the plumber and the bus driver or even the small business owner be taxed to pay for your desire to make art? So make art, but realize theater is not really an art - it is "show business" only recently has theater been considered a high art form, and this is really because of the rise of the MFAs and PhDs and the justification of the university systems that have you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans - and you MUST pay them. Don't not pay them. You chose to go to school and study "art" and make your life meaningful for yourself. But those of us who are accountants and dishwashers and taxi drivers who can't even afford the price of tickets to see a play, shouldn't have to pay increased taxes when Obama "forgives" the student loans. Your kind of art is a luxury, for you and for the elites - who are the only people who can buy tickets to theater these days - the 5% are those who buy tickets. The 95% can't afford to go. So unless you're doing theater in prisons or schools, then pay your student loans off. Don't expect the rest of us to make sure you have a living wage as your work as a "theater artist" - and seriously you might have been better off making theater - working in theater where you can see what it's really like far from the protected and precious university walls. Good luck, pay your debts and remember - even Shakespeare considered it "show business" the world of TV is right now where theater was in his day. When the main goal was to sell tickets and not be boring.

Morning Jane - I don't know where you are in the country but where I live and where I've traveled I've managed to see quality theatre (new scripts, good actors, decent-mindblowing production values) relatively cheaply. The trick is not to limit "theatre" to Broadway/off Broadway/equity houses. Now while I would also like to be paid a living wage for doing the work I do in theatre - I choose to work with smaller companies creating non-boring interesting work that make it a priority to be accessible to lower income (including prisons, schools, pwyc, pwww). Many smaller companies even larger ones like the Guthrie - offer volunteering (ushering etc) in exchange for "free" tickets. I encourage you to look into those options as it tends to open doors to other "free" ticket deals. With the proliferation of ticket discount sites like groupon, and goldstar a night out for two can be found for less than 50 dollars. Please take advantage of these programs, seek out pwyc nights and to bring others with you. Supporting organizations who make it a priority to provide accessible ticket prices is the way to encourage and spread the practice.

Theatre began as a religious performance, and not as a business. It actually only becomes a business during the later stages of human development, when life becomes so specialized that the nurse and the doctor and the plumber and the bus driver want to hear music while they work but cannot make it themselves, or want to see movies, plays, or TV shows about something besides religious ideas sometimes.

Also, Shakespeare NEVER wrote of theatre as a business. Find me a quote where he references theatre as a way to earn a living. He doesn't. He wrote instead that "All the world's a stage, and the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and each man in his time plays many parts." To him theatre was not a job, not a business. It was life. That said, had he not had the financial support which enabled him to revel in the theatrical world, play about as an actor and spend his leisure time writing plays, I doubt he'd have laid pen to paper at all. Van Gogh didn't paint because it was profitable: he painted because he had to. Had his brother not subsidized his art he'd have been a clerk muttering to himself, and eventually a homeless man muttering to himself. Same with quite a few very gifted theatrical professionals.