Published Date

January 1, 1962

From The Education of Historians in the United States (1962)

The Committee on Graduate Education in History has been guided by two major convictions in drafting recommendations for the profession. First, it believes that graduate education as it has developed and is now conducted in the United States needs improvement, not replacement. Second, its recommendations are offered not as absolutes but as the product of thought by historians who have responsibly sought (after a study of current practice and professional opinion through interviews, correspondence, and questionnaires) to arrive at decisions about complicated and controversial matters.


Attracting and Admitting Graduate Students

Considerably more Ph.D.s in history will be needed annually during the 1960s than have been annually trained in the 1950s. Shortages of Ph.D.s in some fields of history do not now exist, but shortages in all fields of history will appear by 1964-1965 unless special measures such as the following are taken to increase the number of serious and capable Ph.D. candidates in the country:

  1. More fellowships and scholarships should be made available for first-year graduate study and especially for a year of dissertation research and writing. The committee believes that loans are necessary and helpful but that they should not be viewed as the major means of financing graduate study. Fellowships and scholarships are more desirable and realistic forms of assistance. In the past, prospective history students have been offered fewer and smaller stipends than students in other fields, along with prospects of relatively low post-Ph.D. salaries. Only through increased financial support can the profession attract graduate students of outstanding ability in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the next decade.
  2. The American Historical Association should publish and circulate a short booklet (of 4 to 20 pages) designed for promising undergraduates, discussing the opportunities and procedures of graduate study in history.1
  3. Teachers of history at all levels should make able students aware of the possibilities of graduate study in history and careers as teachers of history.
  4. A few well-prepared departments that do not now offer doctoral training might wish to do so; but the needs of the 1960s are not sufficiently acute to warrant the creation of a special doctorate for teachers, inferior to the Ph.D., nor do they make it necessary for departments with inadequate faculty strength and library resources to offer Ph.D. training. Several Ph.D. programs in history that rank among the top twenty or thirty in the nation have faculty and facilities for educating larger numbers of Ph.D.s than they are now producing.
  5. Three conditions should be met by history departments that offer Ph.D. training:
    1. the department should have faculty members in at least three broad fields of history, the majority of whom must be experienced teachers whose scholarly research contributions are recognized by fellow historians in the nation
    2. doctoral training being an expensive undertaking, the history department should be able to command financial resources for the assistance of graduate students, allocation of faculty time, and development of faculty members as scholars
    3. the institution should have library resources adequate for training in research seminars and for preparation for the general examination. Experience suggests that institutions that command respect as centers of doctoral training have libraries with general collections of several hundred thousands of volumes, or outstanding collections in special areas of history, or both.
  6. A more personal evaluation of applicants for admission to graduate school is needed. It should be possible to identify some students whose abilities may be greater than undergraduate grades suggest. It should also be possible to avoid the waste of time and money that results when students are admitted who lack the qualities required for successful graduate study. More critical letters of recommendation about applicants and more frequent interviews with them can assist in a more personal evaluation. The inclusion of an essay section in the Graduate Record Examination would also make for more satisfactory selection of applicants for graduate study.

Undergraduate Preparation

The specific talent of the historian is fed by direct and vicarious experience. A historian should have a wide knowledge of human activity. An undergraduate student who wishes to prepare for graduate study in history should study foreign languages and (depending upon previous education) introductory or advanced courses in literature, philosophy, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Study in history should include a number of courses broad in scope and courses in at least two broad fields of history. Undergraduate study in history should usually range between 24 and 36 semester hours of credit. Quality of mind and breadth of historical knowledge are even more important than specialization and depth of historical knowledge. Instruction, however varied in character, should develop the student’s capacity for written and oral expression. Superior students should be encouraged to acquire training in the mechanics of research and historiography through honors study, which will usually demand an honors paper and a comprehensive examination.

The Master’s Degree

The master’s degree serves several purposes. The degree with a thesis of 70 to 80 pages or substantial research papers in two seminars is desirable for secondary teachers and persons who aspire to governmental positions. Work for this degree usually should not require more than one calendar year of study. Many institutions award a one- or two-year master’s degree in course of study for the Ph.D. Institutions should also exercise the right to award the master’s degree to Ph.D. candidates upon the completion of all requirements for the doctorate except the dissertation. A master’s degree in history representing less than two to three years of graduate study would not meet the desired requirements for even temporary teachers of history at the college level.

Shortening Ph.D. Training

The committee notes with great concern that for 71% of the 1958 Ph.D.s in history seven or more years elapsed between the beginning of graduate study and award of the Ph.D.; and that 35% of the 1958 Ph.D.s were thirty-six years of age or older when the degree was awarded. Measures to shorten the period of training are clearly needed. Promotions in rank and salary increases are very often delayed, even in meritorious cases, until the Ph.D. degree is awarded. Even more serious is the damage to scholarship; many vital teachers and productive scholars can complete the degree in relatively shorter periods of graduate study and their fully trained abilities and services are needed now and in the decade ahead.

