"Dumb Enough to Want to Get a History PhD": Views from the Trenches of Graduate Education
Lillian Guerra, September 2001
At the January 2000 Annual Meeting in Chicago, we, the new members of the Task Force on Graduate Education (TFGE), walked into the Graduate Student Open Forum to face the full range of disillusion and frustration that many fellow graduate students would express to us for the first time. As their newly installed representatives within the AHA, we were still unsure of our role. Staring out into tightly packed rows of mostly young, articulate historians, I realized that their fears about the job market and inability to make ends meet on the salary of a teaching assistant or adjunct rivaled my own. Bracing myself for the tide of pessimism and the demand for action that was sure to come, I took copious notes, thinking that if I could just get their thoughts down and the word out over the next three years, the AHA could do something.
"Advisers think we shouldn't complain about taking out more student loans," exclaimed one student who already had more than enough loans to pay back from his undergraduate years. "Unions can't solve our problems if they don't get recognized," said another. "But what good can a union do," called a voice from the back of the room, "if the university's administration has decided to downsize your whole department?" Another voice agreed: "That's right. Humanities professors don't rake in the kind of profits that the hard sciences do. Politically, no one cares about history anymore, just economics." Suddenly, a man in the third row stood up. "We've lost three professors to retirement," he attested, "and now they're thinking of shutting down our PhD program in history altogether. How am I going to get a job two years from now if my university's graduate program doesn't exist anymore?" I remember thinking that these graduate students were right: the AHA really can not do all that much besides investigating graduate student concerns and agreeing with their demands for change. Still, even if it did only this much, the AHA would play a crucial role. However urgent graduate students' needs are now and however gradual the impact of the AHA might be, the willingness of the AHA to endorse the need for dramatic change in graduate education could mean a great deal.
The experience of serving as the graduate student representative to Council and as chair of the TFGE for nearly two years has tremendously enriched my understanding of the role of the AHA in mapping out the course of graduate education. Like all the members of the task force, I have become more realistic in setting goals, but I am no less optimistic about what a few committed historians can do. Since the 2000 meeting, not only has former AHA President Eric Foner taken the lead in establishing a permanent body within the AHA to deal with institutional dependence on adjuncts, but our current president, Wm. Roger Louis, is vigorously gathering support for a National History Center in Washington. Moreover, an AHA Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) is conducting a full-scale survey of every history graduate program in the country (the last such survey was undertaken in 1959). This survey will finally collect data on such important issues as the rate of graduate student attrition for lack of funding and the identity of graduate programs that regularly place candidates in tenure-track jobs as well as the reasons for their ability to do so. More important, while department chairs will provide this information, the CGE plans to send a separate survey to graduate student members and solicit information on their experiences directly. In this regard, the members of the TFGE took the lead in October 2000 when we e-mailed an informal set of four questions to all AHA student members. They were: 1) At what stage of your graduate program are you? 2) What would you identify as your greatest sources of intellectual and moral support in graduate school? 3) What issue concerns you the most as a graduate student in your stage of graduate studies? 4) Please add any comments you might have.
In asking these questions, the task force hoped to gather confidential, anecdotal feedback that we could use to discern general patterns of perception and experience among graduate students in history. In defining our own role within the AHA, establishing the basis for an annual exchange of ideas between the AHA leadership and one of its key constituencies seemed a logical first step. We received nearly 300 responses from graduate students. Writing from as far away as Morocco, Japan, and England, graduate students surprised us with the depth of their honesty, the personal tone of their messages, and the urgency of their concerns.
Although this "sample" may be unscientific, these responses are invaluable. That graduate students expressed a high degree of receptivity to our efforts in itself may bode well for the prospects of the upcoming CGE. Moreover, this initial testing of the waters seems to reveal a positive and even warm relationship between the AHA and the future generation of historians who will one day take its helm. Some students feel that the AHA provides them with a sense of belonging to a community greater than themselves—a feeling that their experiences in graduate school has not. As one student attested, "I think it is great that the AHA recognizes the need to foster a special relationship with graduate students. There is not a lot of support out there for us and I joined the AHA to try to find camaraderie with other up-and-coming historians. I feel I have found that so far with your organization and I look forward to hearing more about what plans you have for graduate students." A great number of students confessed to an overwhelming sense of isolation. Students echoed these sentiments from one e-mail to another. One graduate student wrote, "I've been extremely heartened by the stances on adjuncts and grad student organizing that the AHA has taken, and I appreciate the efforts the organization has made to survey the job market in history. . . . I just want to say again how glad I am that the AHA has a Task Force on Graduate Education and that you are surveying members."
