Published Date

January 1, 1962

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

Some dissatisfaction with graduate study in history is endemic. One can expect to find up to 15% of the participants in graduate education unhappy about either present circumstances or future prospects.1 On the other hand, a majority of the graduate faculty as a group-not just the history faculty-is conservative. It tends to cling to all the elements of training with which it has been familiar. Complacency with established training procedures is more commonly encountered than carping criticism. The one significant addition to Ph.D. programs for which graduate faculties generally show favor is training in teaching: this is supported by about 2 out of 5 members of arts and science graduate faculties.2 Graduate faculties in economics, political science, sociology, and English tend to be slightly more critical of graduate education than history faculties. Faculties in all the humanistic disciplines are more dissatisfied than are those in the natural sciences.3

Against this perspective we can evaluate criticisms of doctoral training in history, criticisms reported by Ph.D.-training faculties, graduate students, recent Ph.D.s, departmental chairmen and executives in the colleges, and editors who read the scholarly contributions of recent as well as older Ph.D.s. Each group that was questioned tends to reflect its own position in its major criticisms of graduate study. The colleges most often want Ph.D.s to be better prepared as college teachers. Graduate students also want more teacher training. Recent Ph.D.s call for more faculty guidance and greater breadth of training. The editors want more successful preparation for research scholarship and for effective writing.

But each group voices several criticisms that overlap. Thus in these groups there is major concern about (1) the preparation of Ph.D.s as teachers of history,4 (2) breadth in Ph.D. training, and (3) protracted Ph.D. programs. There is somewhat less general but noteworthy concern about (4) the quality of history Ph.D.s as scholars. These are the areas of criticism that will be reviewed in this chapter.


Preparation for College Teaching

In 1956 Dexter Perkins reminded fellow historians that they tended “to exalt the written over the spoken word.” He suggested, however, that the “best chance of making some impact on others will come through the influence we can exert in the classroom, through the enthusiasms we kindle, through the interests we arouse, through the wisdom that history teaches and that we can strive to disseminate.”5

Table 8-1. Criticisms of Graduate Schools by about 2,780 Graduate Students, 1958-1959

Criticisms rated as "valid" or "somewhat valid" by one-fourth or more of the respondents% of history graduate students (about 300)% of all graduate student respondents (about 2,780)
1. Not enough training for teaching6049
2. Too many formal "hurdles"4651
3. Encourages overspecialization4544
4. Stifles creativity of students3637
5. Accepts and encourages more students than it can place in desirable jobs3223
6. Training has little to do with jobs students will get2927
7. Faculty members tend to build research
8. Admission standards too low2826
9. Not enough training for research2826
10. Rewards conformity and punishes individualism2528
Source: Data provided by the National Opinion Research Center.


Widespread approval of the Perkins address suggested that graduate history faculties should give more attention to teacher preparation in training doctoral candidates. This survey has verified the existence of a large demand for more direct efforts at teacher training in the graduate schools. This is, by a large margin, the number-one criticism offered by history graduate students, as Table 8-1 shows. Three-fifths of the graduate students in history regret the lack of training for teaching. Two-fifths of the recent Ph.D.s who hold full-time college teaching positions are less than enthusiastic about their doctoral training as preparation for college teaching (see Table 8-2). Improved training of doctoral candidates for teaching was, next to better faculty guidance and greater breadth, the third most common recommendation they would make to the history departments in which they took Ph.D. training.

Table 8-2. Evaluations by 152 History Ph.D.s of 1958 of Their Doctoral Training as Preparation for College Teaching

Rating% of 152 Ph.D.s holding college teaching positions
More than adequate25
Very well suited34
Fairly well suited24
Just adequate6
Somewhat less than adequate9
Very inadequate3


It is important to note in this connection that half (52%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s report that examples set by their graduate schools made them feel that good teaching was not as important as research and writing. Only 10% were made to feel that good teaching was more important than research and writing. Yet, two-thirds to three-fourths of the 1958 Ph.D.s undertook graduate study in history chiefly to prepare for careers in college teaching (see Table 8-3).

Table 8-3. Reasons Why 182 History Ph.D.s of 1958 Undertook Graduate Study

Reason cited% of Ph.D.s citing each reason
1. Chiefly to prepare for a career in college teaching66
2. To prepare for a career in college teaching and to learn more about the history of one country or area or topic (each in about equal degree)12
3. Chiefly because of a desire to learn more about the history of one country or area or topic9
4. To prepare for a career in research and writing2
5. To prepare for government work1
6. Other reasons10


College employers of new Ph.D.s agree emphatically about the need to improve teacher training: this is the most common criticism of doctoral training from departmental chairmen in the colleges. About half of all the recommendations offered by junior colleges (54%), selected four-year colleges (48%), and other four-year colleges (44%) call for more systematic efforts to train doctoral candidates as teachers (see also Table 8-4). College presidents, even more unanimously than departmental chairmen, call for improved teacher preparation in Ph.D. training. Large numbers of historians on Ph.D.-training faculties in 1959 readily admitted in interviews that more systematic efforts to prepare and check on doctoral candidates as teachers are needed. And while the chairmen of the training departments offered few recommendations at the end of a long questionnaire, the few who did so called more often for deliberate teacher preparation than for any other measure to improve “graduate training for college teachers of history.”

