Committee on Graduate Education Nearing Completion of Report

Colin Palmer, December 2002

Readers of Perspectives are undoubtedly familiar with the several articles appearing in its pages over the last two years on the work of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education. Created by the Council in January 2000, the committee was asked to undertake a comprehensive study of the current practices in graduate training in history and to make appropriate recommendations, bearing in mind the changing needs of the profession, the society, and the larger world.

This was a daunting challenge. The last such study was initiated in 1958. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the study was directed by John L. Snell, and chaired by Dexter Perkins. It addressed such pertinent issues as the supply and demand for university teachers, student recruitment patterns, undergraduate education in history, and training for the MA and PhD degrees. The committee submitted its report, The Education of Historians in the United States, to the profession in 1962. It was an extraordinary document, comprehensive in scope, and sound in its conclusions and recommendations. This pioneering study served its purpose well at the time and helped to shape the texture of masters and doctoral programs in history throughout the nation.

The present Committee on Graduate Education offers a new study to the profession, one that builds on the work of its 1962 predecessor. This new study also was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Our report, however, is focused entirely on doctoral programs. A subsequent study will be devoted to masters programs and the degrees they offer.

Our committee confronted several challenges at the outset of its work. Its 11 members needed to assure themselves that they were thoroughly conversant with the intellectual currents and debates in the profession before they began their important task. Accordingly, they attended a two-day seminar in Washington, D.C., where they wrestled with a variety of issues appropriate to their mission. This seminar was also attended by those who represented several professional and disciplinary perspectives. Subsequently, with the Council's acquiescence, the committee named an advisory panel composed of individuals whose advice would be solicited at various stages in the evolution of the project. This carefully selected body included professors, graduate students, and historians whose fields and professional expertise were not represented on the smaller committee.

Four decades after the publication of the 1962 report, the time seems appropriate for a new study. The discipline and the profession have experienced significant changes over the last several decades. New fields have emerged and new approaches to the study of the discipline have been embraced. The ethnic and gender compositions of the profession are changing and the domains of historical enquiry have expanded. These important developments have enormous implications for the ways in which graduate students are being trained. Some doctoral programs, to be sure, have responded positively to these new imperatives but others have clung tenaciously to past practices.

In order to execute its task well, the committee had to acquire an informed understanding of the current practices in graduate education. It sought to do this in a number of ways, all designed to obtain information from as wide a spectrum of the profession as was possible. In February 2001, the committee surveyed the chairs of history departments, asking them to identify the challenges that graduate education in history conformed. In succeeding months, it surveyed the employers of public historians and graduate students. The most ambitious and comprehensive survey, however, was that sent to 158 directors of graduate studies in May 2001. This daunting questionnaire, of some 40 pages, solicited qualitative and quantitative information on the nature of graduate training in their doctoral programs, the composition of their student body, mentoring practices, financial support for graduate students, departmental culture, attrition rates, placement of graduates, and so on. The response to the survey was extraordinarily gratifying—the committee received 105 completed documents.

In addition to the surveys, the committee asked the readers of Perspectives—and especially the graduate student members of the AHA—to submit their concerns about graduate training, as well as their recommendations for improvements that can be made. It also drew upon the statistics relating to important aspects of the historical profession that the AHA gathered over the years. These information gathering activities were supplemented by open forums at 11 professional meetings. These forums provided the committee with opportunities to engage colleagues face-to-face, to understand their concerns, and to benefit from their advice. The committee also made site visits to nine departments of history where it received the advice of faculty, administrators, and students. Consequently, our report is based upon the information and counsel we obtained over a two-year period from a large number of individuals and groups.

The committees' task is nearing completion and its lengthy report will be ready for dissemination in early 2003. In the meantime, it will continue to solicit the counsel of all of our colleagues. A draft of the report is now being read by several colleagues and students and their criticisms will be addressed. Although it is not likely that everyone will embrace our recommendations, historians should be assured that the committee made serious and sustained efforts to listen to our diverse voices and to shape a report that it thinks will have broad acceptance. At the very least, we expect it to generate a great deal of discussion and even controversy.

The committee will make a preliminary report to the profession at the 2003 annual meeting in Chicago. Historians are urged to attend the session scheduled for Thursday, January 2, 2003, at 8 p.m. (in the Hilton Chicago's Continental Room A) and provide the committee with their informed criticisms and counsel.

—Colin A. Palmer (Princeton Univ.) is chair of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education.