Rethinking the Role of History Graduate Programs
Anthony Iaccarino, May 1997
In the late 1980s, many entered graduate school amid widespread predictions that a historic window of opportunity would open to them upon gaining their degree. Growing undergraduate enrollments coupled with projected mass retirements of those hired in the halcyon days of the 1960s increased their chances of a bright future. University downsizing, however, has partially closed that window and those who enter are more likely to be hired as underpaid, part-time, adjunct faculty. The number of annual PhDs granted in history has increased by an astonishing 31 percent in five years, climbing from 612 in 1990 to 889 in 1995. Not surprisingly, the number of available tenure-track positions has failed to keep pace with such rapid growth in the labor pool.1
The immediate job crisis is, in part, a product of the high expectations raised in the late 1980s. In a fairly short period of time, the optimism has turned to gloom. But the current predicament is not entirely new. Indeed, job seekers are now facing the third decade of diminished opportunities. In 1970, 78 percent of history PhDs had secured "definite employment" by the time they completed their degree. Those figures, however, have hovered around 50 percent for the last twenty years and have been declining even further since 1992.2
The solution to the problem is not to promote increased competition in a desperate race for fewer and fewer tenure track positions. Indeed, it is far more likely that an intensified struggle between PhDs for stable academic jobs will result in the production of increasingly abstruse articles, more narrowly defined dissertations, additional years of graduate study, and greater financial burdens. History graduate students already spend an average of 8.8 years completing a combined MA and PhD, more than any other academic discipline. Much of this time is spent packing their c.v.'s with the publications, conference papers, and teaching experience now considered essential for entry-level academic jobs.3
Nor should we necessarily reduce the number of history PhDs by closing the gates to a graduate education. Restricting access would certainly mean reversing the small but significant gains toward diversifying the profession. Increased competition and limited access threatens to create a narrow professionalism further marginalizing the academic world from the public sphere. We need, instead, a new vision of the role of graduate history programs.
The contemporary dilemma is rooted in the fact that graduate history departments continue to see their essential task as the production of future professors. Given a job crisis now in its third decade, such a vision is woefully limited. Instead, graduate programs should actively promote the skills necessary to enter a wider variety of careers which nonetheless depend upon historical analysis. This suggestion may seem anathema to those scholars who prefer to view the academy as a bastion against encroaching market forces. Why let economic realities jeopardize scholarly integrity? There exists an important distinction, however, between the short-sighted pursuit of market specialization and the desire to bring talents—developed over years of historical analysis—to the larger society. It is the latter agenda which should be pursued.
What practical course of action, therefore, might graduate history programs adopt to shape the careers of their current crop of graduate students while enhancing their own institutional viability into the 21st century? The most obvious way to begin is to take a cue from public history graduate programs. Despite the self-defeating laments that the general public cares little for history, the vigorous public debates surrounding museum exhibits and the popularity of historical documentaries suggest otherwise. Graduate programs in public history do not assume that their students are bound primarily for the academy. They provide their graduates with both the skills and experience to enhance their chances of obtaining jobs in scholarly publishing, historic preservation, policy analysis, historic resource management, business history, community history, and other fields.
Graduate students most typically rely on teaching and research assistant appointments to subsidize their educational expenses. But departments should make a greater effort to diversify employment opportunities while their students are in school by helping to place them in many of the paid, part-time positions mentioned above. Instead of leaving the acquisition of such skills to the pluck and entrepreneurialism of individual students, graduate programs should actively pursue and formalize relations with other institutions and university departments in order to promote practical experience in a wide variety of history-related areas. Of course, every effort should be made to render these positions both intellectually and financially rewarding.
We might re-conceptualize the MA thesis as well. Why not expand the definition of what is acceptable by offering students the possibility of fulfilling the MA requirement by planning an exhibit for a museum or business, conducting an oral history project, annotating manuscript collections, or collaborating with students in education and film departments to produce teaching units, educational software, and historical documentaries?
By picking up a more diverse set of skills and formalizing relations with alternative institutions along the road to a graduate degree, a larger set of opportunities beyond academia may open up for MAs and PhDs. All of these options need not take away from academic rigor, but rather, promote a more expansive definition of the role of the university in civil society.
—Anthony A. Iaccarino is a PhD candidate in U.S. history at the University of California at Los Angeles.