Table 8-4. Frequency of Recommendations for More Specific Teacher Training from 126 Selected Four-Year Colleges

* Public, private, or sectarian liberal arts colleges.
Type of collegePercentages, departments recommending more teacher training
% of those returning questionnaires% of those making recommendations of any kind
Teachers' colleges4480
General colleges*3562
Professional colleges3075
Catholic colleges3350
Total sample3362


It is important to note the nature of the teacher preparation called for by the historian-critics. More than anything else they want what Hayward Keniston has called “a new attitude of respect for the dignity of the teaching career.”6 The president of a noted liberal arts college warns that the attitudes of graduate school faculties are of crucial importance: “If they are willing to convey a real enthusiasm about the central importance of teaching, their students will take it seriously. If they convey the idea that it is quite secondary … no amount of ‘teacher training’ will help us.” Professor Perkins sounded the same advice for the training of future teachers in his American Historical Association address: “If our work is central to us, it will become central to them.”7

Two other points about the recommendations for teacher training must be made most emphatically. First, they are not aimed at making Ph.D.s into “pitchmen,” mental manipulators who know all the tricks that can “sell” their subject to students who are reluctant to buy. The aim, it is generally believed, is to instill in Ph.D. candidates some of the qualities of great teachers of history that were noted earlier in this study (see Chapter 4). The Committee of Fifteen in 1955 briefly summarized the kind of teacher that is portrayed as desirable in the recommendations gathered by this study: “a person who can stimulate his students to think critically, to understand deeply, and to solve problems successfully.”8 Second, the recommendations leave no doubt that professional educators (those whose field is Education) should have no part in the deliberate efforts to prepare Ph.D. candidates in history as college teachers. What is desired is a twofold program conducted by the history faculties and offering (1) supervised teaching experience and (2) formal or informal orientation in the professional methods, functions, and mores of a college teacher of history.

The demand for teaching experience for Ph.D. candidates is vigorously raised by the college employers of history Ph.D.s. Three-fifths (57%) of the specific recommendations for improved teacher preparation from college history departments call for practice teaching. Actual conduct of lecture courses is the experience that is most desired, and very many respondents specify that the practice teaching should be supervised by one or more members of the history faculty.9 The conduct of discussion or “quiz” sections is regarded as supplementary to the more desirable experience of regular classroom teaching.

Independent teaching under supervision is also the chief recommendation made by executives of 134 four-year colleges. The college presidents persuasively reason that Ph.D. candidates need the experience to find out if they like teaching, to gain a measure of confidence, and to develop teaching techniques. They also argue that the Ph.D.-training departments themselves need supervised student teaching to discover the specific strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, both in order to advise them wisely and to be able to write reliable letters of recommendation about them. At least 30% of the college executives make it clear that practice teaching should be a part of Ph.D. training, and about half of these explicitly recommend that it be supervised.

Recent Ph.D.s also call for practice teaching. Half of those who recommended more attention to teacher preparation in Ph.D. programs think it should be accomplished through supervised teaching. And interviews with some 230 members of graduate history faculties in 1959 showed an overwhelming majority in favor of supervised part-time teaching or teaching assistantships as the best means of preparing Ph.D. candidates as teachers.

Many Ph.D. programs cannot provide teaching experience in their undergraduate colleges. Some respondents suggest that they might find neighboring colleges willing to do so on an internship basis. It may be noted in this connection that the Committee of Fifteen in 1955 urgently called upon universities to “recognize the need of internships and take steps to establish them.”10 Most Ph.D. programs that can provide teacher preparation on their own campuses will probably prefer this to internship systems, but it should be possible to overcome the difficulties in arranging for internships if they are thought to be desirable. The Council on Medical Education and Hospitals of the American Medical Association somehow annually manages to evaluate and approve 1,093 internship programs in 867 hospitals with positions for 12,325 interns.11

Second only to the demand for practice teaching among proponents of teacher preparation is the recommendation that Ph.D. candidates be offered formal or informal instruction in college teaching. Two-fifths (43%) of the specific recommendations of teacher preparation from the college departments call specifically for this; the recommendation is made by 63 departments.

What this instruction should include is a matter of disagreement. Some proponents believe with a California state college respondent that it ought to train Ph.D. candidates “to construct a curriculum, a course, a lecture, a reading list or syllabus, and a test,-also how to order intelligently for a library.” Others say with Dexter Perkins that there are elementary things that can be taught candidates about classroom teaching: “To speak slowly, and so that you can be heard; to make the big facts stand out from the subordinate ones …; to avoid ponderosity and flippancy alike; to talk, not to read; to present a subject as a related whole.”12 Still others suggest that Ph.D. candidates should be introduced to the history and conflicting philosophies of higher education, others that they should study the values, standards, and accepted ethics of the profession.13 Many supporters of an orientation course would have it touch on all these matters. Realizing that it would take many months to present so much in a lecture course, some respondents would make the course a reading and discussion program. Several suggest that it should be an informal, noncredit colloquium lasting only about half a semester.

This idea of a formal or informal course on college teaching finds numerous and diverse supporters. Two-fifths of the 1958 Ph.D.s state that such a course should be required of all Ph.D.s in history, and it may surprise many readers that one-fifth of them report having had “a course in problems of college teaching.” Members of graduate faculties who were interviewed in 1959 were divided on the desirability of a required course on teaching. Those who opposed it were numerous in most of the departments that were visited, and they were usually very rigorous in their opposition. But many members of the graduate faculties-about one-third of them-agree that Ph.D. candidates should be required to take a course on college teaching, “taught by the history department and lasting no more than one semester and perhaps less.”

