We Need to Re-Think History Ph.D. Training [#AHA276]

This is the third and final post in a series authored by the participants in the session “Say It Like You Mean It: Graduate Education and Creative Expression in Thinking, Making, and Doing History” held at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. The intent of our session was to take a deep and discerning look at the ways in which History Ph.D. programs prepare their students for a radically-changed job landscape. As you’ll see in these posts, we take a critical stance towards the status quo, and argue that graduate programs in particular, and the historical profession in general, need to fundamentally re-think the ways in which they train the next generation of professional historians.

For part one of this series, click HERE.

For part two, click HERE.

The following are my session-chair/commentator remarks from this session, lightly edited for clarity and organization. It was a privilege to be a part of this panel with Cody and Eric, and I think they both have profoundly important things to say to both graduate students and graduate programs. I would also like to thank Dara Vance (@divafancypants) for initially proposing this session and thus creating the framework for us to have this conversation. Without her efforts, this session would not have come together, and I am deeply thankful for her invitation to participate.

We all know the job market in History has sucked. If you didn’t, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. This “sucks” status is not new. It sucked when I entered the market back in 2002, and it sucked when I started grad school in 1996 and had a senior faculty member in the department look me in the eye and ask “you sure about this, son?”

Now, a critique one could make here is “That’s easy for you to say-you came out on the other side. You got a job. You have tenure. You’re a full professor. You speak from privilege.” And my reply to that is twofold:

  1. You’re right. But it falls to those of us with such a platform to use it in ways that others in more contingent and/or precarious positions cannot.


  1. The fact that I did find a “traditional” History academic job-a faculty member in a college History department-is due as much to timing, contingency, and luck as it was to anything else. Sure, I was well-prepared and qualified for the position I got. But so were literally hundreds of other candidates, and I refuse to believe that I was “better” than them in any way that could make the definitive case for why I got hired and they didn’t.

In other words, it is time to definitively abandon the fiction that our profession is a pure meritocracy.

I know that many in our profession have done so, at least in a qualified manner. But the mentalité in which conduct the reproduction of our profession-PhD education-I believe has not. I am well aware there are exceptions to what I am about to say, and that the AHA has some new initiatives in this area. But my experience, which includes being on the market for several years myself, serving on several search committees, serving as chair of my department, and even being currently sitting in a search committee, confirms for me that most Ph.D. programs train their students to navigate the job landscape as if that landscape hasn’t been a smoldering ruin for the last two decades.

PhD students are told both explicitly and implicitly, for example,that teaching is a waste of time. Yet according to their Carnegie classifications, over 75% of the institutions out there are teaching-oriented. Find me another profession that tries to reproduce its ranks by devaluing the very thing most members of those ranks are asked to do. This is just one example-a glaring one, but only one -of how we as a field have reached this point. We are at a point where the paradigm we embrace to reproduce ourselves is almost completely out of alignment with the actual circumstances that History in particular and higher ed in general operate.

So what do we do?

I think the AHA, for example, is having these conversations. But those conversations are on the edges. We need to move them into the center. I think some departments have acknowledged and acted upon this new reality. Look through over 250 application packets and you will see clearly that some programs “get it,” and their students have decisively benefited from that. But those departments are the exception to the general rule. So how do we change the way our field operates? How do we give lie to the line about historians-that we study change, but we certainly don’t recommend it?

(That’s funny because it’s true.)

Teaching colleges and “alt-ac” (broadly-defined) are where the History jobs are, both now and in the foreseeable future. To be successful in these venues, PhD students need to add different tools to their toolboxes. Our panelists clearly demonstrate that both the will and the initiative exist from PhD students to do exactly that. So how can departments collaborate with their graduate students to leverage those into actual, tangible opportunities for development? Here are some thoughts to start the conversation, centered in three specific areas


There is a tricky balance between degree completion and teaching. Yes, we want dissertations to be completed in a timely manner. But the thumb has been on the wrong side of the scale in far too many circumstances. It is possible to do both, and to do both well. PhD students need two crucial things here:

