More Ph.D. Puzzlement

The leaders of the American Historical Association (AHA) recently published a mini-manifesto, “No More Plan B,” that has received quite a lot of positive attention. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the authors want to stop seeing non-academic careers as “alternatives” (a term they see as usually implying “bad alternatives”) to tenure-track professorial appointments. They argue for a change in both the rhetoric and the emphasis of doctoral programs:

Grafton and Grossman cite data from the last year (and the last several years before that) in which more history Ph.D.s are entering the job market than there are tenure-track openings. Despite the talent of the new history Ph.D.s, “many of these students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities,” they write.

Further, they say that people cannot simply wait for the economy to improve. “As many observers have noted, this is not a transient ‘crisis,’ ” write Grafton and Grossman. “It’s the situation we have lived with for two generations. And it’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets that lead[s] administrators to opt for flexible, contingent positions rather than tenure-track jobs. AHA supports and joins in efforts to convert contingent to tenure-track jobs — but it’s unrealistic to expect these to pay off on a large scale. We owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly.”

In this environment, Grafton and Grossman write that the idea of working outside academe needs to be basic to all discussions with graduate students, from the time they look at programs to their dissertation defenses. But history departments also need to consider “bigger” changes than just talking about options, and those changes, the statement argues, should include adjustments in the doctoral curriculum. “If we tell new students that a history Ph,D. opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we’re telling the truth. If the policy arena offers opportunities, and we think it does, then interested students need some space (and encouragement) to take courses in statistics, economics, or public policy,” they write. “Accounting, acting, graphic design, advanced language training: students thinking at once creatively and pragmatically have all sorts of options at our research universities. And of course there’s the whole exploding realm of digital history and humanities, and the range of skills required to practice them.”

Throughout the time students are in graduate school, they need to feel that their faculty members will support their choices to work in or outside of academe, they write.

I endorse wholeheartedly the call for faculty members “to stop looking down on those who build careers elsewhere.” I find it hard to imagine any advisor having such an outdated, narrow-minded, short-sighted and belittling attitude–but the anecdotal evidence does seem to be strong that many Ph.D. students run into this kind of silliness.

Where I still find myself puzzled, though, is over how  (and, to some extent, why) Ph.D. programs should be “broadened” to take into account the wide but at the same time rather nebulous list of other careers for which specialized academic training in a particular discipline is said to prepare people. It’s not that I don’t think Ph.D.s learn valuable skills: it’s that Ph.D. programs are also about content and about discipline-specific expertise as much as (if not more than) transferable skills of the kind invoked when the AHA’s James Grossman  cites investment banking as “the perfect example” of an overlooked match between training and career prospects:

“You have people who as part of their occupation need to be able to assess how two companies will get along in a merger. What does that require? It requires exactly the same conceptual framework historians use when we think about structure, human agency and culture,” he said.

Aside from the depressing notion that we should promote studying “structure, human agency and culture” on the dubious grounds that it prepares someone to facilitate corporate mergers, surely there is some difference in the conceptual frameworks involved? And even if there isn’t, to what extent are the time-consuming, intellectually demanding, and discipline-specific aspects of Ph.D. programs that are designed to professionalize–in the richest sense of that word–someone as a historian actual requirements for those other careers? Why, to put the question another way, would someone actively interested in a non-academic career chose the long and possibly circuitous route of getting a history Ph.D. on the way? An M.A., sure, but a Ph.D.? As one of the Inside Higher Ed commenters remarks,

While I applaud the AHA for acknowledging that there are good jobs for Ph.D.s outside academic departments they are still not quite getting it. If you take a look at those non-academic jobs, for how many of them would you say that the History Ph.D. is the best path to getting the skills and credentials needed to be hired in them? How many require a History Ph.D. Not many, I suspect. Almost all History Ph.D.s earned their degree because they wanted to become academic historians, not because the skills they developed would help them be good at something else.

