From the 1999 Annual Meeting column in the March 1999 Perspectives
Annual Meeting Sessions on Graduate Student Concerns
Debbie Ann Doyle, March 1999
For graduate students, the American Historical Association's annual meeting can be an exciting opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues. For those on the job market, it can also be stressful and somewhat overwhelming. Sessions at the 1999 meeting addressed the concerns of students seeking employment and solicited input from continuing students on the quality of graduate education.
The popular workshop, "Interviewing in the Job Market of the 1990s," sponsored by the Professional Division, the Task Force on Graduate Education (TFGE), and the Coordinating Council for Women in History offered practical advice to those on the job market and those preparing for a future job search. Carla Rahn Phillips, vice president of the Professional Division and workshop chair, said she hoped the session would allow job candidates to hone their interviewing skills and survive the stress of a tight job market. After a brief introduction, participants joined small discussion groups led by volunteers who had either recently conducted their own successful job search or served on hiring committees. The 11 volunteers represented a range of institutions, including teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges, large research universities, community colleges, and museums, enabling participants to investigate a number of different employment opportunities. Volunteers also offered to share expertise in marketing a PhD from an institution outside the United States, entering academia as a second career, and moving from a community college to a four-year institution. Some groups conducted mock interviews while others held informal discussions about the application process and the best strategies for an interview. Discussions considered several hypothetical interview situations, including how to deal with unprepared or argumentative interviewers and how to present oneself when applying for a position slightly outside one' field.
"What Constitutes a Good History Department? Graduate Students' Perspectives," a roundtable sponsored by the Research Division and the TFGE, allowed participants to share their ideas about improving graduate education. The session featured presentations by graduate student leaders from Brandeis, Emory, Howard, and Purdue universities followed by comments from an audience that included graduate students as well as established professionals. The speakers agreed that the best history programs create a sense of intellectual community and encourage the exchange of ideas between faculty and students. They encourage students to publish, provide opportunities for interacting with visiting scholars, and promote collegial relationships among graduate students.
Yael Fletcher of Emory University suggested that a good department should also reward faculty for time devoted to mentoring graduate students who need advice and support to succeed. The speakers noted that intellectual stimulation and a sense of community are vital for students facing a highly competitive job market. As Rich Lindstrom of Purdue University concluded, a good history department should be in part "a place to escape the pressures of the future for the pleasures of the past." The presenters all noted that the level of financial support offered to graduate students also affected the quality of a history department. Although money remains tight at most universities, a well-funded department reduces competition between students and allows them to focus on their studies.
Comments from the audience identified additional issues in graduate education. A question about the increasing length of time required to complete a PhD led the audience to suggest that history departments should consider reducing the number of comprehensive exams and also rethink language requirements for those studying American history. In response to concerns about the high stress level among graduate students, session participants identified exams and the isolation that can sometimes accompany dissertation research as the greatest sources of student anxiety. They agreed that reassurance and encouragement from mentors and fellow students will enable future historians to survive the challenges of academic life. An audience member suggested that job insecurity remains the primary source of tension for graduate students and history departments should take steps to prepare students for careers outside academia. The session participants concluded that a good history department prepares students for employment while providing a dynamic intellectual environment.
Several other sessions at the meeting addressed graduate student concerns. The TFGE sponsored a session on careers outside academia featuring presentations by historians employed in business, museums, and public policy as well as a roundtable discussion of teaching assistants' unions. Graduate students still working on their dissertations had the opportunity to attend sessions on using the archival resources available in Washington at venues such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Research Division and H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine also sponsored sessions on using nontextual materials in scholarly research. The Teaching Division organized several sessions on teaching strategies of interest to both current teaching assistants and future professors, while the Professional Division sponsored a discussion on the job market and the production of history PhDs.
The variety of sessions at the annual meeting addressing graduate student concerns reflected the AHA's continuing commitment to the professional development of future historians.
—Debbie Doyle is a PhD candidate at American University and is a graduate research assistant at the AHA.