If such a course is to be offered in Ph.D. programs, careful attention to its content and conduct is needed, of course. This is underscored by the variety of sentiments toward such courses among those 32 Ph.D.s of 1958 who report having taken them. Almost one-third of them describe the course as “valuable” or “very valuable.” Almost one-third more say it was “not very valuable” or that they would “eliminate it from Ph.D. program.” And somewhat more than one-third say that the course was “not as valuable as part-time teaching.” One thing is clear: whether by supervised teaching, through a course, or through a combination of both, Ph.D.-training departments need to give most serious consideration to the responsibility that goes with their near-monopoly over the supply of teachers of history in American higher education.

Breadth and Specialization

Critics of both the teaching and the writing of new Ph.D.s in history have agreed in the past-and still agree-that they demonstrate insufficient breadth of learning, notwithstanding the impressively broad field requirements that were reviewed in Chapter 7. From a study of 1945 comes the lament of a college president: “… we ask a man with a Ph.D. in history if he will take a class in American history since 1850 and he will hope to be excused since his advanced work made him a specialist in ‘the Constitution’.”14 Ten years later a historian member of the Committee of Fifteen complains: “We don’t turn out historians any more; or even American historians; and sometimes not even American diplomatic historians.”15 Something is radically wrong, Jacques Barzun has written, “in a ‘philosophy’ which says that the college student should receive a general and liberal education, and which makes its teachers a living refutation of that ideal.”16

While one-sixth of the recent history Ph.D.s wish their Ph.D. programs had provided more work in their specialized fields of history, complaints against overspecialization are heard everywhere. The third most common criticism of their graduate schools by graduate students in history in 1958-1959 was that they demanded overspecialization (see Table 8-1). A large majority of recent Ph.D.s are satisfied with the breadth of their doctoral programs, but the demand for broader training in history and related disciplines is the second most numerous criticism encountered among their suggestions. It is raised by almost one-fourth (23%) of the Ph.D.s of 1958. Among the comments of presidents and departmental chairmen in the colleges the cry for greater breadth is second in intensity and frequency only to the demand for teacher preparation.

“How in the world,” Barnaby Keeney has asked, “is a student who has concerned himself for a year or two with a barren, worthless, and unstimulating subject going to bring inspiration and interest into his classes?”17 The college respondents call for broader programs of study as well as for less narrow dissertations. All in all, 29% of the recommendations received from departments in all types of colleges would broaden doctoral training. Many college respondents would like all Ph.D. candidates in history to study in at least one related discipline. Graduate faculty members for the most part agree that one outside field is desirable. But the number of graduate faculty members favoring the requirement of “as much or more breadth in history as now” is almost exactly the same as the number favoring “fewer fields of history or heavier concentration than now in the major field.”

To the colleges greater breadth in doctoral programs means better teachers. So far as the colleges are concerned, therefore, the recommendation for more deliberate teacher training and the recommendation for greater breadth add up to only one demand, a demand for better teachers of history. Looked at this way, three-fourths (74%) of all recommendations from the 376 four-year colleges say “prepare Ph.D. candidates more successfully for college teaching.” The recommendations from the 126 selected four-year colleges provide even more impressive evidence of this: five-sixths (85%) of those making recommendations call either for more deliberate teacher training or for greater breadth.

But Ph.D. programs that provide for greater breadth will heed more than the recommendations of the colleges, and they will improve more than teacher training. As scholars no less than as teachers, historians need to “interpret the past broadly, in the spirit of a man to whom nothing human is alien.”18 The strongest reminders of the need for greater breadth in historical training come not only from teachers in the colleges but also from research scholars in related fields. Thus an American political scientist observed in 1958 that: “History, the political scientist’s ‘laboratory,’ cannot be fully exploited because its guardians, the historians, have been interested mainly in demonstrating the uniqueness of historical events instead of developing generalizations.”19 Criticism of overspecialized training comes also from editors who daily read manuscripts produced by Ph.D.s in history. From one of them comes the opinion that the “greatest need” in doctoral training is to help Ph.D. candidates “relate their specific research topics to matters of broader historical significance.”

Training for Research Scholarship

Historians on graduate faculties made many helpful comments about training in research and writing when the author of this study interviewed them in the spring of 1959. These comments harmonize so perfectly with what we learned about these matters from the editors of six historical journals and four university presses that only the editorial opinions need be summarized here (see Appendix K).

The editors’ comments suggest that the scholarly writings of new Ph.D.s usually reflect sound reasoning and adequate use of critical research method. They also show a proper balance of boldness and caution in reconstructing historical developments from limited or controversial material. But a notable number of dissertations fail to reflect adequate acquaintance with older or more recent literature on the subject treated. The research contributions of new Ph.D.s reveal too little breadth. Little knowledge of history outside the subject area, little awareness of the philosophies of history, lack of familiarity with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and failure to relate the specific topic to matters of broader historical significance-these are faults that all or most of the editors notice in the manuscripts of new Ph.D.s.

Fairly often the prose submitted for publication by new Ph.D.s is not as clear and grammatical as it should be. More typically the prose of new Ph.D.s is competently written, but, as one editor comments, it is “seldom lively; it does not delight one.” Many manuscripts could be “better organized and more vigorous and succinct” (to use the words of one of the press editors). Historical writing often is “over-long, diffuse, lacking a clear theme or argument.” Two journal editors report the acceptance for publication of only 1 of 10 manuscripts submitted in the period 1956-1958, and this limited acceptance was dictated by more than space limitation. One editor writes that, “some papers are submitted to me that are totally unfit for publication.” In the opinion of 4 of the 10 editors the graduate schools are “overly encouraging” publication by their Ph.D. graduates, and only 1 says publication is being “insufficiently” encouraged.