  1. Instructor-of-record experience. TA-ing is excellent introductory training, but it is not sufficient preparation for college teaching in and of itself. There may be one or two rare exceptions, but candidates for traditional academic positions cannot be successful without having taught their own courses. Given the fact that our job market is so abysmal, the amount of younger scholars who have visiting or adjunct positions-and thus instructor of record experience-is so vast as to cause applicants without that on their c.v.’s to move to the bottom of the proverbial pile. For a Ph.D. program to not be aware of this and factor it into their students’ training is malpractice.
  1. Pedagogical training (defined here as something beyond the usual crappy half-day “teaching orientation” typically foisted on grad students) 
    If your institution has a faculty development program and/or teaching and learning center, is your program intersecting with it? If not, why not? It’s worth pointing out that training graduate instructors-who are in large part on the front lines of our 100-level courses-is also a student success and retention initiative. (Good luck recruiting majors and driving enrollment with crappy survey courses.) Providing the instructors of those courses with pedagogical and professional development can-and should-be an important departmental initiatives, because they provide clear benefits to both the department and its graduate students. And there are programs doing this type of work: those who assign new graduate students more experienced teaching mentors, or who sponsor diversity training, or brown-bag lunches centered around teaching topics, for example. Another question to research: does your university have a Preparing Future Faculty program? If yes, is the History Department involved in it? As someone who has spent lots of time looking over job-candidate applications in History and other fields, I can tell you that graduates of these types of programs have guidance and preparation that pays extraordinary dividends on the academic job market.

Public History:

There are some great public history programs out there that serve as excellent examples-two that immediately spring to mind are at University of South Carolina and George Mason University, but I know there are several more. Too often we forget to ask ourselves this crucial question: where does much of the general public consume History? Where are the sites of intersection between historical scholarship and the public square? More often than not, these sites are museums, archives, historical societies, libraries, and documentary collections. Yet there is a disdain among “traditional” historians towards “Public History.” This is both pernicious and wrong-headed. I would argue that Ph.D. programs who want to both train their students for a larger field of careers, as well as address the larger issues we face as a field, must contain opportunities for Ph.D. work in public history. Any “Crisis of History” we might be in cannot be resolved in our favor without well-trained, public, historians. Full stop.

Both teaching and public history are increasingly being done within and among digital environments, which leads me to my third area of consideration:

Digital Humanities:

In the traditional academic setting, small departments looking for strategic hires to grow enrollments will be attracted to candidates who offer skills and experience in this area. Public historians utilize new media tools to reach an even broader constituency than possible with only their physical site. There are some great examples out there of digital technologies that promote History and historical study in some really amazing ways. The CLIO app is one that immediately comes to mind. Omeka is another. GMU’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is on the leading edge in this realm, and the University of Mary Washington is a hub of digital teaching and learning, as well as DH initiatives. But one’s institution need not have a center for history and new media in order to help its PhD students build digital competencies and enter into this dynamic and rapidly-changing field. Departmental collaborations with other units on campus-IT and the Website team, other Humanities programs or centers, your graduate college or College of Arts and Sciences, Teaching Centers, and the like, can become the foundation for this essential type of graduate student development

The key here, though, is that we need to pay more than lip service to this type of commitment. We can’t just wring our hands and lament that “History is in Crisis.”

We’ve been doing that.

It hasn’t stopped the crisis.

We can’t just say to our PhD students, “hey, try new things. Let us know if you need anything.” and then go back to business as usual. That offers no support, no incentive, and most importantly no security to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

We can do the following: rethink funding and assistantships. Encourage interdisciplinary and interdepartmental collaborations. Bolster pedagogical training and sustain it throughout a graduate student’s teaching arc. Set a better example as faculty-we must be conversant in our field’s trends and familiar with its landscape. Treat TAs like the future professional educators they are, not as bulk-grading indentured servants. Don’t pressure graduate students to do, or not do, things that will send them out to the job market with the wrong set of tools-or no tools at all.

Yes, these are changes in a department’s-and our field’s-culture. But the stakes are too high for us not to engage in them. If we don’t care about meeting the urgent needs of the historical profession in creative, proactive, and thoughtful ways, who will? No one should care more than we do about our field’s future. It’s time to act like it.