From the perspective of graduate students,” another comments, “‘No Plan B’ is self-centered. If the objective is no longer a tenure-track teaching job (preferably at a research university) why not enroll in a graduate program (not history) whose purpose is to prepare students for these other livelihoods?” It has certainly been my experience that 100% of students I talk to who are applying to Ph.D. programs have academic careers in mind, and so I agree that there’s something awry in the way these arguments for seeing non-academic careers as something besides “alternatives” are being set up.

That said, it might be true that if Ph.D. programs were sufficiently redesigned, people would head into them with a wider range of intentions and expectations. It’s not clear to me, though, how we could reconcile that broader agenda with the standard demands of Ph.D. programs as they are currently constituted–which is, with a persistent focus on preparing students for academic careers. Indeed, in the 20+ years I have now been involved in graduate education, the strongest trend I’ve seen is towards academic “professionalization,” with workshops on everything from conference proposals to fellowship applications to academic job interviews, and ever-rising pressure to publish, attend conferences, and participate in professional groups and activities. Students whose first priority is an academic career need (or they certainly expect, and even, in my experience, demand) this kind of “support” to an extent that was barely imaginable 20 or 30 years ago. What would the new, multi-purpose Ph.D. look like?

The AHA’s proposal seems to be to re-tool Ph.D. programs, not by redesigning them from the ground up, or by streaming requirements based on intended outcomes, but by preserving all the essential academic elements while adding yet more requirements for both students and departments:

Yes, time is a problem. It already takes a long time—a very long time—to obtain a doctorate in history. We don’t advocate narrowing the historical work that constitutes graduate education in history. Nor do we agree with the well-meaning observers who suggest that graduate training in humanities fields could be made less onerous, and attrition reduced, by easing the requirements: for example, by cutting the dissertation down from the grub out of which a book should emerge into three or more articles that can be researched and written in one to two years. We leave the feasibility of shorter dissertations in other humanities disciplines for our colleagues to assess. In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience. It’s in the course of research that historians firm up their mastery of languages and research methods, archives and arguments; and it’s while writing that they learn how to corral a vast amount of information, give it a coherent form, and write it up in a way accessible to non-specialists. Most students learn the challenges and satisfaction associated with extended narrative and/or complex analysis only at this final stage.

Instead of cutting down the dissertation, departments need to find ways of keeping dissertation writers attuned to the full range of opportunities that their work opens. Why not incorporate preparation for the future into the later years of doctoral training? This might be the time for an additional course or two, adventures into new realms of knowledge that build skills for diverse careers. That such diversification offers an antidote to melancholy and writer’s block is merely a bonus, even more so if these explorations can also add texture or new insights to a dissertation. Departments might also consider workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.

 If they aren’t going to “ease” requirements by decentering the dissertation (as the MLA has already argued we in literary studies should ‘decenter’ the monograph in tenure and promotion cases), how are students going to manage to do more courses or internships in “the later years of doctoral training,” also known as “the years in which you try to finish your thesis before your funding runs out”? “Care would have to be taken,” indeed.

It’s true that disciplines vary, and it’s easier in some ways (even for me) to be “attuned to the full range of opportunities” that history students’ work might open to them than it is for me to see obvious alternative (sorry) applications for the specialized expertise acquired in an English Ph.D. program. (This is not, to be clear, meant to say I don’t see value in that expertise, just that I don’t find the ‘transferable skills’ argument very compelling as a reason to do the things a literature Ph.D. has to do.) Maybe, too, Ph.D. theses in history do train students to write up their research “in a way accessible to non-specialists,” which would certainly make them a better bridge to non-academic jobs than the English thesis usually is. Maybe a lot of things about the “Ph.D. Conundrum” are different in history. Still, When I read the AHA statement, I felt, no doubt cynically, that there is an elided step in the logic, a step where they say “we want to keep Ph.D. enrolments up.”

9 thoughts on “More Ph.D. Puzzlement

  1. JoVE October 11, 2011 / 10:28 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence. This is indeed the unspoken premise.

    There is a conflict of interest in the middle of all of this. Academics have an interest in having graduate programs in their institutions. They find graduate teaching rewarding in a way that is different from undergraduate teaching. The prestige of the institution is higher if they have graduate (and especially PhD) programs. Graduate students add something to the general intellectual climate of the institution and validate the work that the professors themselves value. Then there is the work graduate students can be hired to do which eases the burden on professors somewhat (or replaces it with the burden of managing TAs).

