AHA Activities

CGE's E-Mail Survey Focuses on Challenges in Graduate Training

Philip M. Katz, April 2001

At the beginning of February 2001, the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) broadcast a brief but important e-mail survey to every history department chair on the AHA's electronic mailing list, which includes more than 630 departments in the United States and Canada.1 We asked them to share their views and concerns about the current state and possible futures of graduate education in history. The survey consisted of five open-ended questions:

  1. What has/have been the most significant challenge(s) facing graduate students in your department in the last decade?
  2. What has/have been the most significant challenge(s) facing your graduate program.
  3. What other problems or concerns in graduate training would you like to see the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education address?
  4. What recent changes, if any, have been made by your department (or institution) to improve graduate training? What prompted these changes?
  5. What do you think the AHA, as a professional association, can do to improve graduate education?

As an incentive to frankness, we promised that any comments would remain anonymous except to the members of the committee. But even without this promise, historians seemed eager to talk about the problems and successes of their own departments. They were also pleased that the AHA was turning its attention to graduate education: "The [committee] has taken on some crucial issues," commented one respondent. "We look forward to your report(s)."

During the next two weeks, the CGE received nearly 100 responses from 92 different departments—an encouraging response rate, considering the short deadline and the competing seasonal pressures of departmental job searches, graduate admissions, promotion decisions, and so on. The answers ranged in length from terse, sometimes one-word, comments to several paragraphs. About two-thirds of the responses came directly from department chairs and the rest came from directors of graduate studies, to whom the chairs were encouraged to forward the original e-mail query. All regions of the country, plus six Canadian universities, were represented in the sample. Forty-five departments in the group have doctoral programs, another 28 award master's degrees, and 19 teach only undergraduates. As "consumers" of recent PhDs, however, the last group offered an important check on how well graduate programs are serving the hiring needs of other departments; indeed, some of the most thoughtful responses came from departments without graduate students.2

The results hardly constitute a complete or scientific survey of graduate education. Because the e-mail query was designed as an informal consultation with the profession, the results don't lend themselves to a detailed numerical analysis. (This month's formal survey of history departments, discussed below, will be more rigorous in its methodology.) Nonetheless, the query yielded valuable insights about the challenges facing particular departments, different kinds of departments, and the profession as a whole. These insights will help guide the CGE in the months ahead. On behalf of the committee, I'd like to thank everyone who responded to our e-mail. The respondents were both optimistic and concerned about the state of graduate education, but here I want to focus on the problem areas they identified. Future articles in Perspectives will focus on what some departments are already doing to improve graduate education, and what the AHA can do as a professional association. In the meantime, the committee is eager to hear about "promising practices" in individual history departments and to gather suggestions from the whole profession.

Not surprisingly, the respondents identified placement (or the general state of the job market) and funding as the most significant challenges facing their graduate students and their departments. Nearly every response carried a variation on these two themes, which often were linked together: "Funding. Virtually everything else leads from that. [Without enough funding,] they take longer to finish their degrees, they go to fewer conferences, have less time to publish, have trouble finding jobs."3 And despite the recent upswing in the market for history professors, "the scope for employment is [still] seen as limited" by many students, even in departments that have done a good job of placing their graduates.

Beyond the ubiquitous concerns about funding and placement, the historians in our sample were less unanimous about the other challenges facing graduate students in their own departments. Here are some of the typical challenges they listed, in a rough order of frequency: the length of time it takes graduate students to complete their degrees (whether this stems from a lack of funding, an extended period of dissertation-wrangling, or the special challenges that arise when students have to combine a full-time job with a part-time degree program); a limited range of graduate course offerings; the struggle to acquire a sufficient breadth of historical knowledge and teaching experience, especially for today's job market; overwork as teaching assistants; inadequate preparation as undergraduates (especially in foreign languages); the "growth in interdisciplinary scholarship"; and the "feeling among graduate students of being left out." (No doubt graduate students would respond to this question with a different list of issues, or at least rank them in another order. The CGE plans to find out with an upcoming e-mail survey of graduate students.)

