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Ph.D. Supply and Demand

January 11, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- As history graduate students arrived in the large table-filled ballroom here Friday to try to learn how to find a job, the room was seriously overheated. These would-be professors didn't need any more sweat or discomfort.

The temperature was adjusted, but the challenges facing those on the job market were an undercurrent here throughout the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Attendance was down, in no small part because history job openings are way down, so far fewer departments are doing interviews at the meeting. While the graduate students here talked strategy and hoped to pick up leads on positions or how to make themselves more marketable, many professors were talking about whether doctoral programs should change -- both in light of the tight job market and out of larger concerns about graduate education.

Some here argued that this is a time to focus on helping students get through and promoting alternative employment options that make use of their skills outside academe. Others, however, argued that this is a time to redouble efforts to reform graduate programs, with some going so far as to suggest (with pushback from others) that graduate enrollments may be too large and that history graduate students may not be paying enough attention to issues that are "relevant."

The ballroom gathering Friday is part of an annual effort at the meeting to provide some coaching to graduate students about the job hunt. Different types of employment categories are placed on signs on different tables -- community colleges, public research universities, private four-year colleges, public history jobs, and so forth. An employed (typically tenured) faculty member or professional from the relevant employment category then provides some tips on hiring in that sector, and the students brainstorm.

A scan of the room reveals far more students at the tables that reflect the backgrounds of many of these students (the research university table is popular, for instance) than at the places that may be more likely to be hiring right now (community colleges, for instance).

As students arrive, they are trading stories about the kinds of decisions they face: How much do you shift your dissertation topic to become more marketable? If you didn't shift your topic, can you avoid "immediate marginalization"? Who is hiring? Is it better to focus on decent jobs off the tenure track than the dream job that you are unlikely to get? The gallows humor involves a little bit of a competition over who has it the worst. Is early Italian history less marketable than medieval Middle Eastern history?

There is also plenty of frustration with the state of the profession and the way hiring committees communicate (or don't) with candidates. Some of those fortunate enough to have an interview at the meeting only learned that they had made the cut in December, forcing them to make last-minute (and more expensive) trips here. Others, hearing that such notifications were going to be made late, gambled early and bought tickets so they could have less expensive fares -- only to have no one ask them for an interview.

At the table on working at four-year liberal arts colleges, the students hear an impassioned talk by a committed professor talking about the pleasures of teaching at such an institution, and the qualities his department looks for in hiring: a love of teaching, a desire to work closely with students, willingness to be a team player. A major theme was that a narrow research interest was not something to stress, given that small departments need everyone to be something of a generalist. "You need to get out of your dinky specialties," he said. (The students agreed to let this reporter listen in, provided names weren't used.)

A new Ph.D. asks a question: Her graduate adviser had told all the students in their program that cover letters must start with an explanation of your research interests. The liberal arts professor is a bit stunned, and he said that while you "want the research in there somewhere," this is not advice he would give.

Indeed, many experts on hiring at teaching-oriented institutions would say that they weed out those who send cover letters that start with research, guessing that those who would send such a letter aren't focused on teaching. Two others at the table said that they had received the same advice -- and followed it -- to always start with research.

At another table, a soon-to-be Ph.D. -- from a program that would make top 10 lists in history -- said he had received the same advice, and followed it. How many job interviews does he have? Not a single one.

Other evidence is here as well that many professors who are among the already employed don't really understand hiring at any institution except their own. At several events during the meeting, professors at research universities say something to the effect of "well, I know there are jobs at community colleges, but I have no idea what the hiring process is like there or what they care about."

To be fair, it's worth noting that other graduate students here clearly have been well prepped. And this includes students at prestigious research oriented programs who have been through mock interviews and cover letter clinics that did not assume they were applying to work only at elite institutions.

More Than Luck

At a session on the direction of graduate education, Chris M. Golde described graduate advising as a hit-and-miss affair, which she said was a serious problem. Golde is associate vice provost for graduate education at Stanford University, and previously worked on graduate education issues at the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.

"In my position at Stanford, the single biggest issue we hear from students, regardless of discipline, is about the quality of advising,” Golde said. "Students who have good advisers call themselves lucky and this should not be a matter of luck."

Golde added that students come to her and say: "Just fix the faculty. You train them how not to do sexual harassment, so can’t you train them on advising?"

Faculty members were faulted at the session not only for failing to offer good advice on jobs, but for falling short in the practical instruction that could make someone a good faculty member in the classroom. Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that he thinks graduate programs do a good job of teaching the substance of history, but many are inadequate when it comes to teaching.

Zelizer noted that his father is a rabbi who teaches a course in homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and wondered whether history graduate students get the equivalent instruction his father offers on how to write and deliver a sermon.

"We don’t do that," he said. "We don't teach how to grade or how to give a good lecture that will keep students off their e-mail and Facebook and at the same time challenge them."

Promising Reforms

The panel featuring Golde and Zelizer was focused on the fifth anniversary of an AHA report, "The Education of Historians for the 21st Century," that recommends many reforms (many of them still not adopted at most universities) to put more emphasis on the needs of graduate students. The report urged more attention to preparing graduate students for the jobs they are likely to get (including those outside of academe) and for more communication with students about all aspects of their doctoral education.

Duke University was cited as an example of an institution that has made substantial changes consistent with the ideas in the report. Edward J. Balleisen, associate professor of history there, outlined some of the changes:

  • Admissions decisions favor students "who are going to connect with many members of our faculty" over those who want to work "with only one member." This means that students have "multiple mentors," and the department builds on this value with specific, written recommendations to faculty members on their duties as mentors.
  • "Thematic seminars" have been added to focus more on breadth as opposed to narrow specialties.
  • New courses have been added on pedagogy so grad students learn how to teach.
  • Comprehensive exams -- "the moment of crisis for so many students" -- have been eliminated. In their place, students must assemble a portfolio that includes some of their best writing over the first few years of the program, including original work, reviews, syllabuses for courses they have taught or would like to teach, and an "intellectual statement of who am I as a scholar."
  • More rigorous annual reviews have been added so that problems can be identified and discussed frankly.

