Publication Date

January 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Graduate Education


African American

Practically everyone agrees that the number of black students seeking advanced academic degrees is low and that the percentage of black Ph.D. recipients should be much higher. This will become even more problematic for higher education and for the nation’s welfare as the recent glut of Ph.D. will becomes a shortage over the next decade. Those scholars who entered academe during the halcyon days of the 1950s will begin to retire in large numbers during the 1990s. Unless there is a significant drop in college enrollments, the need for college professors will be great. Given the infrastructure of higher education in this country and the nation’s requirement for an ever more highly educated population, it is most unlikely that college enrollments will decline dramatically. Moreover, the college-age population will contain a higher proportion of students of color. Estimates range from one-third to two-fifths of college students being people of color at the beginning of the twenty-first century. At the University of California, Berkeley, “minority” students already comprise a majority of the undergraduate student body.

How do we influence more of these students to seek advanced degrees, especially in the humanities and social sciences? What strategies should we employ for successful recruitment, enrollment, retention, and graduation of doctoral students? First, we must realize that black students similar to the undergraduate population in general respond to gloomy portraits of the professoriat. Sensational stories of Ph.D.s pumping gas and complaints from their own professors about their earning power do little to attract students to a career of teaching and research. We need to change our own image, to accentuate the positive aspects of leading a life of the mind and to underscore the satisfaction from combining avocation with vocation, and to share the excitement of pursuing one’s own interests.

Several of my college mates who have become materially successful doctors, lawyers, dentists, and business professionals often complain now about a certain emptiness in their lives. Their work, in many respects, has become routine, and they miss the discussion of ideas that we shared as undergraduates. They sense that their work is driven by outside forces that leave them little choice in their daily routine and activities. Many of them have developed hobbies, such as the vice president of a major bank who collects materials on black military participation. A very successful trial lawyer has taken a year off from her practice to write a history of a black community that intrigued her in the course of her work. Some of these professionals are even contemplating the pursuit of doctoral degrees in history so that they might join their avocation with their vocation.

I suspect that most undergraduate students have not sufficiently explored their career options and that we have not been of much help to them in the process. The glamour professions of business, engineering, law, and medicine cast an almost hypnotic spell on students through the media and the allure of material success. We consciously or not give the impression that a person almost has to take a vow of poverty to join our ranks and can only look forward to an ascetic life. Many of us certainly know better and can give examples of colleagues with six-figure salaries or colleagues whose income reaches six figures through salary and textbook royalties. There are many professionals, burdened with debt from financing their education, who will not live as well as some professors. Nor will they have the satisfaction of exploring new areas of knowledge. Although we certainly have our problems and must fight to improve our profession, we cannot expect others to follow us if we ourselves make the profession appear unattractive with the message either, implicit or explicit, that no one with other options would want a career in higher education.

We need to encourage our black undergraduate students who display an aptitude for or an interest in history to at least consider pursuing advanced study in the discipline. We should bring some of those students into our work and give them the opportunity to research areas of their interest. It would give students much joy, a sense of accomplishment, and a feel for the profession if we involved them in co-authorship of articles, in the development of public programs, and in the activities of professional organizations. Mentorship is one of the most important elements for increasing the pipeline of Afro-American graduate students.

A second reality that we must recognize is that for many black students the distance from a bachelor’s degree to a doctoral degree is great. If you are a first generation college student, completing an undergraduate degree is an accomplishment. For example, in my family there was greater celebration when I graduated from college with my undergraduate degree, as the first member of my immediate family to do so, than when I received the Ph.D. degree. In my case, as in that of many other black historians, I took the road to a doctoral degree one step at a time. I did not know any black Ph.D.s nor was I knowledgeable of the opportunities that might exist in college teaching at the time. In any case, the first challenge was to graduate from college without much thought about taking an advanced degree. It was in a master’s degree program in which I gained the confidence and the realization that perhaps a doctoral degree could be for me. My undergraduate institution, Roosevelt University, probably had proportionately more black professors than any other predominantly white college in the 1960s. That fact might have stimulated many of us to consider earning advanced degrees. I can think of at least eight black Roosevelt University undergraduates from the 1960s who have since earned doctoral degrees in history.

Each one probably has a different story, but it was a white professor who peaked my interest in advanced study, while I was studying for a master’s degree. He invited me to his home, showed me his study and library, and shared with me his enthusiasm for research. I want to underscore the importance of the master’s degree as part of the strategy for generating more black Ph.D. students. My case is not unique. Mary Francis Berry and John W. Blassingame at Howard University and Nell I. Painter at the University of California, Los Angeles first earned master’s degrees at Michigan, Yale, and Harvard respectively. I am not sure about their circumstances, but my anecdotal impression is that a significant portion of the Afro-American historians who received their Ph.D.s in the late 1960s and early 1970s took the master’s degree as a first step toward the doctoral degree. The master’s degree provides a good opportunity to prove oneself without a tremendous investment of time and money. Unfortunately, many history departments do not have formal master’s degree programs and only accept students into doctoral programs with the master’s degree as a consolation prize for those candidates who do not complete the doctoral degree. Moreover, master’s degree candidates, where such programs do exist, face severe competition in securing fellowship awards. To increase the pipeline of black graduate students, history departments and graduate schools need to reconsider their admission and fellowship award policies.

