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.”