Summary of the Education of Historians for the 21st Century

Committee on Graduate Education, October 2003

Editor's note: Earlier this year, the AHA Council received and endorsed the final report of the Committee on Graduate Education. The full report, entitled The Education of Historians for the 21st Century, is now in publication at the University of Illinois Press and will be available in December 2003. Here we present a summary of the report's guiding principles and main recommendations.


Nearly 50 years have passed since the American Historical Association undertook its last comprehensive examination of doctoral education for historians in the United States. Much has changed since then. The challenge facing the profession in 1958 was how to increase the production of PhDs in the field substantially without weakening standards. In fact, the report pointed toward more than maintenance of standards, making influential recommendations for strengthening the education of professional historians. That study, The Education of Historians in the United States (1962), by Dexter Perkins and John Snell, shaped the profession's development for a generation.

The present report was written under different circumstances, but with a similar ambition: to strengthen the education of historians. Doctoral training in history is now pursued across the nation—in contrast to the immediate post-WWII period, when most advanced education was concentrated in a small number of institutions, clustered especially in the Northeast. The discipline's intellectual agenda has greatly expanded as well; the geographic coverage is now global, and the domains of inquiry include every dimension of human experience. The social origins of historians themselves have become increasingly diverse. Nearly half of all history doctorates are now earned by women. There have also been significant gains by members of underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups—though the progress is uneven among the groups and the total numbers still fall far short of a reasonable representation.

The professional identity of historians is broader today than it was in the 1950s, with academic employment complemented by well-defined careers for public historians. Despite the record number of academic positions in history advertised in 2001, the mass of individuals with PhDs in history still significantly exceeds the opportunities for academic employment. The recent downturn in the economy and a mounting fiscal crisis at the state level will only make the job market worse. Bringing the number of PhDs who want an academic career more in line with the academic employment market is a fundamental concern of ours. But so is the better preparation of historians for the various careers they may pursue as professional historians outside of the academy.

This report comes at a propitious moment in the history of American higher education. The academy as a whole is in the midst of a generational transition that parallels the intellectual transformation of history as a discipline. A third of the history professoriate earned their PhDs in the 1990s, while nearly 40 percent of current faculty members expect to retire in the next decade. The recent recipients of history doctorates, along with those who receive their PhDs in the near future, will soon inherit academic history. This cohort—its size, its demographic composition, its intellectual training, and its professional formation—is vitally important to the profession as a whole as we enter the 21st century.

In January 2000, the AHA Council established a Committee on Graduate Education to investigate the graduate training of historians in all of its aspects. The committee was chaired by Colin Palmer (then of the CUNY Graduate Center, now of Princeton University). Thomas Bender of New York University served as secretary and was the principal author of the committee's report. Philip M. Katz was the committee's research director. The entire project was generously supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Research Methods

The Education of Historians for the 21st Century addresses three revolutions in the historical profession, each with roots in the past four decades and major implications for the decades to come: the intellectual transformation of the discipline; the changing demography of graduate students and faculty; and long-term trends in employment opportunities for historians, both in and out of the academy. The full report locates these revolutions in the larger changes of American higher education (and even society), while exploring the interconnections among them.

While preparing this study, the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education gathered a substantial body of quantitative and qualitative data. The sources included data that was already being collected and analyzed by the AHA; published data from the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies; and data from the committee's own surveys of history department chairs, history doctoral programs, graduate students, and public history employers. The committee also met with hundreds of history faculty and students during open forums at eleven professional conferences and site visits to nine diverse history departments. Finally, we examined a wide range of studies dealing with graduate education, covering not just history but other related disciplines in the United States and abroad.

Organization of the Report

This summary does not exactly reproduce the organizational structure of The Education of Historians for the 21st Century. All of the issues noted here receive significantly more elaboration in the full report, which also treats some issues that are not addressed here. A copy of the actual table of contents appears at the end of this summary.

The full report is divided into two parts. Part 1, which was principally written by Thomas Bender, constitutes the report proper. It has three chapters: Chapter I is a social and intellectual history of the profession over the course of the past half-century, with some projections into the future. Chapter II lays out what we call "necessary discussions"—issues and problems of general import to the historical profession that nonetheless require local resolution. Chapter III includes more specific recommendations, with references to some of the "best practices" discovered by the committee. Part 2 of The Education of Historians for the 21st Century—which contains Chapter IV, three appendices, and an annotated bibliography—describes and analyzes the data and research upon which the report is based. This part was principally written and compiled by Philip M. Katz.