Turning from graduate students to graduate programs, the respondents offered a different, though overlapping, set of concerns.4 Again, placement and funding led the way (with several departments focusing on the tight—and growing still tighter—pursestrings of college administrators and state governments). The next most frequently cited challenge was "recruiting a sufficient number of students to keep [our] program viable while maintaining quality at an acceptable level." The respondents could not agree on the root cause of this crisis—"blame it on the economy," wrote one, "or what you like"—but the concern is shared by departments that tap very different applicant pools, which suggests that the pools have remained separate while shrinking in unison. "Graduate recruitment is becoming increasingly competitive among the top graduate schools," commented the chair at one of those schools, "with students for the most part less well prepared than before." Others disagreed with this grim assessment: despite "a diminishing number of applicants to our graduate program," the director of graduate studies at a slightly less prestigious institution claimed that "those who do apply seem better prepared and much more committed to graduate study." For many, the recruitment of minority students is a special area of concern.

The issue of recruitment is complicated by the fact that some history departments have voluntarily reduced the size of their incoming graduate classes, whether in response to the job market or as a way to maximize the funding and attention that they can extend to each student. Judging from this survey, a significant number of historians don't think the trend toward smaller graduate cohorts has gone far enough. As the department chair at one liberal arts college noted, "there is still a glut of . historians. Is nobody telling these people from the start that they are unlikely to find jobs?" Another chair asked whether it was "feasible for the AHA to propose limits on the size of graduate programs, taking into account their national rankings and the size of the respective history faculties?" Yet even now, some history departments are "at or below the 'critical mass' needed to maintain graduate seminars, let alone provide productive faculty with students to work with." In the months ahead, the CGE will be looking more closely at both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of this recruitment crisis.

Perhaps the most vexing problem highlighted by the CGE query is that many graduate students do not receive an adequate preparation for college teaching, or for the range of academic work environments they are likely to experience during their careers. A common refrain from departments that train PhDs—and from departments that just hire them—is that graduate students don't seem to realize that "most jobs [involve] heavier teaching loads than those [at the schools] where most graduate programs are housed." The chairs at undergraduate departments were especially insistent about this, and often brutally frank in assigning blame:

As an institution that hires new PhDs, [we] would like to see grad institutions recognize that most of the jobs are not at Ivy schools but at regular boring 4-year colleges. Many of the people we interview are dreaming of a job at Yale and, in the meantime, spend only 2 percent of their time thinking about teaching.

Recent experience in hiring for new positions indicates that many PhD students are still being very narrowly trained in their own field.

Some of our most prestigious universities are turning out new PhDs whose knowledge is a mile deep and an inch wide.

With equal concern, several chairs noted "an increasing lack of professionalism in the newly minted PhDs who apply for jobs. Not only naïveté about the types of courses they will need to teach but a complete lack of awareness of the myriad other aspects of the job of being a professor." The good news is that many doctoral programs—at least in this sample—have come to recognize these weaknesses in the preparation of their own graduate students. In response, they are already implementing new graduate courses that focus on college pedagogy, plus other training and mentoring programs designed to improve every aspect of professional development. (These are the kinds of "promising practices" that the CGE is working to identify and disseminate; likewise, the "Preparing Future Faculty" initiative is an example of what the AHA is already doing to address the concerns identified in the e-mail query.)5