More than the methods of training doctoral candidates is involved in the weaknesses of historical writing. The editors of historical magazines a generation ago were already “dubious about the quality of pieces of research offered for publication,” and more than one of them believed that “the emphasis on ‘production’ for promotion” probably stimulated the preparation of “too many unimportant and mediocre research works.”20 One of the press directors suggested the outlines of another explanation when he wrote the following in the fall of 1958: “The introduction of ‘scientific’ techniques has deluded scholars into teaching their students that there is no art to historical writing.” More recently Allan Nevins has also cited “the sweeping transfer of history into scientific channels” to explain why historical writing since the nineteenth century has become “more original, but more confusing; more expert, but grayer and grimmer.”21

In the eighteenth century, when much less history was published than now, one-fourth of the books in private libraries in France were histories.22 Can history in America today hope for so large a measure of acceptance? A rediscovery of literary art and a renewal of the capacity for generalization can make history a more vital cultural force than it has been in this century; the admonitions of the last decade allow one to hope that both are underway. The graduate schools can play a decisive role in this development by preserving scholarly values while training students to write prose that is distinguished for its clarity, vigor, and grace of expression no less than for its relevance to the broad and vital concerns of a busy people.

Clearly the rate of publication is less important than its quality. It is well to examine, nevertheless, the complaint that graduate schools are overly encouraging publication. Jernegan estimated in 1927 that “less than twenty-five per cent of the doctors of philosophy in history are consistent producers,” but Hesseltine and Kaplan stated that more than half the new history Ph.D.s of 1926-1935 by 1936 “had publications to their credit and gave promise of continued productivity.”23 Today fewer graduate schools require the publication of doctoral dissertations, and by 1959 only one-fifth of the history dissertations of 1947-1948 had been published. Only one-third (34%) of the history Ph.D.s of 1947-1948 had published one or more titles by 1959; only one-fifth (19%) had published beyond the dissertation.24 Thus, while more historians are publishing than in the past, the percentage of historians who publish seems to have declined since the 1930s.

A second step in deciding whether young historians now publish too much is to compare their output with that of Ph.D.s in other disciplines. Berelson has done this for the Ph.D.s of 1947-1948, and his study shows that history, with 34% of its Ph.D.s publishing one title or more, is much the least productive-by titles-of nine disciplines (e.g., chemistry, 89%; philosophy, 63%; English, 61%). This situation undoubtedly helps to explain why only one-fifth of graduate faculty members (19%) as well as of recent Ph.D.s in history (20%) view the present state of their discipline as a whole as “very satisfactory,” whereas three-fifths of the physicists and almost half the chemists think of their disciplines with that degree of confidence.25 Production comparisons between history Ph.D.s and chemistry Ph.D.s are not revealing, because 96% of the publications are single-author works, while only 17% of the publications of the chemists are. Historical publications are also longer than those in the sciences. Although the writing of history commonly requires more research than do studies in English and philosophy, scholarly publication in these disciplines is approximately comparable, for as in history it usually involves single-author projects. At a time when three-fifths of the Ph.D.s in English, almost two-thirds of those in philosophy, and only one-third of those in history are publishing, it seems unreasonable to conclude that too many history Ph.D.s are writing for publication.

It is possible, however, that some Ph.D.s in history are prematurely submitting their contributions to managing editors of journals and presses. In the fall of 1959 no less than 17% of the Ph.D.s of 1958 (16.9% of those from the seven top-prestige programs) reported having had one book or more accepted for publication since the award of the Ph.D.; and more than one-third (36%) of the responding Ph.D.s of 1958 reported having at least one article accepted for publication. But almost one-fourth (22%; 26% from the seven top-prestige programs) reported having one article manuscript or more than one rejected, and at least one-sixth (16%) reported having had a book manuscript rejected. Some of those who are unready would develop their research science and their literary art if postdoctoral study in history-rare as compared with practice in other disciplines-were expanded. Both the quality and quantity of the publications of young Ph.D.s in history would undoubtedly be improved if more postdoctoral grants were available to enable them to rethink and rewrite the results of their doctoral research or to begin new studies arising from it.26

Professional historical associations also can and do foster scholarly excellence in graduate study. Prizes of the American Historical Association (AHA), the Pacific Coast Branch of the AHA, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association frequently go to recent Ph.D.s for dissertations or for books that are begun as dissertations. One prize-winning book in recent years was actually written as a master’s thesis. Sometimes, while still Ph.D. candidates, young historians are invited to appear on the convention programs of the associations. Articles by Ph.D. candidates-often developed as seminar papers-appear from time to time in The HistorianJournal of Modern HistoryAmerican Slavic and East European Review,27 Journal of Central European AffairsJournal of Southern HistoryPacific Historical ReviewSouthwestern Social Science QuarterlyMississippi Valley Historical Review, state and other historical journals, and even in the American Historical Review. The European History Section of the Southern Historical Association in 1960 inaugurated an annual prize for the best seminar paper in European history by a graduate student in a Southern university.

More steps of this kind might be taken to stimulate excellence in research and writing among graduate students. It has been suggested, for example, that a special annual program in which many advanced Ph.D. candidates would present very short papers (ten minutes each) might be scheduled as part of the annual meeting of the AHA. Incidentally, this would allow would-be employers to see and hear at least some of the young talent in the nation in professional action. In more scholarly terms, this could influence Ph.D. training in a desirable way by emphasizing the need for Ph.D. candidates to think through their dissertation research and succinctly state their major contributions, to present their conclusions stripped of all but the most essential detail.

In these and other ways, perhaps more than the present 2 out of 5 Ph.D.s in history can be brought to find a publisher for part or all of their dissertations. With no more than 40% now doing so it is impossible to conclude that the Ph.D. programs are doing a job of educating historians that should cause complacency. Yet it would be deplorable if any reforms of graduate education should add to the length of time currently required for the overall Ph.D. program. On the contrary, ways need to be found to improve teacher preparation, to keep field requirements broad, and to improve training for research and writing while simultaneously reducing the time commonly required for the Ph.D. in history.

Protracted Ph.D. Study

There is abundant opinion and some evidence that Benjamin Wright’s “tentative conclusion” of 1957 is valid: that “the lengthening of the process has made the doctorate somewhat easier for those whom we call capable routineers, while discouraging a good many young people who would be much more stimulating teachers.”28 Berelson has shown quite clearly that members of graduate faculties who took a shorter time to complete the Ph.D. are more productive as scholars than those who took longer. To Berelson this does not mean that protracted doctoral programs burn out scholarly interests; he believes it simply means that “the better people tend to finish sooner and the better people are more productive.”29 The opinion of experienced sponsors of Ph.D. candidates in history coincides closely with this judgment.

In 1861, when Yale granted its first Ph.D., the degree was based upon 2 years of study.30 How long should doctoral studies last today? It is a rare member of a graduate faculty in history who believes 3 academic years-or even 3 calendar years-is a realistic estimate of the time required for most students, even if they can devote full time to their studies.31 But there is widespread agreement among historians on graduate faculties that 4 years of full-time study-including the master’s training if it is taken-should be sufficient for Ph.D. candidates who are capable of earning the degree unless exceptional problems are involved (e.g., learning a language not commonly taught in the colleges).

Table 8-5. Time Lapse between Start of Graduate Study and Award of Degree to 182 Ph.D.s in History of 1958

Award of degree within—Cumulative No. of Ph.D.sCumulative % of total
3 years42
4 years158
5 years3117
6 years5329
7 years7843
8 years9753
9 years11262
10 years13474
11 years or more182100


In actuality, however, Ph.D. candidates in history rarely complete the degree within 4 years after beginning graduate study. Only 8% of the history Ph.D.s of 1958 were awarded the degree within 4 years after beginning graduate study in history; 71% required 7 years or more (see Table 8-5). Only one-fourth of the Ph.D.s were under 30 when the degree was awarded; 35% were 36 or older (see Table 8-6). The Ph.D.s of 1958 who started graduate study young tended to take shorter periods to earn the degree; those who started later took longer. Ph.D.s in the West and Midwest finished considerably faster than those in the East and South. Ph.D.s from the South were notably older than those from other regions (almost half-48%-were 36 or more) and Ph.D.s from the Midwest were notably younger (27% were 36 or more).

Table 8-6. Ages of 181 Ph.D.s of 1958 upon Award of Degreee

AgeCumulative No. of Ph.D.sCumulative % of Ph.D.s
25 or less21
27 or less2313
29 or less4424
31 or less7240
33 or less9653
35 or less11765
37 or less13977
39 or less15083
40 or more3117


Separate studies confirm the fact that only a minority of Ph.D.s in history obtain the degree in less than 6 or 7 years. These studies also show that the Ph.D. in history commonly is more protracted than doctorates in most other disciplines. Sibley showed in 1948 that the time required in history from bachelor’s to Ph.D. was 7.8 years and that only political science in a group of 11 social and natural sciences required more.32 More than half (54%) of all the history Ph.D.s at Columbia, 1940-1956, spent 8 years or more getting the degree. The average length of time required for the Columbia Ph.D.s in history, 9.5 years, was the longest for all but 3 of 13 disciplines; and the average time required to achieve a Harvard Ph.D. (8.1 years for the history Ph.D.s of 1954) is almost as protracted as for Columbia.33

But it is a rare Ph.D. faculty that can criticize the protracted Ph.D.s of Columbia and Harvard without illustrating the tendency to “reform some other guy” instead of tackling one’s own problems. Thus a study of 143 recent Ph.D.s in history from universities in the South shows a mean time lapse of 9.7 years from the beginning of graduate study to award of the doctorate (the median was 8.0). This study shows that only in foreign languages and English does the Ph.D. take longer. (The time reported in economics, political science, and sociology averages from 6 to 18 months less than in history.)34 The mean time lapse from bachelor’s degree to Ph.D. for 95 history Ph.D.s of 1957 in Berelson’s sample was 10.1 years.35 This is very much in harmony with the data reported above, for the mean time lapse from bachelor’s to Ph.D. is 18 to 24 months more than the lapse from start of graduate study to Ph.D.

In the decisive opinion of graduate faculties in history, Ph.D. programs are overly protracted, and just as decisively they believe the cause to be part-time or full-time work by graduate students, made necessary by inadequate fellowship aid. Chapter 3 has already demonstrated that great numbers of history Ph.D. candidates do engage in part-time or full-time work between the beginning of graduate study and award of the Ph.D. It also suggested that part-time work while in residence does not cause serious delays in progress toward the Ph.D. Thus, one-third (33%) of the 57 Ph.D.s of 1958 who devoted full time to studies while in graduate school completed the degree within 6 years, but so did 29% of the entire sample of 182. Three-fourths (75%) of the whole sample were thirty or more upon award of the Ph.D., and so were three-fourths (75%) of the Ph.D.s who devoted full time to study while in residence. Part-time work in graduate school somewhat delays the Ph.D. candidates who engage in it, but the main problem lies elsewhere.

A comparison of time actually spent in residence with the total time from start of graduate study to Ph.D. strengthens the argument that the main problem of candidates is lack of funds. Two-fifths (42%) of the 1958 Ph.D.s completed their residence in graduate school in 3 years or less and three-fourths (73%) completed their residence within 4 years (cf. Table 8-5). For 143 recent Ph.D.s in history in the South the mean length of time in graduate study in all institutions was exactly 4 calendar years (median, 3.8); somewhat longer averages are reported in most other disciplines, including the natural sciences.36 Berelson’s respondents in the social sciences estimated that the Ph.D. required 3.7 years (median) of actual work-as nearly as they could translate protracted activity into equivalent full-time work. Berelson reports that it takes the same length of time “in the top places and the others.”37

Obviously programs of 8, 9, or 10 years (and sometimes more) usually are not caused by time in residence but by delays in completing dissertations after residence is completed and while candidates hold full-time jobs. Why do candidates plunge (or sink) into full-time work before completing dissertations? The cause which has been pointed out and which seems obvious is the financial need of Ph.D. candidates.

But it is possible that a different kind of financial problem than the need for fellowships is involved. Rosenhaupt has noted that Columbia candidates in fields that offered high post-Ph.D. salaries finished the degree rapidly.38 In a report released in 1960 the National Opinion Research Center points to low post-Ph.D. salaries and reluctance to go from a graduate school to a college teaching position as the major reasons why Ph.D. candidates in the humanities have such protracted Ph.D. programs. There is insufficient incentive to finish in three to four years.39

If, indeed, the Ph.D. “stretch-out” in history is caused in part by insufficient financial reward for completing the degree, the graduate schools are left with four basic devices to speed the training process. One way is to obtain more fellowship funds. The second is closely related to the first: graduate faculties can recruit better students. The need for both of these measures has been reviewed in Chapter 3. A third way is to encourage the students to do all their graduate work in a single institution. Changing graduate schools after a year or so of study is a stimulating and broadening experience, but it contributes to the Ph.D. stretchout.40 A fourth way is to tighten the training process.

Tighter training is the one way to shorten programs that is directly and immediately open to all graduate faculties in history. One may hope that tighter training will attract larger numbers of superior students; one may also hope that it might convince the sources of fellowship aid that more funds should be entrusted to history faculties. However this may be, these moves might well be tried, for they are desirable in their own right.

What, then, can be tightened? Recent Ph.D.s in history and graduate faculty members generally are in agreement about the steps that might be taken. The Ph.D.s of 1958 recommend them in this order:

  1. Provide better orientation and guidance of graduate students, especially in work on the dissertation
  2. Set deadlines for various stages of progress
  3. Put less emphasis on formal courses, especially lecture courses
  4. Restrict the dissertation somewhat in scope of topic, amount of research expected, or length
  5. Raise general standards for admission; require fulfillment of the language requirement for admission
  6. Encourage Ph.D. candidates to bypass the master’s degree; waive the requirement of a master’s thesis
  7. Eliminate the final oral examination for the Ph.D.
  8. Relax or eliminate the foreign language requirement
  9. Reduce the number or size of the fields that are covered on the general examination for the Ph.D.

Large numbers of historians on graduate faculties during interviews in 1959 recommended points 1 to 5. A good many of the members of graduate faculties also favored points 6 to 9, though these are more controversial. Points 5 to 7 and point 9 have already been discussed in other contexts in this study (see Chapters 3, 5, 7). It seems especially relevant to this discussion to comment on points 1 to 4, 8, and 9.

Graduate students support the demand of recent Ph.D.s for better faculty guidance to history graduate students. The reports of some 300 history students in 25 universities indicate that they are somewhat less satisfied with advice from their professors than are students in other disciplines. Table 8-7 shows the frequency with which they report receiving advice of various types. The amount of guidance students receive varies greatly from one Ph.D. program to another, largely depending upon the student-teacher ratio. Thus one-fourth of all the Ph.D.s of 1958 state that too many students beyond the master’s degree were in residence in their universities for adequate faculty attention, and almost half (46%) of the group from the seven top-prestige programs register this complaint (three-fourths—74%—of the 19 Ph.D.s from one of the seven).

Table 8-7. Comparison of Faculty Guidance Received by Graduate Students in History and Other Disciplines (Sample of 2,764 Students), 1958-1959

Type of advice% of students advised by at least one faculty member
History studentsTotal sample
Definitely strive for the Ph.D.4347
Apply for a fellowship or scholarship3541
You have a flair for research2832
You were best student in a class2527
You have a flair for teaching2026
You are one of the best students in the department1623
You are taking too long to get the degree79
Consider transferring to another university64
Modify a few personality traits38
You should not plan on Ph.D.23
Research would not be best for you22
Teaching would not be best for you12
You might do better in a different department12
Source: Statistics provided by the National Opinion Research Center.


Improved guidance at initial registration is needed in many departments. In most of them the new student confers with only one faculty member. With about equal frequency this is: (1) the departmental chairman; (2) the department’s graduate adviser; or (3) any appropriate faculty member. In 22% of the Ph.D.-training departments the student confers with more than one faculty member. An informal discussion of previous training and the development of a program for the first year of graduate study between the new student and two or three faculty members can be especially helpful at this stage-to students and faculty members alike. If a master’s thesis is to be written, time can be saved by the appointment on the spot of a faculty sponsor or a committee to spur and aid the student in the choice of a subject.

A second stage at which better guidance is very much needed comes at the end of the first year of graduate study. Whether or not the student is seeking the master’s degree, he should then be definitely encouraged to go on to the Ph.D.-or just as vigorously discouraged. The student who seems no better than a risky prospect for the doctorate at the end of one year of graduate study is likely to be in the end no better than a risky prospect. And he will not be made much better than risky if he is kept in the Ph.D. program for eight years or more.

Guidance toward the end of the Ph.D. program can also be improved. Students need faculty help in selecting dissertation topics. Much time can be saved if topics can be selected early and developed in seminars and in the master’s thesis, if one is written. Students are sometimes delayed because chapters of dissertations are read slowly, or by changes in faculty personnel, or by disagreements among faculty members who read their dissertations. In one department visited in this study it is not uncommon for the student to wait two months or more after taking the general written examination before being told whether he has passed or failed. While this does not happen in most Ph.D. programs, it is difficult to justify its happening at all.

Guidance alone will not drastically shorten the time required for the Ph.D., and some faculty members are prepared to try more radical reforms. Members of graduate faculties almost unanimously agree that Ph.D. programs are protracted by the requirement of reading knowledge in foreign languages. A small minority are willing to waive the requirement completely. Large numbers are in favor of requiring Ph.D. candidates to stand examination in only one language on the condition that greater mastery be demonstrated than is now commonly required by language examinations. But an almost exactly equal number would prefer to continue requiring examination in two languages. On the other hand, all but a small minority of the graduate faculty members favor setting a deadline for the passing of one foreign language examination by new graduate students. A good many would require this before the initial registration for graduate courses in history; the majority would demand it before the beginning of a second year of graduate study.

The graduate faculty members agree almost without dissent that the general examination causes delays in Ph.D. programs. None of those interviewed in this study want to make this examination less rigorous, but many faculty members would reduce the scope or number of fields covered on the examination, and this is thought by some to be especially appropriate in the case of candidates whose specialty requires competence in three or four foreign languages. A large majority are in favor of setting a deadline by which Ph.D. candidates must take the general examination. And there is a widespread conviction that students should prepare for the general examination more independently than is usually the case, that they should not be required to accumulate large amounts of course credit.

The doctoral dissertation in history has long been the target of criticism. In 1927 J. Franklin Jameson, convinced that “most universities make too formidable a job” of it, suggested that the student could “learn those arts of continuous research and methodical construction and composition, which it is of course necessary for him to learn, quite as well by producing a monograph of a hundred pages as by producing one of six or seven hundred.”41 Admonitions by Jameson and others have not resulted in shorter dissertations, and the time invested in Ph.D. dissertations is a large element in the arithmetic of prolonged programs. Data provided by 1,869 recent Ph.D.s from universities in the South, including 139 in history, show that the average (mean and median) time lapse between approval of topics and submission of complete dissertations is longer in history than in any of 15 disciplines. The mean time lapse in history of 2.8 years may be compared with 2.1 in political science, and 1.9 in the physical sciences.36

A few historians on graduate faculties today are ready to settle for dissertations of 100 to 150 pages in length. But most agree that 300 pages is the maximum desirable length, and most believe that one calendar year of full-time work should be sufficient for dissertation research and writing. In considering this as well as other proposals for tightening doctoral training the following comment by Hayward Keniston is worth the serious attention of graduate faculties in history: “In a word, we must give up the idea that the graduate student should emerge from his studies a fully formed scholar; the most that we can hope is that he has gained a fairly broad vision of his field, its problems and limitations, and that he has learned how to carry on independent research, and, above all, that he enters on his career with undiminished zest in the great adventure of learning.”42


Criticism is the subject and the substance of this chapter. As a result, a word of caution and qualification is in order, for as Merle Curti has noted, “American and European scholars alike” have often been “misled by the tendency of American scholars to be self-critical.”43 Solid accomplishments should not be lost from sight as the hopes of greater accomplishments are passed in review. In the opinion of many graduate faculty members in American universities in 1959, graduate study in this country is “better” than it was in the 1930s, and better than its counterpart in France, West Germany, and the U.S.S.R.44

The criticisms solicited in this study serve most of all to emphasize the supreme importance of attracting superior students to graduate study in history. If the students are first-rate, the Ph.D. graduates can be capable teachers of breadth, effective contributors to scholarly publications, and young enough upon the award of the Ph.D. to cause less concern than there is now about protracted doctoral programs. But there is widespread agreement that repairs are overdue in the training system if Ph.D.s in history are to be educated more efficiently as teachers and as scholars. The repairs are recommended whether or not larger numbers of Ph.D.s are to be trained.

Foremost among the suggested changes in doctoral training is the more deliberate preparation of Ph.D. candidates as teachers. History graduate students, recent Ph.D.s, and the colleges that provide positions for so many of these all want improved teacher training. Many members of graduate faculties concur in this desire, and a number of history Ph.D. programs have already made provision for better teacher preparation (see Chapter 9).

Closely related to the demand for more deliberate teacher training is the demand-also strongly expressed-for greater breadth of training. There is widespread opinion that overspecialization produces both teachers and research scholars ill-equipped to meet the broad demands of historical scholarship. The instilling of a broader historical approach and more attention to the literary skills are the major recommendations editors have to offer Ph.D. programs in history.

Finally, this chapter shows how protracted Ph.D. programs in history have become. It suggests ways in which they might be tightened, and Chapter 9 will suggest others. Statistics proving that the Ph.D. in history requires an average of eight years to achieve should summon up realistic determination and inventiveness on the part of every graduate faculty in the nation in attempting to reduce the Ph.D. “stretch-out.” And determination should not be sapped by talk of producing “half-baked” Ph.D.s as a result of the tightened program. Half-baked bread is no good, but medium-rare steaks are a different matter. It is generally agreed that Ph.D. candidates in history have commonly been left too long over a slow fire.45

Next section: Experiments with Teacher Training and Tightened Programs


  1. A complaint is judged worth noting when it is voiced by 15% of the respondents, says J. P. Elder in A Criticism of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in Harvard University and Radcliffe College from Those Who Took the Ph.D. at These Institutions between 1950 and 1954 (n.p. [Cambridge?], n.d. [1958?]), 13. Berelson has estimated that dissatisfaction “of the order of 20%-25%” is normal and should exist in so complex an enterprise (in Graduate Education, 217). The major criticisms reviewed in this chapter are voiced directly or indirectly by more than 25% of the respondents. []
  2. Berelson, Graduate Education, 206. []
  3. Ibid., 205. Since the scientists have fewer financial worries, one may guess that this conditions their outlook on graduate education. []
  4. The editors were asked only about qualities of scholarship. []
  5. Dexter Perkins, “We Shall Gladly Teach,” 293. []
  6. Keniston, Graduate Study and Research in the Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, 100-101. []
  7. Dexter Perkins, “We Shall Gladly Teach,” 297. []
  8. Strothmann and others, The Graduate School Today and Tomorrow, 12. []
  9. This reiterates a demand long heard among proponents of teacher preparation in Ph.D. programs. See, e.g., the 1950 report by Blegen and Cooper (eds.), The Preparation of College Teachers, 127-129. []
  10. Strothmann and others, The Graduate School Today and Tomorrow, 22; 33-34. []
  11. Irwin (ed.), American Universities and Colleges, 8th ed., 112. These figures are averages for the years 1957-1959. For literature on teaching internships see Fells (ed.), College Teachers and College Teaching, 59. []
  12. Perkins, “We Shall Gladly Teach,” 297. For literature on college teaching methods see Fells (ed.), College Teachers and College Teaching, 169-219. []
  13.  It may be noted in passing that every Ph.D. candidate might profitably be required to read and ponder the statement of ethics drafted by the American Association of University Professors in 1937 and reprinted in Wilson, The Academic Man, 231-235. []
  14. Quoted by Hollis, Toward Improving Ph.D. Programs, 132. []
  15. Strothmann and others, The Graduate School Today and Tomorrow, 23. []
  16. Barzun, The House of Intellect, 118. []
  17. Barnaby C. Keeney, “A Dead Horse Flogged Again,” Speculum, XXX (October, 1955), 607. []
  18. Dexter Perkins, “We Shall Gladly Teach,” 309. []
  19. Henry L. Mason, Toynbee’s Approach to World Politics, vol. V in Tulane Studies in Political Science (New Orleans, 1958), 101. []
  20. Jernegan, “Productivity of Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 14. []
  21. Allan Nevins, “Not Capulets, Not Montagues,” American Historical Review, LXV (January, 1960), 257. []
  22. H. Butterfield, “The History of the Writing of History,” in Comité International des Sciences Historiques, XI Congrès International des Sciences Historiques, Rapports, 5 vols. (Goteborg, Stockholm, Uppsala, 1960), I, 27. []
  23. Jernegan, “The Productivity of Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 1-2; Hesseltine and Kaplan, “Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 798-799. []
  24. Berelson, Graduate Education, 55, 177. []
  25. Ibid., 55, 212. []
  26. On postdoctoral study see ibid., 190-196. If ignorance of available funds partly explains why historians do not get more postdoctoral grants, it can still be substantially dispelled by consulting Louise Carroll Wade, “Assistance Available for Post-Doctoral Historical Research and Publication,” American Historical Review, LXII (April, 1957), 570-593. []
  27. Published in 1961 and after under the title Slavic Review. []
  28. Benjamin F. Wright, “The Ph.D. Stretch-Out and the Scholar-Teacher,” in Arthur E. Traxler (ed.), Vital Issues in Education (Washington, 1957), 144. []
  29. Berelson, Graduate Education, 166. []
  30. Keniston, Graduate Study and Research in the Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, 13. []
  31. The report of the four graduate deans in 1957 argued that three years of residence should be sufficient, and briefly suggested ways in which training might be completed in that period. This report by J. Barzun and others appears in the Association of Graduate Schools, Association of American Universities, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, 58th Annual Conference. See also Keniston, Graduate Study and Research in the Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, 31. []
  32. Sibley, The Recruitment, Selection, and Training of Social Scientists, 87. []
  33. Rosenhaupt, Graduate Students: Experience at Columbia University, 1940-1956, 73, 79, 124. []
  34. Prepublication data made available by the Southern Regional Education Board. []
  35. Bernard Berelson generously provided a separate IBM tabulation for the history group in his sample of recent (1957) Ph.D.s. []
  36. Data provided by the Southern Regional Education Board. [] []
  37. Berelson, Graduate Education, 159-160. []
  38. Rosenhaupt, Graduate Students: Experience at Columbia University, 1940-1956, 75. []
  39. Davis and others, “The Financial Situation of American Arts and Science Graduate Students,” 261. []
  40. Only about half the social science Ph.D.s covered in the Sibley report of 1948 had done all their graduate work in a single institution. Sibley, The Recruitment, Selection, and Training of Social Scientists, 60. []
  41. Quoted by Jernegan, “Productivity of Doctors of Philosophy in History,” 17-18n. []
  42. Keniston, Graduate Study and Research in the Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, 32. []
  43. Curti (ed.), American Scholarship in the Twentieth Century, 16-17. []
  44. Berelson, Graduate Education, 209-210. []
  45. Readers may be interested in comparing this chapter with the mimeographed report prepared by G. W. Pierson (August, 1961) on criticisms of Ph.D. training at Yale University offered by former graduate students at Yale. []