Guest Post: Changing the Ph.D. for a Changing Job Market, by Steven Lubar

Is a Ph.D. currently necessary or valuable for those who plan to work in a museum?


December 22, 2013

I love a good museum, and in recent years I’ve taken an interest in curation. The idea that there might be differences of opinion about what kind of advanced education is necessary for the job interests me too, since there are similar discussions in many fields, including technology, business, fine arts, and (many heated ones) in creative writing. (Please add your own thoughts in the comments.)

I read something recently online by Steven Lubar, professor of American studies and director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, and asked if he’d be interested in weighing in on this topic as it applies to his field. He graciously agreed.




Changing the Ph.D. for a Changing Job Market
by Steven Lubar

Most curators and museum educators do not have Ph.D.s, but as the job market for academics dries up, humanities departments have looked to museums as a new source of jobs for their Ph.D. students. I think this is a bad idea—bad advice for students, bad for museums. Not only are jobs in museums hard to find, but work in museums requires training that’s not offered in many Ph.D. programs. Indeed, Ph.D. programs all too often teach exactly the wrong things.

So what’s wrong with the Ph.D.? I think it can hurt, in two ways. Those six or seven years devoted to the degree have real costs. There’s an extensive literature that provides reasons not to go to graduate school in the humanities. See, for example, Burke; Cebula; and these 100 reasons not to go to graduate school.

But more important: The doctoral degree is not designed to train museum professionals, and it can inculcate bad habits and attitudes. Ph.D. programs in the humanities are, for the most part, designed to train professors at research universities. That’s a specialized trade. Ph.D. students in history are taught to be interested in problems of interest to other historians. They learn historiography, the ways that historians have considered the past, and do their best to become part of that tradition. They learn to write like academics, for other academics; to speak to academics; and to argue to convince academics. They focus ever more narrowly on an area of research. They become specialists, not generalists.

Not only do graduate history programs teach the wrong things for museum work, they don’t teach the right things. Research methodology plays a surprisingly small role in training – you pick that up as you go along. Material and visual culture training is rare in Ph.D. programs. Working with or for the public is almost nonexistent. Indeed, at many schools, it’s frowned upon. Learning to work in cooperative groups, or with new media, or with people in other disciplines, is not part of the training.

This may make for good professors—I don’t think so, but that’s a topic for another essay—but it makes for bad museum workers. It teaches students to look inward, not outward; to be solitary, not social. It teaches them to care about what others in the academy want, and disconnects them from people outside the field. It emphasizes all of the things that set history apart from the public, while museum staff need to make history interesting to the public.

There are some advantages to Ph.D. training for curators. By the time a student completes a dissertation, she knows how to do research, and how to organize and write an extended narrative. She has contacts in the field, and knows whom to contact for help. Ph.D. students acquire an overview of their field—they have to, for prelims and to be a teaching assistant in survey courses. They know what kinds of questions can yield interesting and useful approaches. A good Ph.D. program trains students to look at new data and fit it into a framework that helps make sense of it. That can be easy to parody—graduate students quickly learn to see everything in terms of race, gender, neoliberalism, or whatever the latest popular concepts happen to be—but that facility can also lead to an ability to look beneath the surface, to be able to explain not just what happened but why. All of that can be useful to museum professionals. But there is much in the curator’s or educator’s job that doesn’t overlap with the academic’s.


I believe that for most museum jobs, and for many alt-acc jobs, an M.A. is both adequate and appropriate. It’s a professional degree for a specialized career. But for some jobs, more education is desirable. How might we fix the Ph.D. so that it’s more useful for work outside the academy? Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman recently suggested some changes history departments might try in order to improve the skills and marketability of Ph.D.s, including workshops by historians employed in government and other non-university jobs; internships; and, most important, a more accepting attitude toward non-academic employment.

These are certainly worthy steps, but they’re not enough. If students want to work in museums, they should be trained to do that kind of work. That means changing the content of the program: what’s taught, and how it’s taught; what’s expected from students; and what faculty need to know. It doesn’t mean making Ph.D. programs into museum vocational training programs; it means focusing on the skills needed for work in a museum, rather than the skills needed for work in a research university.

Several Ph.D. programs suggest ways to do this. Brown University’s public humanities program, designed as a professional M.A., also enables students in the American studies Ph.D. program to receive an M.A. in Public Humanities. To do this, they take two courses in public humanities – one theoretical, one practical; complete a summer practicum; and take one of their three preliminary examinations in a public-humanities related field. Several have also written dissertations on museums, memorials, and public history topics. Instructors in the program have practical experience in public humanities settings, and the courses tend to be practical, though generally with some significant theoretical or historical underpinnings. Most courses include group projects, so that students get experience working with others. Many papers are shared with the whole class or posted on a public blog; the point is to write for others, not for the professor. Some courses have an outside client for whom the students’ work is useful, a budget to produce a product, and a project management backbone. Writing is, generally, not academic but practical: scripts, memoranda, reports, and presentations. Often the end products are not written documents but websites, videos, oral histories, educational programs, or exhibitions. Students take courses not only in their field of academic interest, but in nonprofit management, public policy, and philanthropy. The program is designed to combine academic training with the practical skills that let the humanities work in the real world.

The Bard Graduate Center M.A. and Ph.D. in material culture studies represents another approach to training curators. The program complements its very strong academic and theoretical focus on material culture with a practical focus on  curatorial work. Students spend times examining objects. They create an argument-driven exhibition as a collaborative venture with faculty. They learn digital skills. An internship provides practical experience in an institutional or commercial setting.

Other programs follow other models. The University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Ph.D. program works closely with the Winterthur Museum and requires a field in material culture. The University of South Carolina offers an M.A. in public history en route to the Ph.D. and requires that students in that program undertake an internship. The Yale American studies department offers an M.A. in Public Humanities en route to the Ph.D. that expands discourse beyond the academy and cultivates a dialogue with specialists in non-academic areas, “building bridges to a wide range of local and regional institutions and their respective publics.”

Historians might learn something from areas of study that have incorporated practical, public work with their academic work. Folklore and ethnomusicology have long made public practice a cornerstone of their fields, incorporating it into the training of all students. Some anthropology programs, too, have a strong practical bent, training for public, NGO, museum, and corporate work.

What makes these programs successful for training for museum curators and educators—or for public humanists, or “alt-acc” careers more generally—is not only that they don’t scowl when a student suggests a career other than as a professor, but also that they teach the real skills and ways of working needed in those careers. Doctoral programs should learn from public history, public humanities, and museum studies M.A. programs, and offer students ways to acquire these skills.


Bookmark Steven Lubar’s blog, “On public humanities,” to read more about public history, MOOCs, technology, and the authenticity of bears.


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