Guiding Principles

History must be understood as an inclusive and collective enterprise. As a discipline it shares research protocols; as a profession it shares a commitment to increasing historical knowledge, improving the teaching of history, and promoting the public use and understanding of history; and the work of historians may be pursued in a wide variety of different career settings, including (but not limited to) colleges, universities, and K-12 schools, libraries and archives, historical societies and museums, not-for-profit organizations, and government agencies. Mutual respect across these different settings is essential. So is the sense of collective responsibility for enhancing the public's knowledge of history.

Doctoral education is always very close to the intellectual frontiers of the discipline; as the discipline changes, doctoral programs must engage in continual self-examination and adapt to changing circumstances. However, this is not just a task for historians directly engaged in doctoral training, but must involve other members of the discipline as well.

Historians must understand their role in society as that of educators, regardless of their particular workplaces. Professional historians share a public commitment that helps distinguish the discipline from many others: they take the public, and not just their peers, as established audiences and constituencies. This has implications for the education of historians and their professional practice. For example, all historians should support the central role of history in the liberal-arts curriculum and participate, in whatever ways are appropriate, in the improvement of K-12 history education.

While the intellectual content of history has changed dramatically in the past half-century, the structures and categories that define graduate education have not. This issue must be addressed. In particular, the intellectual content of history is changing in ways that generally invite more interdisciplinary and transnational inquiries. History looks both to the social sciences and humanities; historians must continually rethink but also reaffirm this dual allegiance. Graduate students need (and deserve) guidance as they incorporate relevant theories and findings from other disciplines into their own work. Increasingly, too, they must be prepared to work at the intersection of disciplines, where more and more of the important scholarship and teaching is likely to take place in the years to come.

Intellectual cosmopolitanism and social pluralism ought to guide all aspects of the discipline, but especially faculty appointments, graduate admissions, and curricula.

Graduate schools, individual departments, and the profession at large (including the AHA) have an obligation to bring the production of PhDs into line with the needs of society. At the start of the 21st century, there is an oversupply of history PhDs seeking academic employment (though it should be noted that the seriousness of the mismatch between new PhDs and academic job postings varies by field, with modern American history the most glutted area). Two immediate responses are called for: collectively, history departments need to reduce graduate enrollments and better prepare students for a wider variety of careers in history. An artificially stimulated increase in the production of PhDs in the 1990s is gradually being corrected—though not without pain to students and recent doctoral recipients. However, the number of entering graduate students in history departments that offer the PhD dropped by 17 percent between 1995 and 2000; the result may be a relative improvement in academic placement, which should not be taken as a signal to again expand the supply of graduate students.

Doctoral programs in history must be guided by clear and quite specific goals. These should be developed collectively by a program's faculty members, but with the input of students, administrators, and other stakeholders (as needed), and with a firm understanding of the national issues and concerns of the discipline. These mission statements must address the rationale for having a doctoral program in terms of its national or regional role, including its likely success in serving its students' education and career objectives. They should guide department policies and provide a means of judging the effectiveness of its graduate training. We note that the highest-ranked departments (based on the reputational surveys conducted by the National Research Council) are historically the largest producers of PhDs in the discipline, but they have also led the way in reducing the number of doctoral students. It is important that other departments face the difficult questions of size and even continuation of their doctoral programs. In our view, it is not appropriate to create, maintain, or expand a doctoral program in history simply to obtain more graduate teaching assistants, to reduce faculty teaching loads, to secure a more favorable pattern of state funding, or to boost local prestige.

Once a mission statement is approved, graduate schools are obliged to provide the level of support required to properly fulfill the selected mission, starting (but not ending) with financial aid and administrative support.

The culture of a history department can enrich or detract in important ways from the quality of its doctoral program, as well as affecting the level of satisfaction experienced by both faculty and graduate students. Positive department cultures are not a matter of chance; they are the products of leadership and a sense of collective responsibility. Among the qualities of supportive departments are openness, clear goals and policies, intellectual cosmopolitanism, an appreciation for social diversity, daily practices of mutual respect (both social and intellectual), and an institutional commitment to the history department as a site of intellectual community.

There is ample evidence that doctoral programs in history (along with most of the other arts and science disciplines) do an inadequate job of career preparation. The formation of academic historians is a multiyear, multi-institution project—beginning with the undergraduate major and continuing through at least one graduate program (as students increasingly earn their MAs and PhDs at different institutions), perhaps a postdoctoral fellowship, and then employment until tenure. (Of course, this is just one idealized scenario; many historians never achieve tenure, and many others never seek an academic position.) Most doctoral programs do a good job at what they presently see as their main task: teaching research skills. But they must recognize that more expansive obligations are involved in preparing graduate students for careers as educators and institutional citizens, to say nothing of their public obligations as professional historians.