  1. The committee believes that the Ph.D. in history should require no more than four academic years for most full-time Ph.D. candidates, including study for the master’s degree and the completion of the Ph.D. dissertation. Infrequent exceptions should be made for students in fields that require the acquisition of special skills.
  2. The major cause of delayed progress toward the Ph.D. is most often the financial inability of students to undertake full-time study. Both to recruit able students and to avoid prolonging their training the committee urgently recommends that more nonduty fellowships and scholarships be made available for graduate study in history. At this time they are especially needed for the period of dissertation research and writing.
  3. Many students are delayed by difficulty in passing foreign language examinations. It is highly desirable that students early achieve competence in foreign languages in schools and colleges. If graduate students are to be required to take examinations in foreign languages, each department should have autonomy in determining the method and number of examinations, and students should be required to demonstrate actual working knowledge early, preferably before or upon admission to graduate study. (Students unprepared in languages who otherwise show very great promise may be treated as exceptional cases.) If examinations are to be required, they should be seriously given and seriously graded, proving the student’s ability to use foreign languages as tools in courses and research seminars. Students should ideally be required to pass an examination in one foreign language before being admitted to graduate study, but in any case before being admitted to doctoral studies (i.e., by the beginning of the second year of graduate study). If an examination in a second foreign language is to be required, students should ideally pass it by the beginning of the second year of graduate study but in any case by the beginning of the third year of graduate study.
  4. Ph.D. candidates should be constantly engaged in either historiographical or research seminars during two full academic years (four semesters or six quarters of seminar work), but other course requirements should be minimal.
  5. Programs should be adjusted to each candidate’s academic needs. Doctoral training is an arduous undertaking, and students who lack the qualities for success should early be channeled into other activities. For those who prove their capacity for Ph.D.-level training, the accumulation of course credits in Ph.D. programs should be de-emphasized. No uniform total number of credit hours should be required of all candidates, and independent study by Ph.D. candidates should be encouraged.
  6. The committee believes that a deadline should be explicitly established in each department for the major Ph.D. examination (the “general,” “comprehensive,” “qualifying,” or “preliminary” examination). In discussion and in writing about Ph.D. programs time could be saved if a common name could be given this examination, most appropriately, perhaps, the “general” examination. Students should take this examination at the end of the second year of graduate study and no later than the middle of the third year of graduate study.
  7. Departments should explicitly establish the number of fields on which Ph.D. candidates are to be questioned during the general examination. The scope of these fields should be clearly defined with the deadline for the general examination in mind.
  8. The final Ph.D. examination, if required, should cover only the Ph.D. dissertation.
  9. In recent years the Ph.D. dissertation has become a serious cause of delay in Ph.D. programs. The subject should usually be sufficiently restricted to enable a successful Ph.D. candidate to complete the research and writing within one calendar year of intensive full-time work. The dissertation should be a substantial monograph, representing a high level of scholarly and literary quality in the opinion of the history faculty. To give evidence of this quality, dissertations usually need not be longer than 300 typed pages (double-spaced typing) or 75,000 words.

Striking a Balance

The quality of teaching by historians in colleges and universities is generally considered to be high. Where it is less than satisfactory a complaint often heard is that the instructor has been trained in too narrow a field of specialization.

It is essential that the historian acquire breadth of knowledge in his own and related disciplines. Much of this breadth must be acquired during the undergraduate years, for graduate study is primarily a time for specialization. But even in Ph.D. programs some provision must be made to develop breadth of mind in the student, especially during the first year of graduate study.

Each department must find its own way to achieve the proper balance between breadth and specialization in its Ph.D. program. The following guiding principles may be useful:

