A new policy statement by the American Historical Association suggests that history departments should publish records of where their graduate students end up working. And this means not just a few success stories, but details going back at least 10 years, while keeping current information on former students who move on to other jobs.
The statement, many say, is a reflection of ongoing debates among historians on the state of the academic job market and the concerns of many graduate students and professors that those considering doctoral education may not be getting the full picture of their prospects for future employment.
“The AHA strongly recommends that departments publish information regarding graduate placement. Complete and accurate information is invaluable to prospective students deciding whether or not to enter the historical profession,” part of the statement said. These records, the statement says, should be maintained for 8 to 10 years after the student leaves the department, and it is the department’s job to convince students to keep them posted on changes in their employment status or contact information.
And though the statement is being lauded by some historians, questions remain if departments are eager to embrace such a policy.
Jacqueline Jones, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and vice president of the AHA’s professional division, who helped draft the statement, said it is critical that graduate programs make their placement records public. “Each department should be open and honest and have this data readily available,” Jones said. “It is in their own interest.”
Jones said if more departments start listing job placements online, other departments might feel pressured to do so. “If they don’t, they will lose out when it comes to recruiting new graduate students.”
Anthony Grafton, a Princeton University history professor and immediate past president of the AHA, said that for close to 100 years, one-third of history doctorates have ended up in careers that do not involve teaching or research. “It is time to face reality and make this clear,” said Grafton. In the recent past, he has called for more honesty about how difficult it is for many new Ph.D.s to find academic jobs, and has urged departments to stop talking about non-academic employment as Plan B.
History departments have had a scattershot approach on how they report placement information. The University of Chicago lists placements and statistics online, while the University of Texas at Austin documents its former doctoral students and their current positions when available. The list goes back to the 1920s. The University of California at Los Angeles publishes recent placements, and so does Columbia University.
But some of these lists go back only a few years, and only include those who reported placements, not those who are unemployed or underemployed. There are also departments that list the dissertations of their Ph.D. students, but not their job placements.
The success of AHA’s new statement will depend on how much traction the idea has among history departments. At present, opinions are mixed.
Peter Guardino, history chair at Indiana University at Bloomington, said that his department has data on doctoral students for the last 10 years but does not make the information public. “It is hard to keep them up-to-date, especially if they are changing jobs after five years or so,” he said. “It is easy to say, but in practice it is much more difficult and students are harder to reach. ”
Guardino said that he wasn’t sure how much it would help to publicize the data because the discipline of history tends to be divided by subfields, and learning where a student who is in a different subfield is employed might not help much. “It tends to be very field-specific,” he said. When potential graduate students who are interested in his department talk to faculty members, they can find out more about where doctoral students have found employment, he said.
He said the information on placements help departments find out how they are doing, and said that the “bottom line is that we need fewer students in our graduate programs” to reflect the reality of the academic job market.
Like Indiana's program, the history department at Auburn University tracks its doctoral students after they graduate but does not make the information public. “I think it is a good idea [making placement records public]. We will certainly look more closely at it; maybe try this without revealing the names of the students,” said Charles Israel, the history chair at Auburn.
Israel also pointed out that even with the departments that maintain such listings, updates may be spotty. "I have seen names of people I know listed as a one-term postdoc, when they have long since moved on to other jobs,” Israel said, adding that it was challenging to keep these lists updated when dealing with declining resources. “But we must not let the perfect get in the way of the usable.”
AHA leaders said the association would try to persuade departments to follow the policy. But is “persuasion” a strong enough motivator?
A cautionary tale comes from a previous AHA study of doctoral programs about seven years ago. "[A]mong the strongest of recommendations in that study was that history departments and the AHA collaborate in expanding websites to provide detailed information on doctoral programs – including information on placement of graduates,” said Patrick Manning, a professor of world history at the University of Pittsburgh who was the vice president of the AHA’s teaching division from 2004-2006, in an e-mail.
The study led to more data collection from departments, and the AHA currently displays the information on a section of its website called “History Doctoral Programs.”
But Manning said that departments were unwilling or unable to provide detailed information. “As I found through interviews, graduate directors, even at highly reputed programs, were unwilling to post details on their applicants, the experience of their students, and even on their graduates, for fear that they would suffer by comparison with competing programs.” Manning said. “As a result, applicants had very little in the way of information on which to base their decisions.”
He suggested that the AHA should start listing the doctoral programs that have complied with the statement and those that haven’t by the next academic year. Another option might involve starting a pilot program with some programs that want to meet the goals of the statement. “Maybe that will start a trend,” Manning said. “More information is good.”