Nearly every change in the preparation of history doctoral students over the last 25 years has been in the direction of advancing their research skills and speeding the progress on their dissertations. One result is that many new PhDs have an extremely narrow breadth to their historical knowledge. At the same time, there has been a growing emphasis on "analysis" at the expense of "synthesis." Both of these developments tend to weaken the students as researchers and teachers, while diminishing their capacity to bring historical knowledge before a general public.

Over the course of the past generation the study of foreign languages, once central to the professional training of historians, has been devalued, especially among historians of the United States. But a commitment to foreign language skills has never been so important, given our growing recognition of diversity within particular societies (including linguistic diversity) and the trend toward more transnational research. The historical profession's traditional commitment to languages should now be reaffirmed—for all fields, including American history. Undergraduates should be advised early on about the importance of languages (and of study abroad). That being said, graduate schools should provide adequate opportunities and resources for additional language study.

Doctoral students should be informed about issues of professional ethics; about the history, values, and sociology of their chosen profession; and about the character of higher education and other institutions devoted to history (museums, historical societies, archives, etc.). A discussion of these matters should be a formal part of the graduate curriculum; students should not be expected to "pick them up" on their own.

There is an important matrix of responsibilities in graduate education, uniting the students and the faculty in mutual obligation. Irresponsibility on the part of faculty members is too common; indeed, the standards and practices of advising and mentoring could both stand improvement. For their part, graduate students need to keep themselves better informed about program regulations and take more responsibility for their own education.

Unless a department specifically declares and successfully pursues a different mission, doctoral education should be oriented to the full range of professional careers in history. Different careers in the profession offer different work experiences and different kinds of rewards—but all professional careers in history deserve the same respect. Explicit or implicit ranking of different career paths by graduate advisers undermines the unity of the profession (though individual historians will, of course, have their individual preferences and interests). Unfortunately, too many academic historians assume a hierarchy of career opportunities that cannot be justified by any external facts. These assumptions can lead to needless perceptions of failure on the part of those students who pursue career paths outside of the academy. According to our survey of graduate program directors, nearly three-quarters of doctoral programs in history put their top priority on training students for positions not just in the academy, but specifically in research universities. Yet research universities only employ about 30 percent of academic historians in the country (and represent less than 4 percent of all the institutions of higher education). This is a perfect formula for alienation and intimations of failure. In many cases, unrealistic faculty expectations are an unhappy legacy of a brief postwar moment—perhaps as short as a dozen years ending in 1970-71—when academic jobs were plentiful, average teaching loads on the decline, and research opportunities expanding. The "golden era" has become mythic, but it is a poor guide to the future or even the present.

Adequate financial aid is essential to doctoral education. With the downsizing of many graduate programs has come the improvement of financial aid arrangements for individual students (though this is not a universal trend). More and more history departments, especially at private institutions but also at some public institutions in the top quartile of the NRC rankings, have begun to provide multiyear funding packages to all of their doctoral students. We commend this policy and hope that more institutions will adopt it. But we are also concerned that the increased financial risk inherent in multiyear fellowships will encourage some admissions committees to act with excessive caution—with the possible result that creative but unconventional students, or students with undergraduate degrees from less-prominent institutions, will be passed over for "safer" and more conventional applicants. The same caution could work against the goal of increasing diversity among graduate students and in the profession as a whole. (Fortunately, there are ways of avoiding these unintended consequences, several of which are described in detail in the full report.) Finally, despite the recent improvements, even the best financial aid programs still routinely fall short of providing students with enough support to actually pursue their studies "full time." One effect is that more and more students are relying on consumer debt to finance their doctoral training, a topic of grave concern for many students who met or communicated with the Committee on Graduate Education.

The Director of Graduate Studies plays a key role in doctoral education, yet the position is greatly undervalued in most history departments. The status of the position needs to be enhanced; the DGS ought to be provided with compensation beyond a modest stipend (research support, reduction of teaching, travel funds); and the AHA should facilitate a common forum for directors of history graduate programs to share their ideas and concerns about graduate training.

Major Recommendations

Self-Assessment and Strategic Planning

Every history graduate program should develop a clear statement of its mission(s) and a strategic plan for achieving its mission(s). The Education of Historians for the 21st Century includes a list of detailed questions that departments can use to begin the process of self-evaluation required to develop a realistic mission statement.