  1. Careful faculty guidance of Ph.D. candidates is essential as they plan their programs of study at all levels of graduate study.
  2. Ph.D. training should involve the following:
    1. Specialization in one broad field of history (e.g., United States, medieval, or Far Eastern history), and more intensive specialization in one aspect or period of this broad field.
    2. Acquaintance with the history of certain other restricted chronological periods and geographical areas (this often can be accomplished during the first year of graduate study as work toward the master’s degree).
    3. Acquaintance with the classics of historical writing and with the possibilities, limits, theories, and values of the historian’s craft.
  3. Thorough training and practice in research and writing is of major importance. At least four semesters of work in research seminars should usually be performed by each Ph.D. candidate. When a special seminar in historical method is offered, it may be counted as one of the four semesters (or six quarters) of research seminars. To assure a proper balance between specialization and breadth, one of the four semesters (or at least one of six quarters) of seminar work should be in a field of history other than the special field of the Ph.D. candidate.
  4. All graduate students in courses that teach the history of non-English areas-not just in research seminars-should read foreign language materials.
  5. Wide reading should be a constant part of graduate study in history. It is desirable that reading tutorials for graduate students supplement such lecture courses as they may take, and that departments offer at regular intervals directed reading courses in which Ph.D. candidates become broadly acquainted with periodical, monographic, and synthesizing literature in the major fields of history.
  6. Ph.D. candidates should write dissertations on significant subjects, even though they may explore in detail only one aspect or a few aspects of a large topic. They should be asked to show the relationship of their research to previous research and to relate their subjects to the general fields of history in which they lie.
  7. Broadening of interest, knowledge, and outlook can be accomplished through informal daily contacts among graduate students, but this is lost if all Ph.D. candidates in a department are specialists in a single field of history. Study by foreign students in American graduate departments of history can contribute to the balancing of breadth and specialization among Ph.D. candidates.
  8. To integrate and broaden knowledge and fill in gaps, departments that each year give the major examination to several Ph.D. candidates representing various fields of specialization might consider the desirability of offering a preparatory reading course-colloquium to them as a group, aiming at comparative discussion of the literature in the major fields of history.
  9. Neither the goal of breadth nor the goal of specialization should be allowed to prolong Ph.D. programs beyond a reasonable period of training (about four years of full-time graduate study or its equivalent). As one way to assure breadth without undue delay and without interfering undesirably with specialization, some departments may wish to require training in fields of history for which the candidate will not be formally held responsible in the general examination for the Ph.D. That examination should cover at least the broad field of specialization (e.g., ancient, Russian, or English history).

Preparation for Teaching

While we strongly believe that Ph.D. training should continue to emphasize research scholarship, we are aware of the fact that most of those who receive Ph.D.s in history will devote more of their time to scholarly teaching than to research scholarship. Ph.D. programs should give much greater recognition than most of them have previously given to the problems that confront new Ph.D.s in their careers as college teachers.

  1. Lecturing under occasional supervision and guidance by Ph.D. candidates is highly desirable. Some departments can provide candidates with experience as regular classroom teachers, either in the Ph.D.-training department or through internship arrangements with other institutions. Departments that cannot do this are urged to provide other opportunities for supervised practice lecturing by each Ph.D. candidate. The experience will prove helpful even to those candidates who do not become teachers. Tape recorders and film may be used to enable Ph.D. candidates to discover their own strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Practice in leading discussion groups is also desirable. This alone is not likely to prepare the Ph.D. candidate for teaching by the lecture method. But the teacher needs to develop the capacity for leading discussion as well as lecturing. In the development of this ability skillful coaching may be even more helpful than in the development of lecturing skills.
  3. In conjunction with practice lecturing and leading discussions, an informal and brief seminar or colloquium on college teaching and professional matters should be offered by the history department and perhaps required, though not necessarily for course credit. This might profitably provide Ph.D. candidates with experience in the preparation of course outlines, reading lists, and examinations.

Discovering Teaching Capacity

Most Ph.D.s in history become teachers of history in colleges or universities. Ph.D. programs can only begin their training as teachers. It is especially important, therefore, that ways be found early in their professional careers to discover and help them develop their capacities as teachers. The prerequisite for the discovery of capacity for teaching is that an appointing department know what specific qualities of teaching it seeks. Its definition of these qualities will acknowledge the variety of forms of good teaching.

No single technique is adequate to discover teaching capacity. But one or more of the following suggestions may be usefully adopted:

  1. Appointing departments should ask specific questions about the teaching capacity of Ph.D. candidates in letters or telephone calls to the graduate departments. The graduate departments should be prepared to give specific information and give it candidly.
  2. An interview is indispensable. On-campus interviews with colleagues and administrators are highly desirable.
  3. When possible, candidates for faculty positions should be invited to lecture or lead discussions before classes or informal groups (e.g., the history club) before appointments are made.
  4. Direct observation of the newly appointed instructor’s work is desirable during the period of probationary appointment.
    1. Where jointly conducted courses are taught, senior colleagues can appraise the teaching capacity of new appointees.
    2. Where such courses are not offered, it is usually possible and always desirable from the beginning to have new instructors participate in oral examinations of graduate or undergraduate students.
    3. New teachers can be asked to contribute to departmental or interdepartmental faculty seminars.
    4. Contributions to programs of professional associations can be observed, and scholarly publications and unpublished scholarship can be critically evaluated.
    5. In addition, without restricting the inexperienced teacher’s right to develop his own ideas, departments might encourage him to discuss his course outlines, reading lists, and examinations with senior colleagues.
    6. Senior colleagues may visit the classes of an inexperienced appointee during his probationary appointment. The purpose must be to help young historians improve their teaching, not to restrict their freedom of expression. Thus, visits should not be numerous; visits by more than one colleague are desirable; and they should be tactfully arranged with the knowledge of the new instructor.