    There are additional institutional reasons for having graduate programs. Prestige, as mentioned. Funding (especially in provinces that have made a policy decision to expand graduate programs and, probably in the name of fairness, have not specified some disciplines over others). A reserve army of labour both while they are graduate students working as TAs and RAs and later when they form the pool from which sessionals and other contingent faculty without whom the expansion of undergraduate education would cost a whole heckuvalot more.

    The fact is that those skills of thinking about “structure, human agency and culture” are not being brought to bear on the problem as much as they could be. There is an attempt to maintain the academy as somehow fundamentally different from corporate banking in its structure and its relationship with its employees (faculty & staff), clients (students and others), and the general economic context in which it is situation. And no, I don’t think being a student is the same as buying a pair of socks but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fundamental similarities at the level of structure.

    It also strikes me as odd that we can’t seem to imagine that students would want to do a PhD for purposes intrinsic to the PhD. That, while they may want an academic career, that if they don’t get one, the PhD has no value. If education is about something other than preparing people for jobs, as is so often argued about undergraduate education in the humanities, then why does that line of argument disappear when we begin to discuss PhDs. And why can’t we be honest with the students we recruit about this?

    Yes, there are other options. No they are not lesser options. No, the PhD is not the best route into them. Yes the PhD might be worthwhile anyway.

    The arrogance that the dissertation cannot be rethought is another question. The average length of a humanities PhD in North America is many years longer than any funding. For example, SSHRC funds 4 years, 2 of which will be coursework and comps, and the average time to completion the last time I saw figures (which was back in 2005 so they were probably 2002 figures) was 10 years in the humanities. Compared to 7 in the sciences.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 11, 2011 / 11:56 am

    I wonder if the AHA is working with a false analogy. In the social sciences, there are, in fact, jobs that require a PhD exactly because the jobs require the discipline-specific content of the PhD. The skills really are transferable, and there are few other ways to acquire them.

    So perhaps the AHA is looking at the social sciences and assuming or arguing that the humanities can work in the same way. I’m not so sure.

    Historians should take statistics, though. The AHA is right about that.


  3. nicole October 12, 2011 / 8:12 pm

    It also strikes me as odd that we can’t seem to imagine that students would want to do a PhD for purposes intrinsic to the PhD.

    I agree with the last sentence of the original post, and also with this. I’m a person who did want to do a PhD for purposes intrinsic to the PhD, but did not want an academic career (when I found out what that really entailed). I don’t think I am unique, in fact, I know I have friends who felt similarly. I really suspect that many people who love to study and learn simply say they are doing the PhD for an eventual tenure-track academic career because that is simply all they can think of doing afterward, and they want the PhD.

    And I think a big part of it is that for people who genuinely do love to study and learn, and enjoy their time at university and find it stimulating, they find themselves thrust among a class of people they respect and admire and who very often look down (or at least seem to look down) on other types of work. That’s a bit incendiary, maybe, but it’s very much been my experience. “If you care about learning and knowledge and studying and intellectual pursuits, how could you possibly want to go work for a corporation?” It’s a very special kind of classism, in my personal experience (and I experience it on a regular basis with far too many people I know very well…and respect and admire).


  4. nicole October 12, 2011 / 8:13 pm

    I should note, because I didn’t make it clear above, that I did not pursue graduate studies because of these types of issues.


  5. Rohan Maitzen October 12, 2011 / 9:24 pm

    @AR, that’s a useful clarification. I can imagine (though I don’t actually know) that political science, sociology, and economics, for instance, might fit this model OK, while English or classics would not.

