Publication Date

September 1, 2018

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

AHA Topic

Career Paths, Graduate Education

Once upon a time, a PhD student had a Doktorvater (a synonym for dissertation director, translating, roughly, as “professor-father”). His role was clearly defined, intellectually magisterial, and blatantly hierarchical. He might make a set of archives or sources seem particularly attractive by providing a small subsidy or a note of introduction to the gatekeeper; he might assign a dissertation topic outright. Pathways to career success were generally narrow, sharply defined, and marked by footsteps to be followed. At the end, the successful initiate was appropriately placed, often through the Doktorvater’s personal or institutional connections.

That last stage went by the wayside nearly two generations ago, a casualty of long-overdue changes in rules, guidelines, mores, and procedures. Pieces of the rest survived, however, including the term “placement” and the narrow definition of success. By the time I entered graduate school in the mid-1970s, Doktorvater was seldom heard except from senior scholars of a certain intellectual tradition, a few students who perhaps wanted to be part of a disappearing world, and humorous references that often were less than complimentary. Yet less than an hour into my first seminar, the instructor informed the half dozen of us that our goal should be to replace him. Another senior faculty member blithely asked students querying about assistantships, “Who is your patron?”

These archaic norms and practices had staying power because intangible cultural assumptions persisted, even as the structures of the old world were re-forming. Indeed, patronage systems remain evident today, along with an academic ethos that generates among many students a sense of intellectual and institutional dependence on their dissertation director. A discipline that figured out a generation ago how to integrate the agency of even the most oppressed populations into our histories refers, still, to “training,” “production” (even worse, “overproduction”), and “placement.” If the Doktorvater has slipped into retirement, his children seem to have difficulty abandoning terminology that signals his continuing presence, even if in the shadows.

Less than an hour into my first seminar, the instructor informed the half dozen of us that our goal should be to replace him.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of norms for PhD advising because of the AHA’s continuing efforts to broaden career horizons of doctoral students. Graduate faculty—especially those who have spent their professional lives in academia—have reasonably worried that they cannot responsibly advise students to prepare for work environments in which they as academics have no expertise. Students have shared with us the difficulties of approaching faculty to discuss pathways toward such work. Discomfort discourages open conversation, as neither party wants to broach the topic.

The solution is not straightforward. The current conversation on graduate education reform, an expansive terrain that stretches through the sound bites of Twitter, the maze of advice blogs, “quit lit,” pages of higher education journals, conferences, and books leaves no shortage of advice to both graduate advisers and their students. To some extent, the striking evolution in this reform and advice literature, and even guidelines from university graduate divisions, is a shift toward defining the adviser as a “mentor”—a broadly framed role perhaps characterized as a trusted older person who provides support, proactive guidance, and the wisdom of experience over a period of time.

Unlike the Doktorvater, or even the more modern and modestly construed “dissertation adviser,” the mentor does not necessarily occupy a singular role in one’s career. Over four decades, I’ve probably had five mentors, which might well be fortunate but not unusual: women and men who taught me things I needed to know at different career stages—all of them generous, patient, and wise.

But not wise about the same things. And I am realizing that might be one problem with some of the current discourse about “mentorship.” Much of what I read about what is expected of a graduate “mentor” might be setting the bar too high. I say this with some trepidation, aware of the danger of a bar set too low, considering how many PhD candidates head off to the archives without conversations about archival practices and procedures, networking with other researchers, or even the nuts and bolts of research on the road. All advisers can, and should, inform students about these and other aspects of working on a dissertation. I’m less certain that all historians can advise on such issues as career paths, especially beyond the professoriate, but also in the vastly differing academic settings in which students might eventually find themselves. Other areas readily come to mind as well: mental health, peer cultures, family issues that can arise from research travel imperatives, finances, navigating professionally useful social media, technology, and aspects of identity outside the adviser’s experience.

Unlike the Doktorvater or the dissertation adviser, the mentor does not necessarily occupy a singular role in one’s career.

If experience is a central aspect of mentoring, how can a mentor feel comfortable when conversation stretches not only beyond experience but into an “outside world” that many academics find perplexing at best, of dubious moral and intellectual character at worst?

What the dissertation adviser can do is make it clear that these are important and legitimate concerns, but that for many aspects of career preparation, students can and should go elsewhere. PhD-granting institutions have resources for nearly everything. Scholarly societies can fill in some gaps (the AHA offers a Career Contacts program, a Career Fair at our annual meeting, and other networking resources). In some cases, the adviser will know where these resources might be. In other cases, someone else will know, and the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative is funding experiments in how departments can help with this navigation without piling still more obligations onto faculty members whose customary work week already exceeds societal norms. Graduate students need mainly to rest assured it is legitimate, reasonable, and wise to explore a wide range of resources beyond the home department or even university.

Narrowing the expectations of mentorship, therefore, with an emphasis on multiple sources of advice and support, can both enable more effective mentoring and enhance a student’s sense of agency. Well-mentored students learn the mysteries, methods, and pathways of the discipline. They earn degrees. And they navigate job markets. Let us begin finally letting go of references to students being trained, PhDs being produced, and protégés being placed.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

Jim Grossman
James R. Grossman

American Historical Association