Fostering and Rewarding Good Teaching

Historians devote more of their time to teaching than do colleagues in most other academic disciplines. They also reach more students in their classrooms than do teachers in many other disciplines. This situation should be acknowledged by the administrative policies of their institutions in the interest of promoting good instruction.

As in the discovery of teaching capacity, no one method can ever suffice to foster good teaching; the reward for good teaching must take several forms. The following suggestions seem to this committee to be generally useful:

  1. A capacity for research scholarship is a very important quality of a good teacher of history. But quantity of publication should not be the only index of capacity for scholarship. Teaching based on scholarship and unpublished research scholarship of high quality as well as published works should be rewarded in policies governing tenure appointments, promotion, and compensation. Both successful teaching and evidence of research scholarship should be expected of history teachers and both should be fostered by colleges and universities. But superlative performance in either of these activities should be rewarded by promotions and salary increases.
  2. In so far as they are able, appointing departments should name to the history faculty persons who have completed the Ph.D. Much of the preparation of graduate students as teachers is accomplished in the last phases of Ph.D. programs, and graduate departments can appraise the capacity of a fully trained Ph.D. much more accurately than they can estimate the promise of a Ph.D. candidate or the holder of a master’s degree.
  3. The new instructor can informally be given encouragement and advice-often in the form of tactful hints-by his colleagues.
  4. In so far as possible, the new instructor should be freed of chores such as committee work that contribute little or nothing to his growth as a scholar-teacher during the first year or so of his service.
  5. Both the new and the older instructor should be given an opportunity to teach courses in the field of his specialization (e.g., United States, Latin-American, or English history).
  6. Classes should be scheduled in ways that will foster the development of the faculty member as teacher and as scholar. Even a heavy teaching load can often be scheduled to leave whole days free of classroom teaching.
  7. The teaching load of a college instructor is determined not only by the number of hours of classroom teaching but also by the number of different preparations he must make and the number of students he teaches in a given term. In the interest of satisfactory teaching as well as satisfactory research scholarship, college teachers of history should teach no more than 12 hours per week and have no more than three separate preparations. It is highly desirable that they teach no more than 9 hours per week. In Ph.D.-training departments the faculty member has a number of additional obligations that are not easily measured in terms of hours of teaching and number of separate courses. Instructors in these departments should teach no more than 9 hours per week; and the usual load should not exceed 6 hours with no more than two separate courses or seminars.
  8. The provision of research and secretarial assistance is needed if scholarly teaching and the research scholarship of teachers are to be fostered. Typing services can be especially helpful. Tape recorders for office use can save faculty time and secretarial expense.
  9. Attendance at professional meetings is essential if college and university instructors are to grow as scholars and teachers. It should be subsidized by their institutions.
  10. For those who teach the history of foreign areas, travel abroad at intervals is necessary if the teachers are to make vital contributions in the classroom and in research. Travel is already subsidized to some extent by foundation and governmental grants. It should also be subsidized by the colleges and universities.
  11. Leaves of absence to study a new field at a university that is strong in the field of new interest (e.g., in Asian history) should be granted, especially when the instructor is expected to teach in a field in which he needs additional training.
  12. Colleges as well as universities should foster the growth of the scholar-teacher by supporting research scholarship. Sabbaticals or leaves with full salary for research, the purchase of research tools (e.g., microfilm readers), support for building library holdings of sources, and free interlibrary loan services are desirable means of fostering the development of scholarly teaching.
  13. Colleges and universities should give recognition to superlative teaching through public honors and reward it by promotions and salary increases. These may be desirably supplemented by special annual prizes and cash awards for excellence in teaching.
  14. Professional associations should elect outstanding teachers of history to their high offices. In this and other ways they may recognize and reward scholarly teaching of history, thus fostering it in the colleges and universities.
  15. The Ph.D.-training departments have a special responsibility to foster and reward excellent teaching, for they do much to set the tone that prevails in the colleges. Attitudes and policies in these institutions must be made to convey to Ph.D. candidates the conviction that excellent teaching is a primary responsibility of the historian who joins a college or university faculty.

Next section: Appendixes


  1. History as a Career: To Undergraduates Choosing a Profession, basically prepared by Professor Snell, was published in 1961 and copies are available at nominal cost from the American Historical Association, Washington 3, D.C. []