From the AHA Activities column in the February 2002 Perspectives

CGE Update: How Good Are Today's Graduate Students?

Philip M. Katz, February 2002

Last month, at the annual meeting in San Francisco, the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) held a public forum on graduate training for historians. The forum included an update on the CGE's progress, a preliminary report of findings from the survey of doctoral programs conducted last spring and summer, and a lively discussion with the audience about "best practices" and the future of graduate education. The March issue of Perspectives will include a longer report on the open forum and the CGE's other recent activities.

One interesting set of findings from the doctoral survey is that graduate students are better prepared for careers as historians now than they were just a few years ago, both when they enter and when they complete their doctoral studies. This, at least, is the collective view of the 104 directors of graduate studies (plus a few chairs and other departmental representatives) who responded to the CGE survey.

Thirty-seven percent of the respondents feel that the pool of applicants for graduate study in their own departments has gotten better in the past five years, while only 21 percent think that the quality of applicants has declined (another 38 percent see little change one way or the other). As one director of graduate studies put it, "Nationwide, fewer students are applying to graduate school in history. [But] the ones who do are generally apt and interested." At the same time, 54 percent think it has become more difficult to recruit good students, while only 10 percent think it has gotten easier. As a whole, the survey data clearly suggest that competition for the best prospects has grown steadily—and the schools that can offer more funding have a decided, and probably mounting, advantage in the competition.

According to 28 percent of the respondents, today's graduate students have a broader and deeper knowledge of history than their counterparts did a decade ago, at least by the time they sit for general examinations (only 12 percent think that today's graduate students are less knowledgeable, while 30 percent say that the level of knowledge has remained pretty much constant). Forty-five percent of the respondents also think that dissertations being produced by their departments today are generally stronger than they were a decade ago; just 3 percent think that dissertations have gotten weaker, while 35 percent think that quality levels have remained steady.

Compared to their counterparts 10 years ago, today's graduate students are also better prepared for college teaching when they enter the academic job market (according to 54 percent of the respondents; only 3 percent think that today's students are less prepared for college teaching, while 31 percent say that today's students are about as well prepared as students in the past). As one DGS admitted, "there is more awareness of the importance of teaching" today than in the past, and many institutions are moving (albeit fitfully) to improve the pedagogical training their students receive. However, the anecdotal evidence gathered by the CGE suggests that most graduate programs in history still need to pay more attention to teaching issues.

Of the respondents, 47 percent report that graduate students from their own departments have become more competitive on the academic job market over the past decade (another 38 percent see no change in competitiveness, and only 2 percent think their students have become less competitive). In a response that is surely related to this optimistic assessment, 43 percent also claim that morale in their own departments has improved during the past decade, versus 28 percent who note a decline in morale and another 20 percent who see no change. Curiously, only 9 percent think that morale has improved across the profession as a whole!

Other observers, with different perspectives on the profession, are likely to disagree with these assessments—which do not, in many cases, lend themselves to objective verification anyway. Still, it should be clear to everyone that graduate student interests and expectations have changed significantly since 1982, the median year in which directors of graduate study who were the respondents to the doctoral survey completed their own PhDs.

Philip Katz is research director of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education. He can be reached at Phil Katz.