Publication Date

February 22, 2022

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Graduate Education, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning


  • United States


History of the Discipline

This coming month is recruiting season for history graduate programs across the country. During the second weekend of March, COVID willing, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of History welcomes to its campus prospective graduate students who have been admitted for the following year. Like many of our peers, we fly 20 to 25 recruits to Madison and try to sell them on the virtues of our PhD program. They attend graduate seminars, meet with potential mentors, and socialize with current students and faculty. Faculty are expected to woo them with promises of intellectual growth, engaged mentorship, and, increasingly, financial emoluments. During the recruitment process, if we learn that a student has an offer at a competing university, we can appeal to our graduate school to sweeten the student’s financial package with extra summer research money or even a substantial cash welcome bonus. This arms race at elite universities is a relatively recent phenomenon, at odds with broader professional trends toward democratizing the history PhD.

When I first began teaching at UW in 2004, we typically admitted upward of 100 students. The result was a consistently robust graduate cohort across multiple fields, adequately enrolled graduate seminars, and the prospect of discovering “diamonds in the rough”—highly motivated students whose undergraduate records and GRE scores might be less than stellar in a traditional sense but whose additional intellectual assets and life experiences suggested that they might develop into good historians.

This democracy of academic opportunity had a cost. As late as 2010, UW History admitted 90 graduate students, 39 of whom eventually matriculated. None received guaranteed financial aid packages. Rather, the department cobbled together individually tailored packages from a variety of funding sources—internal and external fellowships, Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships, but mostly teaching assistant positions with differential appointments. This funding rarely covered living expenses. In 2013, teaching assistants earned an average of around $12,000, while living expenses in Madison totaled around $15,000 (not including essentials like clothing and transportation). In addition to their stipends, the vast majority of TAs received out-of-state tuition waivers that were valued at $25,000, plus health insurance. Thus, most students could earn their PhDs for roughly $5,000 to $10,000 out-of-pocket expenses yearly. The majority hustled side jobs or took out student loans, although there were always a few who were independently wealthy.

When I first began teaching at UW in 2004, we typically admitted upward of 100 students

This admissions and funding model remained in place for many years. However, as TA stipends became stagnant and the number of academic jobs plummeted in 2008–09, we could no longer justify admitting so many students, plunging them into debt, and sending them out into the world with only limited job prospects. Many faculty still rejected the idea that a history PhD could be useful for anything other than the professoriate, despite the fact that our students increasingly found positions in publishing, government, the private sector, and higher education administration.

In 2014, the department voted to move to a fully funded model in which every student would receive five years of guaranteed funding with stipends above the minimum cost of living. To achieve this goal, we would need to limit the number of yearly matriculants to somewhere around 17. The majority of faculty endorsed these changes, but a significant minority expressed opposition. Some worried that we would no longer have enough students to conduct graduate seminars. Others expressed concern that our graduate cohort would become narrow and elite, defying our charge as a “public” institution. When we polled students, they also expressed ambivalence about changing the funding model. On the one hand, they appreciated a larger cohort and “having more brains to think with.” On the other, they loathed the uncertainty of year-to-year funding, as well as the “class divide” that resulted from differential TA appointments. Nevertheless, nearly all of our students believed they were vying for positions in the professoriate, and they were willing to accept the financial risk that they would make it.

We were not alone in the transformation of our graduate program. Other history departments made similar changes, reducing cohort size and increasing stipends. Between 2011 and 2017, aggregate graduate enrollment across Big Ten university history departments dropped 25 percent, while stipends rose by an average of 17 percent. Today, the yearly stipend at UW Madison is $23,000, which just meets MIT’s calculation for a living wage. However, according to self-reported stipend data, there are still prestigious public universities that routinely pay graduate students less than $20,000, well below a local living wage. Crucially, students at public schools are funded mostly through teaching assistantships. Meanwhile, elite private universities typically pay guaranteed stipends in excess of $30,000 with far fewer teaching responsibilities. In short, these schools offer stipends that are 50 percent higher (and with fewer implied labor requirements) than those at public universities.

Even as the profession should be diversifying its admissions and training to accommodate career diversity, it has further narrowed.

Some might argue that this public/private division was always thus. And perhaps it was. However, in the past, public universities could spread their financial risk across a broader, more diverse cohort of students. At the same moment public universities moved toward smaller, fully funded graduate cohorts, the number of applications for graduate school in history fell precipitously. Between 2011 and 2017, aggregate graduate school applications in Big Ten history departments dropped 46 percent, a number that has remained stagnant ever since. The combination of shrinking admissions pools, alongside the constraints of a limited number of funding packages, results in greater competition for the most sought-after students. In my experience, these are almost always the students who express the greatest interest in joining the professoriate.

Of the two dozen or so prospective graduate students who fly to Madison for recruitment weekend (with all expenses paid), most are entertaining offers from other universities. Many of them have traveled together, junket-style, from school to school, getting to know one another and comparing notes as they cross the country. It is a relatively small and aspirationally homogenous group. There aren’t very many “diamonds in the rough,” let alone ones willing to admit they wish to pursue nonacademic jobs. We try our best to recruit for intellectual “fit,” but we now offer essentially the same product as our private peers, just for far less money and with a more time-consuming labor requirement that poses as an apprenticeship to the professoriate. We rarely win recruiting wars against private universities, but, quixotically, we keep trying. Even as the profession should be diversifying its admissions and training to accommodate career and other forms of diversity, it has further narrowed.

To their credit, today’s prospective students know the ins and outs of negotiating their recruitment. I applaud their efforts to improve their financial packages. However, the graduate admissions and funding arms race seems to me counterproductive and out of step with broader democratizing trends in the profession. At the very moment academic jobs are most scarce, elite programs send the message that they not only embrace student efforts to join the professoriate; they fly, wine, dine, and pay them to do so. This recruitment process cultivates a sense of expectation that ultimately can’t match the dim academic job prospects that most face. Meanwhile, some of the most creative, eclectic, or downright iconoclastic don’t even seem to apply for graduate school in history anymore. Or perhaps they just aren’t applying to those programs perceived as elite. If so, we have done this to ourselves.

I will repeat what AHA presidents have stated many times before: The profession has changed, irrevocably. The AHA’s research indicates that 50 percent of those earning PhDs between 2004 and 2013 were employed in tenure-track jobs in two- or four-year institutions by 2017. PhD students at Big Ten schools fared better, with 57 percent earning tenure-track positions. Since 2014, fewer than 25 percent of history PhDs from Big Ten history departments have received tenure-track offers in their initial year on the academic job market, according to internal data. If these statistics are any kind of bellwether (the AHA will update its career findings later this year), history departments in large state universities must rethink our programs from the ground up, paying greater attention to pedagogy, public history, digital media, and the promising career paths history PhDs might follow. With that change, we can better fulfill our roles as public educators, training a more eclectic, intellectually diverse cohort of graduate students who imagine new, innovative applications and broader daily relevance for history.

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James H. Sweet
James H. Sweet

University of Wisconsin-Madison