But if graduate students feel that the AHA is as "there" for them as it is for established historians, they also expect that the AHA should expand its roles of being a forum for the profession as well as the profession's interface to the public. That the AHA should take seriously the responses to our queries seems clear. By far, the majority of those who responded were all advanced graduate students. Poised to enter the profession, they are most concerned that completing graduate school may earn them a title but not a career.
A majority of graduate students expressed fear over the state of the job market. However, their complaints were neither vague nor self-pitying. Rather, they articulated a clear sense that the "tightness" of the market stemmed from two sources: 1) the increasing reliance of universities on adjunct faculty; and 2) the overproduction of PhDs in history. As one student put it, "Good luck getting anyone to do anything [about it]. The faculty at [my institution] have openly declared that if students are 'dumb enough' to want to get a history PhD in this job market, it's not their problem and they'll just go on taking in 40 plus new students a year. The lack of a sense of responsibility is appalling, especially when compared to fields where the job market is healthy and the profession has standards." When considering who among their intellectual and personal network provided the greatest source of support, graduate students counted their peers first, family second, and their advisers last (if at all). Reading message after message that attested to this, it seemed as if the two conditions—the unreliability of advisers and the "glut" in the market for history PhDs—were related. As one student bitingly observed:
We are expected to finish coursework quickly, write brilliant dissertations and present [papers] at conferences along the way. But when we must compete with too many other graduate students for funding, for time to speak in class, and for professors' attention, we are fighting an uphill battle to meet their expectations. While some graduate students excel, many more are left to languish and pay shockingly high rates for tuition and fees under the impression that they would not have been admitted if the department did not believe that good use could be made of their degree in the future. [Such a situation] fosters feelings of resentment, spurs competition between students, and creates a desperate labor pool that departments can exploit through temporary and part-time hiring, low wages, and the kind of degrading cattle-call interview process that too often puts a demeaning end to a long and stressful graduate career.
In voicing such assessments, many students noted that older generations of historians never faced the possibility of permanent professional limbo that increasingly seems to define the discipline.
Many graduate students observed that senior historians—including some of their advisers—were out of touch with the state of affairs or are "in denial" thinking that a grad student assembly line would not negatively affect the quality of the professorate, graduate student morale, and the undergraduate teaching climate at most universities. A large number of graduate students relied on terms derived from the world of industry, commerce, and the labor struggle to characterize today's world of graduate education. "In a booming economy, I refuse to work for substandard pay. Unfortunately, new PhDs are finding that adjunct positions with no benefits are frequently the only option. . I'm finding that high school teachers have better employment options than we [do]—and without the years of study we have endured. The only difference between these two groups is the teachers' union[s] that exist for secondary level teachers." Another warned, "Remember that you are doing something that has little market value. That can only change with a sincere effort to please the people—students, parents, administrators, and taxpayers—who pay for your product."
Yet, despite their pessimism regarding the stagnation of the market and their own institutions' responsibility for worsening matters through over-admission of graduate students, these historians were for the most part happy to be historians. The joy they took in their craft proved that they were meant to be historians all along. They were convinced that a strong commitment to the profession, a spirit of compromise, and a dose of confrontation every now and again could effect change. But they also had a number of specific suggestions about how the AHA can help them. These included making greater efforts to educate the public on the short- and long-term costs of relying on adjunct faculty as a primary source of labor at the university and community college level; discovering precisely which institutions rely more heavily on adjuncts; and investigating the correlation between successful tenure-track job candidates and their personal, professional, and institutional characteristics (especially age, publication record, teaching experience, and degree of benefit from direct institutional guidance on preparing for the job market). Finally, many graduate students demand that the AHA lead open discussions on the relationship between over-admission of graduate students to fill the need for assistant teachers, overproduction of PhDs, and the tightness of the job market.
In short, many historians feel that the AHA is uniquely qualified to assess the current state of graduate education, evaluate its flaws, and encourage public—not just academic—debate about possible solutions. I have never been so convinced that the time to act is now. Graduate students are the future of the profession and they deserve to play a more critical role in shaping the course it takes in the present. After all, younger generations will pay the price for the action—and inaction—of established historians today. For this reason, the Committee on Graduate Education bears great responsibility for designing a set of questions that will provide us with the evidence to determine how and why graduate education must change. However, it is equally true that graduate students' willingness to participate in the survey and share their views regularly with their representatives in the AHA is fundamental. The Task Force on Graduate Education asks that each of us do our part. The future of our profession depends on it.
—Lillian Guerra is chair of the AHA's Task Force on Graduate Education and is a member of the AHA Council. She teaches history at Bates College.