Message #261:
From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To:   "'Matthias Giessler'" 
Subject: Rethinking the Role of History Graduate Programs 
Date: Fri, 18 Jul 1997 08:26:32 -0700

Rethinking the Role of History Graduate Programs 

In the late 1980s, many entered graduate school amid widespread
predictions that a historic window of
opportunity would open to them upon gaining their degree. Growing
undergraduate enrollments coupled with
projected mass retirements of those hired in the halcyon days of the
1960s increased their chances of a bright future. University downsizing,
however, has partially closed that window and those who enter are more
likely to be hired as underpaid, part-time, adjunct faculty. The number
of annual Ph.D.‰s granted in history has increased by an astonishing 31
percent in five years, climbing from 612 in 1990 to 889 in 1995. Not
surprisingly, the number of available tenure-track positions has failed
to keep pace with such rapid growth in the labor pool.1 

The immediate job crisis is, in part, a product of the high expectations
raised in the late 1980s. In a fairly short period of time, the optimism
has turned to gloom. But the current predicament is not entirely new.
Indeed, job seekers are now facing the third decade of diminished
opportunities. In 1970, 78 percent of history Ph.D.'s had secured
"definite employment" by the time they completed their degree. Those
figures, however, have hovered around 50 percent for the last twenty
years and have been declining even further since 1992. 2 

The solution to the problem is not to promote increased competition in a
desperate race for fewer and fewer tenure track positions. Indeed, it is
far more likely that an intensified struggle between Ph.D.‰s for stable
academic jobs will result in the production of increasingly abstruse
articles, more narrowly defined dissertations, additional years of
graduate study, and greater financial burdens. History graduate students
already spend an average of 8.8 years completing a combined M.A. and
Ph.D., more than any other academic discipline. Much of this time is
spent packing their c.v.‰s with the publications, conference papers, and
teaching experience now considered essential for entry-level academic
jobs. 3 

Nor should we necessarily reduce the number of history Ph.D.'s by
closing the gates to a graduate education. Restricting access would
certainly mean reversing the small but significant gains toward
diversifying the profession. Increased competition and limited access
threatens to create a narrow professionalism further marginalizing the
academic world from the public sphere. We need, instead, a new vision of
the role of graduate history programs. 

The contemporary dilemma is rooted in the fact that graduate history
departments continue to see their essential task as the production of
future professors. Given a job crisis now in its third decade, such a
vision is woefully limited. Instead, graduate programs should actively
promote the skills necessary to enter a wider variety of careers which
nonetheless depend upon historical analysis. This suggestion may seem
anathema to those scholars who prefer to view the academy as a bastion
against encroaching market forces. Why let economic realities jeopardize
scholarly integrity? There exists an important distinction, however,
between the short-sighted pursuit of market specialization and the
desire to bring talents developed over years of historical analysis to
the larger society. It is the latter agenda which should be pursued. 

What practical course of action, therefore, might graduate history
programs adopt to shape the careers of their current crop of graduate
students while enhancing their own institutional viability into the 21st
century? The ost obvious way to begin is to take a cue from public
history graduate programs. Despite the self-defeating laments that the
general public cares little for history, the vigorous public debates
surrounding museum exhibits and the popularity of historical
documentaries suggest otherwise. Graduate programs in public history do
not assume that their students are bound primarily for the academy. They
provide their graduates with both the skills and experience to enhance
their chances of obtaining jobs in scholarly publishing, historic
preservation, policy analysis, historic resource management, business
history, community history, and other fields. 

Graduate students most typically rely on teaching and research assistant
appointments to subsidize their
educational expenses. But departments should make a greater effort to
diversify employment opportunities while their students are in school by
helping to place them in many of the paid, part-time positions mentioned
above. Instead of leaving the acquisition of such skills to the pluck
and entrepreneurialism of individual students, graduate programs should
actively pursue and formalize relations with other institutions and
university departments in order to promote practical experience in a
wide variety of history-related areas. Of course, every effort should be
made to render these positions both intellectually and financially

We might re-conceptualize the M.A. thesis as well. Why not expand the
definition of what is acceptable by
offering students the possibility of fulfilling the M.A. requirement by
planning an exhibit for a museum or business, conducting an oral history
project, annotating manuscript collections, or collaborating with
students in education and film departments to produce teaching units,
educational software, and historical documentaries? 

By picking up a more diverse set of skills and formalizing relations
with alternative institutions along the road to a graduate degree, a
larger set of opportunities beyond academia may open up for M.A.s and
Ph.D.s. All of these options need not take away from academic rigor, but
rather, promote a more expansive definition of the role of the
university in civil society. 

Anthony A. Iaccarino is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the
University of California at Los Angeles. 


1. National Research Council (NRC), Summary Report 1995: Doctorate
Recipients from United States
Universities (Washington, D.C., 1996). 

2. NRC, Summary Report 1994: Doctorate Recipients from United States
Universities (Washington, D.C., 1996). 

3. NRC, Summary Report 1995.