Balleisen said that the first cohort of students to go through the new requirements is just starting to get ready to start job hunting so he's not sure what impact the changes will have on employability. But he said that there are already demonstrable measures of improvement. He said that for the three classes admitted before the reforms, about a third of the students left the program, usually in the fifth or sixth years. Attrition with the classes under the reforms is down to 10 percent, with the departures coming in the second or third years.

Should Fewer Grad Students Be Admitted?

One of the most sensitive issues discussed was whether there are too many graduate students or programs. At the forum, one professor got up and said he was morally troubled by the decision of his university to expand its history graduate program at a time when graduates weren't finding jobs. Many in the audience nodded and several said after that he was being honest in a way others are not.

The report on graduate education from five years ago urged a review of program size. "The total number of Ph.D.'s seeking professional employment, especially academic employment, greatly exceeds present and anticipated opportunities. The problem is especially intense in modern American history. In this circumstance, we urge every program to question its size, field by field, asking whether that size is best serving its program's goals and its students," the report said.

It added that such reviews shouldn't be based on the need for graduate students to relieve professors of undergraduate teaching duties. "At too many institutions, a demand for graduate-student teachers encourages excessively large programs. Such practices are not only unethical, but they may not be necessary," the report said. "Smaller programs will free faculty for more undergraduate classes. When New York University's history department decided to reduce the size of its doctoral program, it also voted to change the basic teaching pattern, shifting from two graduate and two undergraduate courses per year to one graduate and three undergraduate courses."

In discussion here, there were multiple schools of thought about these questions. In several discussions at various sessions, at least one person would get up -- following some gloomy forecast -- and say that history has always been in a job crisis. It may be a bit worse now, but it's been decades since the job market was really healthy, said these "glass half full" historians. They suggested that better preparation for non-academic careers might be the best way to go, giving new careers to some while lessening the competition others face for academic jobs.

But others argued that shifts right now in history -- combined with trends in higher education -- are leading to real, worrisome changes. Several said that the problem wasn't history, but the lack of support for public higher education. Among the rumors circulating at the meeting was that some public university history departments were admitting more graduate students this year, feeling that they would need more inexpensive teaching labor and that this influx would produce it.

No public university chair would admit this strategy, but several said that they thought it credible that others were doing so. One faculty member at a public research university said that his department was expanding master's enrollment not out of any educational value, but to boost enrollments in classes that doctoral students also take, with the goal of getting those classes large enough so senior administrators won't eye them for elimination.

In private discussions, many historians -- even at top institutions -- seem to have real doubts about whether they are admitting too many students. But in public most say -- in language similar to the report five years ago -- only that the matter should be discussed and studied.

Thomas Bender, director of graduate studies in history at New York University, was a leader of the team that wrote the study five years ago. While he talked about how proud he is of the effort, he noted that one issue was declared off limits by the AHA: any effort to evaluate program quality and to do some sort of "certification of programs" so prospective students and others could determine whether they were worthy.

Bender said he remains concerned that -- even without such a certification system -- prospective students don't have enough information. Students should be able to know right away about such figures as average time to degree, what percentage of students finish programs while still being financially supported, and what percentage are employed and in what kind of employment.

Golde, of Stanford, said she is seeing a mix of reactions to the job shortage (across disciplines, not just in history). She said that she fears a "pre-professionalization arms race" in which students try for unreasonable levels of accomplishment (for grad students), hoping to launch careers. She described a psychology student recently telling her she was holding off on a job search because a fellow student had published in Nature. Having an article in Nature can't be considered a minimal requirement for a grad student's first job search, she said.

"I hear students say more and more that they are delaying" a job search, she said. Given that graduate students "have an identity and health insurance" while enrolled, that's not surprising, she said.

But Golde added that it is worth seriously considering cohort size and moving out of established patterns. For instance, she said that one reason frequently given to keep graduate class size level is that programs need a critical mass of students in various fields. If that's the holdup, Golde said, maybe some programs should consider admitting classes every other year, not every year. "We need to start to think in new and unconventional ways," he said.

Is Relevance Relevant?

Golde also suggested that historians and others in the humanities may want to think more about how they talk about their research. "It's sometimes really a struggle to understand what’s the significance or importance of the research that that some students undertake or some faculty members undertake," she said.

Several of the historians in the audience and on the panel agreed and wondered if historians might benefit from being more engaged with current events. They argued that such "relevance" could open doors to more non-academic careers and might also bolster the discipline within academe.

Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, said that she was struck by the non-reaction of historians when the Defense Department created Minerva, a program that gives grants to social scientists for work on topics that broadly relate to security issues. Jones said that "there was virtually no interest on the part of our community in an interesting opportunity."

Zelizer said that it's not just subject matter but a skill set that relates to relevance. History graduate students shouldn't just know how to write a scholarly article but how "to translate it into four pages for a Congressional staffer." He said he believes strongly that history scholars have the knowledge needed by the government and the public, but he's not sure that many know how to communicate that.

And Balleisen went further. He said that while great research has come from the "cultural turn" in historians' focus, he finds himself wondering if the job market reflects the trend that "far fewer" historians study "institutions, military or political, compared to 30 or 40 years ago." He said that this may relate to how history jobs are seen by administrators deciding which slots should be saved and which can be cut. "Think about which jobs are priority," he said.

 

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