History departments need to make an honest assessment of the appropriate size of their graduate programs, based on departmental and institutional resources, the range and scholarly interests of faculty members, and reasonable expectations about the job market for graduates—both regional and national job markets, in both the academy and other employment sectors. It is important that everyone recognize that a potential conflict of interest lies at the heart of any discussion of program size: the faculty have an interest in increasing the size of graduate student cohorts (to reduce their own teaching obligations, to maintain a critical mass of students in their own field, as a matter of prestige, and so on), but to make policy on that basis, without fully considering the future prospects of the students, is ethically dubious.

The central role of the director of graduate studies must be understood as curricular and advisory, not bureaucratic. A trained and properly compensated graduate program administrator is indispensable, not just to carry out the routine yet necessary tasks of administration but for a department to be able to undertake the additional tasks of data collection and presentation that we call for in this report.

Admissions and Funding

Effective program administration and informed choices by prospective graduate students both depend upon substantial, reliable, and readily available sources of information. Right now, not enough information is being collected (or disseminated), either by individual departments, graduate schools, or the AHA itself. In response, the Committee on Graduate Education has proposed a long list of the different kinds of information that should be readily available to faculty members and graduate students alike. We also propose the development of a virtual compendium of this data, in the form of a public web site hosted by the AHA containing the "vital statistics" of every graduate history program and other essential information about program aims—including details about each department's success in reaching its stated aims. Participation in the "virtual compendium" would be voluntary, of course, though we assume that a failure to participate will be consequential in the competition for qualified students.

Everything possible should be done to enable prospective students to make informed choices about graduate programs. Ideally, this should include a campus visit.

History departments should take advantage of downsizing to enhance the funding levels of the students who are still being admitted to their graduate programs.

We believe that the master's degree has a vital role to play in enhancing the credentials of prospective doctoral students—especially for students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, or economic groups, first-generation college students, and students with bachelor's degrees from less-prominent institutions. History departments that offer the MA as their highest degree should remain aware of the changing goals and requirements of doctoral programs. Admissions committees for doctoral programs should be especially attentive when reviewing applicants with MA degrees. (We also recognize that the master's degree in history serves many different functions besides preparing a student for further training at the doctoral level. The AHA is currently preparing another report that will focus exclusively on the master's degree.)

Institutional Culture and Doctoral Education

The "master-apprentice" system of graduate instruction dates from the establishment of the university as an institution in the middle ages, but now its vestiges should be abolished. The power of the mentor should never be absolute; the aim of doctoral instruction is not (and should not be) self-replication. Graduate students deserve rich interactions with a variety of faculty members as well as a special relationship with their individual adviser. Advisers should maintain regular contact with their advisees, and vice versa. Advisers should meet one-on-one with their advisees at least once a semester.

Departments should undertake an annual review of each graduate student's progress and report the results to the student in a timely manner. These reviews should involve all faculty members who taught or advised the student during the past year. If a student seems unlikely to successfully complete the program, the department is obliged to inform the student of this judgment at the earliest possible moment. To delay such a communication, however painful it may be at the moment, inevitably means the waste of time and resources at what is typically a crucial moment in the student's life. This benefits no one.

Retention and attrition are important matters not only for the students involved (who must pay a price in time and resources for any decision to stay or leave a graduate program), but for the department as a whole. History departments should monitor attrition more closely than they do at present, learn why students leave the department's doctoral program (ideally through exit interviews), and always seek ways to reduce unnecessary attrition. This should be part of the department's continuing self-examination. Understanding and containing attrition at the departmental level enhances the cost-effectiveness of a graduate school's investment in doctoral students.

Departments should have formal grievance procedures, the procedures should be publicized, and the students and faculty should know them.

Graduate teaching assistant unions have existed on a number of campuses for years, and recently there has been a renewed push for unionization, particularly at private institutions. By law, the decision to unionize (or not) rests with the students alone. The proper position for the AHA, for history departments, and for individual faculty members is neutrality. It is illegal and inappropriate to threaten in any way students who may be involved in union or antiunion campaigns.

Every department should have a placement officer (though smaller departments may need to combine this office with the director of graduate studies). Nonetheless, the work of placing a student requires the commitment and collaboration of an adviser, a placement officer, and other faculty members who have taught the student. Students' vitae and letters of application should be reviewed, placement files carefully constructed and managed, and mock interviews and presentations organized. Students should also be involved in departmental affairs and faculty recruitment to the fullest extent possible, so that their own job searches and the commencement of their own academic careers will not be voyages into an unknown territory.

