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More Options for History Ph.D.s

October 31, 2011

Last month, the president and executive director of the American Historical Association issued a call for their discipline to move away from the idea that Ph.D. training is primarily about producing the next generation of professors. They called for history departments to stop talking about non-academic careers as "alternative," and to instead see them as truly equal options -- and as options that should help shape the nature of doctoral education.

Their call was called "No More Plan B," as a counter to the idea that academic careers are necessarily Plan A. Today they are releasing a follow-up -- "Plan C" --  in which they provide more specific ideas about the kinds of changes history departments might consider for their Ph.D. programs.

Here are some of the ideas shared in the new piece by Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University historian who is president of the AHA, and James Grossman, executive director of the association:

  • Make public history a full part of the doctoral Ph.D. curriculum. Grafton and Grossman note that some history departments have embraced public history, and have become known for preparing graduate students for careers at museums, historical sites, government agencies and elsewhere. Despite the success of these programs, Grafton and Grossman write that "many of the largest departments have yet to embrace the legitimacy of public history as an aspect (not a track) of Ph.D. instruction." Right now, public history remains "a separate track," they write, and that status limits its ability to reach more students, and to provide an opportunity for them to find meaningful work with their doctorates.
  • Challenge the bias of mentors. Faculty members who advise graduate students, Grossman and Grafton write, still see traditional research-oriented academic careers as the ultimate goal of a Ph.D., and this attitude should change. "The result of this short-sightedness is not only to narrow students' options, but also to make it difficult to see or follow the pathways blazed by those historians who have moved in different and promising directions."
  • Create new graduate courses through alliances with other departments. Some of the skills that would enable history graduate students to have more career options aren't history-specific, and might be provided to doctoral students in a range of disciplines, Grafton and Grossman write. They suggest that courses in digital technologies and their use with scholarship would be the kind of offering that might be added. Another possibility might be courses on finance and management for Ph.D. humanities students.

While the new essay pledges that the AHA will strive to publicize non-academic career options, and will highlight such choices at its meetings, the authors stress that most of the needed changes will come on campuses. And the authors write that they believe it is possible for historians to continue to uphold the standards of their field, even as they reconsider career paths and the most important skills for Ph.D.s to have.

"Look around and, like it or not, you see a world of new jobs that demand new skills," write Grafton and Grossman. "Most of us believe that the kinds of learning we have cultivated and pass on to our students still matter, and most of us are still trying to do the kind of teaching we love in the teeth of reformers who want to cut costs by turning our lectures into YouTube videos and fixing us permanently at our computers to answer the queries of our viewing audience (formerly known as students).

"This persistence -- which is not mere Luddism -- is as it should be. Standards matter. But there's no sense pretending that the new world isn't out there. Some of those currently taking doctorates in history will carry on this project, changing the academy as has each preceding generation. But many others will have to blaze new trails, finding ways to remain committed to history, and to practice it, in venues that are not listed by most departments in their placement claims."

 

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