One strategy that has worked well for us at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University and for Yale and Ohio State Universities, is the Black Studies master’s degree program as a conduit for the doctoral degree. We have accepted many students who were not admitted to traditional departments, primarily because of Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, cumulative grade point averages, and/or undergraduate institution. Well over half the students that we have enrolled have been accepted in Ph.D. programs at institutions such as: City University of New York, Cornell University, Indiana University, Northwestern University, University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Wisconsin, and Yale University. Our students have continued advanced study in folklore, history, literature, and political science among other fields. While several are still degree candidates, at least two fifths who have entered doctoral programs have received their Ph.D.s.

How do we account for our success, which has involved some forty students over the past twelve years? First, we do not place great emphasis on the GRE examination results. In fact, we do not require the GRE for admission to our master’s degree program. We inform applicants that the examination will generally help in fellowship competition but that it is not essential. We rely more on an applicant’s achievement, both in and outside the classroom. We consider how well a student has done in the major more than the general grade point average. We study transcripts for trends in academic progress. Did a student switch majors? Were the last two years of the academic record better than the first two years? Students usually take courses without much choice during the first two years of study to fulfill graduation requirments. We want to know how well a student has done in his or her areas of interest. As a graduate student, the area of study will be more focused than as an undergraduate. Did the student take many upper-level courses where the class size is generally smaller and more closely approximates graduate-level seminars?

Second, we give considerable weight to letters of recommendation, especially from colleagues with whom we have some familiarity. We will often make a follow-up telephone call for information between the lines in letters of recommendation. We want to know if the applicant will grow with us. If we take the time and provide the opportunity, will the applicant take full advantage of what we have to offer? Sometimes we speak directly with the applicant or arrange a campus visit to determine the applicant’s interest and the extent to which we can meet that interest. An important element of our success is the size of our graduate program. We generally admit five or six students a year. Our master’s degree program requires that students take about seven graduate-level courses and that they write a thesis. Through the minority graduate fellowship program, we are able to support students for two years with full tuition, fees, and stipend. During the first year, students have no obligation but their coursework. For the second year, students serve as graduate assistants, in grading papers, helping with courses, or assisting with faculty research.

We are able to give a great deal of individual attention to our graduate students, whose theses average 100 pages. The process of defining a problem, reviewing the relevant literature, developing a theoretical framework, and determining a methodology for testing their hypotheses prepares students for the type of research required in doctoral programs. Moreover, this careful sheparding of the masters’ thesis helps students to improve their writing skills and to achieve greater clarity in expressing themselves. With a faculty of twelve, including joint appointments, we are able to encourage our students on an individual basis.

Our students generally prepare a minor field outside of our department. For this outside minor field, they take courses with students from traditional departments. Often times, our master’s degree students take courses with doctoral degree students. This experience gives our students an opportunity to demonstrate their ability, to compete in a setting with Ph.D. students, to get a feel for more intense study, and to have the prospect of a letter of recommendation from a faculty member within a traditional discipline. The outside minor field improves our students’ prospects for admission in a doctoral program at our own institution or at other schools.

Not all of our students succeed in completing the master’s degree program, but they have had a chance to prove themselves. Some students earn the master’s degree and decide that they do not want to continue advanced study. The important point is that they have the opportunity to study as far as their skills and inclination will take them. History departments should give greater consideration to the master’s degree as a means to increase the pipeline of Afro-American scholars. The master’s degree can provide a testing ground for both the student and the department. It offers an intermediate step between the bachelor’s degree and the Ph.D. and helps to bring the possibility of a doctoral degree closer.

Revival or initiation of master’s degree programs are but one part of the solution. Another critical part is the creation of networks to supply students for such programs. Our graduate applications come in large measure from students whose advisors have recommended us and/or from students who have heard a member of our faculty speak on their campus. We constantly recruit students and remind colleagues about our program. We have found that one of the best mechanisms for interesting students in our program is to have an applicant from a particular school enter the program, do well, and spread the word at his or her undergraduate college. Student recommendation is one of the best means to generate notice for a graduate program. We try to support student travel once a year to a national scholarly meeting within reasonable distance. We expect our students to visit campuses near the meeting site to inform their peers about opportunities for graduate study at Cornell University. Attendance at such meetings helps us recruit prospective graduate students and allows our graduate students a chance to speak with faculty at other schools about their doctoral programs. It also brings students a bit closer to the academic profession. All of these suggestions require hard work and dedication. But we can increase the number of Afro-American scholars in the history profession if we serve mentoring roles, look to master’s degree programs as an important step toward the Ph.D., and develop networks for recruiting and referring promising students.

Robert L. Harris, Jr. is an associate professor of Afro-American history in both the history department and Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. This article has been adapted from a paper presented at the 1988 AHA Annual Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio.