Published Date

January 1, 2004

From The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century

In 1958, the American Historical Association (AHA) appointed a Committee on Graduate Education to examine and report on the training of the nation’s historians. Supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the study was directed by John L. Snell and chaired by Dexter Perkins. It addressed such pertinent issues as the supply and demand for university teachers, student recruitment patterns, undergraduate education in history, and training for the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. The Committee submitted its report, The Education of Historians in the United States, to the profession in 1962. It was an extraordinary document, comprehensive in scope and sound in its conclusions and recommendations. This pioneering study undoubtedly served its purpose well at the time and helped to shape the texture of master’s and doctoral programs in history throughout the nation.

Four decades after the publication of the 1962 report, the time seems appropriate for a new study. The discipline and the profession have experienced significant changes over the last several decades. New fields have emerged and new approaches to the study of the discipline have been embraced. The ethnic and sexual composition of the profession has changed, and the domains of historical enquiry have expanded. These important developments have enormous implications for the ways in which graduate students are being trained. Some doctoral programs, to be sure, have responded positively to these new imperatives, but others have clung tenaciously to past practices.

The present Committee on Graduate Education offers a new study to the profession, one that builds upon the work of its predecessor. The Committee received its charge from the Council of the American Historical Association in January 2000, and its terms of reference were deliberately broad. The Council asked the Committee to undertake a comprehensive study of the current practices in graduate training and to make appropriate recommendations, keeping in mind the changing needs of the profession, society, and the larger world. Fortunately, the Carnegie Corporation was once again willing to provide the requisite funding, and the Committee formally began its work in fall 2000, after recruiting a director of research.

The Committee confronted several challenges at the outset. Its eleven members needed to assure themselves that they were thoroughly conversant with the intellectual currents and debates in the profession before they began their important task. Accordingly, they attended a two-day seminar in Washington, D.C., where they wrestled with a variety of issues appropriate to their mission. This seminar was also attended by individuals who represented several different professional and disciplinary perspectives. Subsequently, with the Council’s approval, the Committee named an advisory panel composed of individuals whose advice would be solicited at various stages of the project. This carefully selected body included professors, graduate students, and historians whose fields and professional expertise were not represented on the smaller working committee.

To execute its task well, the Committee had to acquire an informed understanding of the current practices in graduate education. It sought to do this in a number of ways, all designed to obtain information from as wide a spectrum of the profession as possible. In February 2001, the Committee surveyed history department chairs, asking them to identify the challenges that graduate education in history confronted. In succeeding months, it surveyed the employers of public historians and graduate students. The most ambitious and comprehensive survey, however, was sent to the directors of graduate studies at 158 doctorate-granting history programs in May 2001. This daunting questionnaire, of some forty-plus pages, solicited qualitative and quantitative information on the nature of graduate training in their respective programs, the composition of the student body, mentoring practices, financial support for graduate students, departmental cultures, attrition rates, the placement of graduates, and so on. The response to the survey was extraordinarily gratifying, as 105 programs returned the completed document.

In addition to the surveys, the Committee asked the readers of Perspectives--and especially the graduate student members of the AHA-to submit their concerns about graduate training, as well as their recommendations for improvements to it. It also drew upon the statistics relating to important aspects of the historical profession that the AHA has gathered over the years. These information-gathering activities were supplemented by open forums at eleven professional meetings. These forums provided the Committee with opportunities to engage colleagues face to face, to understand their concerns, and to benefit from their advice. The Committee also made site visits to nine departments of history, where it received the advice of faculty, administrators, and students. Consequently, our report is based upon the information and counsel it obtained over a two-year period from a large number of individuals and groups.

The report is presented in two parts. Part 1 consists of three chapters. Chapter 1, “We Historians,” sets the intellectual tone and context for the subsequent chapters. It examines three components of the collective identity of historians, namely, history as a discipline, as a profession, and as a career. This opening chapter addresses the expanding geography and domain of historical enquiry over the past half-century and the transformation of the overall “shape” of the discipline. It analyzes the changing terrains of historical investigation, refinements in methodology, and the theoretical discussions that have animated the discipline. The chapter also provides a detailed discussion of the challenges that history confronts both intellectually and institutionally.

Chapter 2, “Necessary Discussions,” is more narrowly focused and addresses the mission, structure, and current practices in graduate education. Although it identifies issues that are profession-wide, it underscores the need for local resolutions of the problems it highlights. This chapter also emphasizes the principal considerations that should guide the establishment of doctoral programs or the reform of existing programs.

Chapter 3, “Recommendations,” is the centerpiece of this report. Although our audience for the report is the entire historical profession, this chapter should be of particular importance to faculty members who are directly involved in the training of graduate students. It reflects the Committee’s view that current practices in graduate training require fundamental changes. In addition to the “best practices” that we endorse and recommend, it urges doctoral programs to define their objectives more clearly, effect better methods of communication with their students, and improve the collection and dissemination of information about their programs. This chapter should not be read in isolation from the preceding chapters because all three are organically linked.

Part 2 of the report shifts the focus to the methodology of the study and describes the data that provide the foundation for the report. Chapter 4 is a particularly important analysis of the data and the information the Committee gathered from the major survey. The survey was intended to elicit vital data, but it also aimed to capture the voices of the directors of graduate studies who are key figures in the practical operation of graduate programs in history. No one has a broader grasp of a department’s goals and practices in doctoral education. In illuminating the meaning and implications of the data, this chapter uses information obtained from site visits, other surveys, open forums, and the statistical data gathered by the AHA. These data and the analysis of them not only provided a sound basis for the work of this Committee, but they also should be invaluable for future studies of graduate training. It should be stressed that the data the Committee gathered and this report are focused almost entirely on the doctoral degree. A subsequent study will deal with master’s programs and the degrees they award.

The report does not, to be sure, claim to say the proverbial last word on the issues that it addresses. As much as the Committee hopes that the report will be greeted with enthusiasm and general acceptance, it is certain that it will generate new debates as well. Its task will have been accomplished if departments reevaluate their missions and the nature of the training they provide for their students and acquire the will to effect the changes that may be required.

Chair, Committee on Graduate Education

Next section: Chapter 1