    @Nicole, what you say about the love of learning makes sense except that there are a lot of elements of the PhD now that aren’t about ‘learning’ but about professionalization. As for the classism, a fair point, though it works both ways–academics are used to being at the receiving end of snark from corporate types about ivory towers and accountability and ‘who needs anthropologists anyway’…


  6. JoVE October 13, 2011 / 6:12 pm

    One thing about the social sciences is that they are pretty diverse. So Doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology have a clear vocational goal that is not an academic career. And there are people who do PhDs in sociology or economics who end up working as statisticians (e.g. with StatsCan) and some government jobs do require a PhD in specific social science fields though it’s never clear to me whether this is qualification inflation on their end. Also, despite recent very public “who needs anthropologists anyway”, some corporations do hire PhD anthropologists precisely because they’ve discovered that ethnography offers a very useful complement to market research.

    However, theorists in the social sciences are no different in this respect from your average classicist. And there are a lot of social scientists who are not doing PhDs to qualify for some non-academic job they have in their sights where this is needed but who, like nicole, are just interested in studying further.

    I agree with Rohan that from the perspective of the department running the program, the purpose is usually to train academics. But I am always suspicious of claims that most students enter the PhD for that reason. They may have a vague idea that that’s what they can do with a PhD but I’m not convinced that the vast majority of graduate students have anything as concrete as a career plan.

    The question is, do we restrict admission and make it very clear that this is a career preparation degree for a very specific career with limited openings? Or do we recognize that while the department has expertise in career preparation for that specific career, all of the students cannot or may even not want to go on to that career. Do we make “professionalization” compulsory or available? And do we make sure there are other career development opportunities also available (perhaps drawing on other parts of the university like the careers service)?

    Can we focus on the intrinsic, learning and knowledge, parts of the PhD as the core of the degree and make that valuable to all who enter?

    I think this relates to the question of whether the degree really needs to take as long as it does. And if it is even reasonable to think that all of one’s career preparation is part of that degree course. Given that it is becoming increasingly difficult to move directly from PhD to tenure-track, shouldn’t we be trying to get people to finish the PhD in a more timely manner and then work on making those interim phases less exploitative and underpaid. Give post-docs real salaries. Do something about casualization of academic labour even if we still have fixed term contracts for some folks that may be used by some as a stepping stone between PhD and tenure-track.

    I don’t have answers but I think Rohan’s perspective raises questions that are not really being considered. Too much of this debate reeks of “please can it go back to be like it used to be” or at least as if there is a lot of what used to be that needs to be preserved for reasons no one wants to bring out into the light of day.


  7. Melissa October 15, 2011 / 2:33 pm

    As someone who (quite literally) just finished the process of being a grad student, I do think that the call to broaden what historians can do, or even what grad students want to do, a healthy thing. Instead of going to a school with a a major focus on my field, I went to a school with a well-known scholar who supported my decision to focus solely on teaching. While yes, it’s still academia, there are far too few advisors and departments that support even that slight deviation from the classic R-1 researcher image.

    One avenue I think Grafton and Grossman missed is expanding the idea of what a dissertation can be. Does it have to be a book? Could it not be a computer program, a website, a project that takes humanities/history to a broader audience (such as a school outreach program that the creator then writes up)? Does it have to be a book-length monograph replete with footnotes, or can it evolve? Several disciplines allow for dissertations that are essentially a thematic series of articles…why not us? Wouldn’t that be more useful, since when researching our own dissertations, we turn to articles more often than not?



  8. Daniel October 18, 2011 / 8:11 pm

    @nicole, like you, I am enrolled in a PhD program in history not with the intention of being an academic. It is at once daunting and stimulating when my first career as a primary school teacher has not prepared me for my current research in Cold War history. History is simply a hobby that I want to be very good at. I know an octogenarian who learnt to fly a plane in his younger days because of interest. He won’t be sitting at the cockpit of a commercial aircraft but his weekend flights to South Pacific islands require him to be fully qualified as any pilot. Maybe, being good at something is really part of the enjoyment.


  9. Rohan Maitzen October 19, 2011 / 1:46 pm

    Daniel, I’m curious to know how much emphasis your program is placing on “professional development” (grant application workshops, publication, job market preparation). I don’t discount the enjoyment that can come from being good at something and getting the chance to do it in depth and to the best of one’s abilities, but most PhD programs I know anything about might not be very hospitable to someone who approaches the work as a hobby, because they have obligations to prepare professionals for their careers.


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