Graduate students are an integral part of any history department, and they should be made to feel that they are an integral part. There are various ways of achieving this, including providing the students with a "space of their own," mailboxes, a listing on the department web page, establishing a general sense of collegiality and mutual respect—and then keeping track of them after they become alumni. Isolation bears a heavy human cost. Maintaining an intellectual community that respects all members, whatever their different backgrounds and ambitions, is the strongest antidote to the perils of isolation.

Curricula and Professional Development

Based on our investigations, both faculty and students find history departments wanting as intellectual communities. The intellectual vitality and growth of faculty and students depends upon the maintenance of an open forum for intellectual exchange. The organization of regular seminar and/or lecture series can give focus to the department as a place of serious intellectual engagement; informal gatherings (including quasi-social ones, with food and other refreshments) can serve the same function. These activities are not optional extras; they are essential.

Dissertation seminars prevent isolation during the prolonged period of research and writing. These do not have to be formal courses, but they should be a place where work-in-progress can be presented and students remain in touch, not just with their advisers but also with the intellectual community of their peers and other faculty members.

The preparation for college teaching should be formalized, and training for the classroom should be organized in a way that offers students progressively more challenging teaching experiences. Beyond that, students who intend to pursue an academic career should be prepared for the variety of teaching environments and other faculty roles they will encounter after they take their first position. The Preparing Future Faculty program (sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the American Association of Colleges and Universities with the participation of the AHA and other disciplinary associations) provides an excellent model. On campuses with a Center for Teaching Excellence or similar program, history departments should seek meaningful collaborations, urging these centers to move beyond generic teaching methods to a discipline-specific orientation.

Internships play a vital role for graduate students in public history. Any department with a public history program—or even a graduate field in public history—should have one or more faculty members with practical experience in the field as well as the contacts necessary to develop an internship program.

New technologies are changing the nature of research, teaching, and the public presentation of history. Most institutions now have IT centers or other support systems for new technology, and history departments should build bridges to these centers on behalf of their students. At the same time, departments should engage these centers in dialogue, again to move them from generic applications to discipline-specific ones.

Most curricula at the doctoral level are inherited and modified over time in ad hoc ways, with minimal attention to the structure of graduate programs as a whole. Every history department should periodically examine the relation of the curriculum to the department's articulated mission(s) in graduate education. In particular, the precise function of each element in the curriculum should clearly be identified—the course work (including individualized studies), the field exams, the dissertation proposal, the dissertation, etc.—and the relationship between the elements should also be clearly articulated. A sufficient diversity of fields and approaches is necessary to ensure the intellectual cosmopolitanism that should always be present within the discipline.

Partly in response to the downsizing of programs, partly in response to worries about intellectual parochialism and excessive specialization, and partly in response to the intellectual transformation of the discipline, many departments are now developing required introductory courses that mix graduate students from all fields, that explore literatures from all fields, and that introduce students to interdisciplinary studies as well as to theories of history. These introductory courses are very difficult to teach, but we strongly endorse their development. At their best, they reveal the breadth of the discipline and encourage students to engage more deeply with the peers in their own cohort.

Professional ethics and the ethos of professionalism are crucially important to the formation of historians, but they are rarely addressed in any systematic way by graduate programs. Graduate education should include the development of a sense of institutional citizenship and the responsibilities of professionals to serve the public. We urge the local development of training in all of these areas, whether through courses, workshops, or some other formal mechanism. We also urge the AHA's Professional Division to develop appropriate materials for graduate training in these areas and to sponsor relevant panels at the annual meetings.

Finally, the Committee on Graduate Education has a series of recommendations for the leadership of the AHA. The AHA should develop a common template to encourage the collection and sharing of data for local department use and also to facilitate the discovery and borrowing among departments of improved practices in graduate education. This template should be permanently incorporated into the AHA web site. The AHA should establish better links to the employment markets in public history and community college teaching; as it stands now, very few of the professional opportunities available in these two sectors appear among the AHA job postings. The AHA should continue and expand its commitment to enhancing the visibility and status of public history within the profession. The AHA should continue to work with other historical organizations to develop professional standards in regard to terms of employment, intellectual property rights, research opportunities, and working conditions across the discipline. The AHA should also continue and expand its commitment to forging connections among history teachers at the university, college, community college, and K-12 levels. And, as already noted, the AHA should develop curricular materials and guidelines for training graduate students in professional ethics and practices.