Without going into too much detail, let me simply list some of the other problem areas that respondents to the CGE query recognized in their own departments. Again, the list is partial, and different departments emphasized different things: the struggle to offer a sufficient range of graduate courses, especially as history faculties shrink in size; the "compensation for faculty direction of graduate students," which is often disproportionate to the amount of time and effort that faculty members actually spend on the graduate students; shortening the average time to degree; enhancing the language skills of graduate students; engaging the new multimedia technologies, both for current teaching and as part of the training that graduate students need for future jobs; mentoring and advising; the need to train students for a range of "alternative" careers and "to be more accepting of non-academic aspirations"; the limitations of traditional teaching and examination fields (which some departments are replacing with thematic, transnational, or interdisciplinary fields); even "maintaining a belief in a common core on which students can have comprehensive oral and written exams."6 To this daunting list can be added some of the other challenges, not necessarily specific to their own departments, that respondents asked the Committee on Graduate Education to investigate: the causes and rates of graduate-school attrition; the postdegree careers of "MA and PhD students who graduate from second- and third-tier programs"; the relationship between "academic history" and "public history" degree programs; and the state of the MA degree—especially the terminal MA, which respondents described as "haphazardly planned," with a future "very much in doubt." "What exactly should an MA in history be?" asked the chair of one state college branch with a small master's program; other historians wanted to know if the CGE could draft "voluntary guidelines" or even accreditation standards for the MA. (They will be glad to know that the master's degree is an important part of the CGE's agenda.)

The host of issues surrounding graduate education for historians is enough to make your head spin. Fortunately, the issues are not intractable, and we are convinced that the AHA can make a difference. The electronic "sounding" described in this article is only part of the Committee on Graduate Education's ongoing work. In the near future, similar e-mail queries will be directed to two groups of AHA members with unique perspectives on graduate training: current graduate students and recent PhD recipients.7 Later this month, the directors of graduate study at every doctorate-granting history department affiliated with the AHA—plus a representative selection of history departments that offer only master's degrees—will be receiving a longer, more detailed survey in the mail (copies will also be available on the AHA web site). If you are a director of graduate studies, please take the time to complete this very important survey and return it to the AHA as soon as possible. Feel free to discuss the survey with your colleagues and graduate students; in fact, we strongly encourage it.

The CGE is also holding a series of open forums at professional meetings that attract different segments of the history community. The first of these took place at the AHA's own annual meeting in Boston this past January; others have taken place, or are planned, for meetings of the Society for History in the Federal Government, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the National Council for Public History, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, and others. Finally, starting this fall the CGE will conduct a series of site visits to selected graduate programs around the country, which will give us an opportunity to examine more closely some of the "promising practices" adopted by various departments. Details from all of these information-gathering efforts will become part of the committee's final report in 2002, and the basis for its suggestions to the field for improving graduate education.

—Philip M. Katz is research director of the AHA Committee on Graduate Education.

Notes

1. For a description of the CGE and its work, see Thomas Bender, "AHA Launches Study of Graduate Education," Perspectives (September 2000). The committee is chaired by Colin Palmer, who can be reached at cpalmer@princeton.edu. The committee's work is generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

2. In the course of this study, the CGE will be exploring the nonacademic as well as the academic "consumers" of professional historians.

3. In some cases, quotations have been altered to preserve anonymity.

4. Some respondents thought that the committee's distinction between the "challenges facing your graduate students" and the "challenges facing your graduate program" was overdrawn, even specious; others responded to the second question with a brief "see above."

5. See, for example, Noralee Frankel, "Shaping the Preparation of Future Social Science and History Faculty," Perspectives 38:6 (September 2000). For a discussion of the Preparing Future Faculty programs see David Rayson, Edward L. Farmer, and Robert Frame, "Preparing Future Faculty: Teaching the Academic Life," Perspectives 37:1 (January 1999).

6. The issue of appropriate curricula, both for MA and PhD students, loomed large in the answers to this survey. But at least one respondent felt that, given the major dislocations in the job market, any discussion of new curricula was "the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

7. Lillian Guerra, chair of the AHA's Task Force on Graduate Education and member of the AHA Council, reported—at the open forum held by the task force during the 115th annual meeting in Boston—findings from a recent e-mail survey of graduate students conducted by the task force.