Publication Date

November 1, 2003

Perspectives Section

From the President

One of the most important initiatives undertaken by the AHA in the last three years is a comprehensive survey of graduate education in history. Beginning in the fall of 2000, a committee of 11 members chaired by Colin Palmer of Princeton University, with Thomas Bender of New York University as secretary and Philip Katz as research director, gathered data from various sources, surveyed graduate students and programs, carried out site visits to nine universities, and interviewed faculty, students, former students, public history employers, and others. The committee also sent a detailed 40-page questionnaire to directors of graduate studies or department chairs at 158 institutions and received responses from a remarkable 105 of them. The result is the first detailed portrait of history graduate education in the United States in more than 40 years, and the most thorough examination of PhD programs ever completed (a reconstituted committee is now embarked on a study of MA programs). A summary of the committee's findings and recommendations was published in the October issue of Perspectives; the full report will be published soon by the University of Illinois Press with the title The Education of Historians for the 21st Century.

Some of the highlights in the report that particularly struck me include the following: In 1995 some 65 percent of employed PhDs in history were teaching in four-year universities or colleges, with another 6 percent in two-year colleges, 8 percent in federal, state, or local government, and the remainder in other educational institutions, private companies, and research institutes. The proportion of new PhDs with definite employment at the time of receiving the degree declined from 80 percent in 1969 to 47 percent in 2000 (no surprise there). Between 1980 and 2000 the proportion of nontenured and nontenure-track faculty (full-time and part-time) increased from 11 percent to 32 percent (no surprise there either). From 1979 to 2000 the proportion of women earning history PhDs grew from 26 percent to 39 percent, while the proportion of minority degree recipients (Black, Hispanic, American Indian) increased from 7.7 percent to 9.7 percent.

One of the survey's principal findings is that "while the intellectual content of history has changed dramatically in the past half-century, the structures and categories that define graduate education have not." Anyone whose memory or experience stretches back over a large part of that period can testify to the truth of this statement. The explosion of social history in all of its manifestations—black history, women's history, gender studies, gay history, ethnic history, new theories of domination and subordination, and so on—since I entered graduate school in 1958 has transformed and broadened the content of history, but the structure of seminars, research papers, general examinations, and the research and writing of a dissertation has changed very little except for the reduction of the foreign-language requirement at most institutions from two languages to one in U.S. and British history. Although some programs pay more attention—or at least more lip service—to transnational and cross-disciplinary training, structure lags significantly behind content.

Perhaps the report's most significant contention is that "doctoral programs in history (along with most of the other arts and science disciplines) do an inadequate job of career preparation." What graduate programs do best is to teach research skills. The principal focus is on the dissertation, with emphasis on "cutting edge" research and interpretations. This is not surprising, since by definition all PhD programs are lodged in research universities and the mentors of PhD students have reached their positions because of their own research and publications. Such mentors consciously or subconsciously try to clone themselves in the students they guide to the PhD. Consciously or subconsciously they rank career paths for their students from a position at another research university at the top down through faculty appointments at four-year colleges, two-year colleges, secondary schools, and at the bottom, nonacademic positions.

Yet research universities employ only about 30 percent of academic historians (and a smaller percentage of all PhDs); this "can lead to needless perceptions of failure on the part of students" who do not make it into that coveted 30 percent. As one graduate student told the committee: "Non-academic career possibilities are not discussed, described, or much respected in my department, which is extremely discouraging." The report therefore urges a radical change in what might be termed the professional culture of graduate faculty and PhD programs. "Doctoral education should be oriented to the full range of professional careers in history. . . . All professional careers in history deserve the same respect. . . . [PhD programs] must recognize that more expansive obligations are involved in preparing graduate students as educators and citizens, to say nothing of their public obligations as professional historians."

The report also contains several specific recommendations to the AHA: to create a forum for directors of graduate study, perhaps in a session or two at the annual meeting, where they can share ideas and concerns; to develop a template for graduate programs to collect and share data and explore ideas for improved practices; to expand the job listings in Perspectives to encompass more positions in public history and community colleges; and to develop guidelines for training graduate students in professional ethics and practices.

I have touched on only a few of the riches in The Education of Historians for the 21st Century. Every director of graduate studies, every department chair, indeed every historian interested in the future of the profession should read this report, reflect on its findings and recommendations, act on them where possible, and keep the volume handy for frequent reference. Leadership in the profession is on the eve of a generational turnover—a third of the current professoriate earned their PhDs in the 1990s and nearly 40 percent of current faculty members expect to retire within a decade—and this volume can help guide that transformation.

—James McPherson (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.

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