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A Broader History Ph.D.

March 20, 2014

In 2011, leaders of the American Historical Association issued a statement acknowledging how difficult the academic job market had become for their discipline, and calling for historians to change their concept of what a successful job was for a Ph.D. With the cry "No More Plan B," the statement called for jobs away from the traditional faculty ranks to be viewed not as necessary fallbacks, but as desired outcomes of a history doctorate -- and they called for doctoral programs to make changes to embrace students seeking such careers and to make all doctoral students aware of the possibilities, not just professorial careers.

The AHA statement prompted widespread discussion. Many asked how departments could change -- in their offerings and in their cultures, both long oriented to academic careers -- to give doctoral students truly diverse career options.

Today the AHA is announcing a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for association and four doctoral departments to start on the kinds of reforms that could change Ph.D. education in the field. The departments -- at Columbia University, and the Universities of California at Los Angeles, Chicago and New Mexico -- are using the funds to try specific changes in their programs, while the AHA will continue to encourage reform nationally.

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said that the effort has multiple goals. One is to relieve the extreme pressure on those competing for a limited number of faculty jobs. But another is to see the placement of Ph.D.s in business, government and the nonprofit world as an achievement in and of itself, "widening the presence and influence of humanistic thinking" outside of academe. To achieve both of those goals, he said, programs need to change. And the experiments starting in the four departments may offer models.

At Columbia, for example, the history doctoral program is creating new "clinic" courses, one each year for the next three years. Details are still being worked out, but one will examine the way history intersects with international governance, non-governmental organizations and the corporate world. Another course will involve collaboration between the history department and the the Center for History and Education at Teachers College Columbia University. Adam Kosto, director of graduate studies for the Columbia history program, said that students in the course would have to "develop a project with a local historical focus and explore the problems of translating historical content into appropriate grade-level instruction."

And a third course, he said, would be developed with the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and the Center for the Study of Human Rights. In this course, students would "take on a policy-oriented project in support of an organizational or corporate client." Internships would also be provided.

Kosto also said that the department would try to add courses taught by journalists, filmmakers, curators and others -- showing broader uses of history than research and teaching.

Kenneth Pomeranz, a historian at the University of Chicago, said that one of the areas his department would explore was changing elements of existing courses so that they might provide broader training. He said, for example, that professors might try to add more group work of "presentation strategies that are more common outside academia," rather than relying on the solo-authored research paper.

Chicago also hopes to hire a "career fellow," a postdoc who would work to help doctoral students find internships and jobs, in and out of academe.

Pomeranz said that he thinks cultural change will take place as more professors interact with more Ph.D.s who work outside of academe, and as they see their students thrive in such careers.

Virginia Scharff, a historian who is associate provost for faculty development at the University of New Mexico, said that the program there has a history of seeing Ph.D.s work outside academe. She noted that alumni currently work as chief historian of the U.S. Forest Service and state historian of Colorado. She said that the history department plans to create new seminars with various professional schools at the university. The department also plans to create an internship program and a formal placement service, something not previously offered for Ph.D.s at the university.

Grossman said that he saw the potential for efforts such as these, especially if replicated, to change the way history professors present career options to graduate students. He acknowledged that many graduate students and professors still consider only academic jobs to be the norm. But he said that this is to be expected.

"I'm a historian," he said. "I know that change doesn't happen that fast. But things have begun to change."


 

 

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