What Is the Future of the History PhD?

tags: History PhD

Ann Hall is director of communications at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Robert Darnton, Caroline Winterer, Robert Townsend

Photo credit: Laura Christoffels

For generations, the training of history PhD candidates has remained relatively static. Graduate students are expected to research and publish book-length dissertations with the ultimate goal of obtaining a tenure-track position at a four-year college or university. But in practice, PhDs are increasingly seeking alternative, non-academic careers, while advances in technology and the development of new media have provided rich opportunities for them to share their work and engage with academics and the public. Change isn’t just coming, it’s already here. Which raises an interesting question: What is the future of the history PhD?

In April 2014, professor of history Daniel Smail of Harvard University’s Department of History organized a panel discussion with three experts in the humanities: Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University; Robert Townsend, director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and Caroline Winterer, Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Stanford Humanities Center. They shared their thoughts about the past, present, and future of the discipline with a packed room of graduate students and faculty

As David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard, introduced the panel, he commented on the importance of fostering thoughtful and productive dialogue. “There is an ongoing conversation within the historical profession about how it is mutating,” he said. “We now need to reconsider and reimagine training in the 21st century and look to the future of the PhD carefully.”

Robert Townsend observed that while scholars have debated advancements in history education for decades, their concepts never gained traction. Even today, the discipline seems resistant to change, rejecting innovative ideas, such as online publishing, for their lack of prestige. As part of a 2010 survey, Townsend asked history faculty to rate their engagement with digital tools and found that only four percent fully embraced new technologies as digital humanists. Though novel and immediate methods of sharing content now exist, historians are reluctant to adopt them, often for personal reasons. “When asked why they wouldn’t review an e-book, for example, many respondents cited the tactile nature of print materials,” he explained. “They wanted the physicality of the book, the ability to annotate and keep it.”

Townsend also presented the results of a study he coauthored for the American History Association that followed a cohort over ten years to determine their employment status. He discovered that 53 percent of graduates obtained tenure-track appointments while 25 percent sought non-academic jobs. While these statistics demonstrate how versatile a history education can be, they also highlight the potential for a quarter of graduate students to be underserved by a profession that traditionally readies them for academic employment.

This is a situation that Stanford takes very seriously. Caroline Winterer discussed how that institution is bringing alternative careers for history PhDs to a whole new level. “I believe the day of the monastic PhD program, where we think solely about moving on to a four-year college or university, is waning if not already over,” she said. “We need to start looking beyond that to envision careers in museums, publishing, and the private sector, for example.” Until now, she continued, training has consisted of preparing doctoral candidates to think only of a “public of four,” their dissertation review committee. Winterer believes that these scholars should consider other “publics” as audiences for their ideas. “Every student from the first day of graduate school should think about why they are so excited about their research and consider whom they want to communicate that excitement to.”

Winterer also believes that faculty advisors need to speak openly and reassuringly with students about seeking non-traditional positions, and that institutions can support this effort by offering alternative career assistance. For example, Stanford has launched the H-STEP Fellowship (Humanities in the Stanford Teacher Education Program), which prepares PhD graduates in humanities and arts for careers in secondary school teaching. Another collaboration provides journalism instruction for those wishing to write for a broad audience. “Those who participate develop the ability to speak eloquently and clearly about the humanities,” Winterer said. “We need this kind of writing to make the case for why the humanities matter.”

Robert Darnton believes that instruction should adapt, as should the ways in which students engage with their “publics.” He began by noting that we inhabit an academic world created in the 19th century that worked adequately in the 20th and has clearly become dysfunctional in the 21st. “Our means of expression are ancient,” he said. “Our two main media—the book and the lecture—date to the Middle Ages, and the scholarly article from the early 19th century.”

This culture of expression is transforming under the pressure of technology and economics, however. “On the web, there is no clear distinction between book and article, and it no longer makes sense to limit thinking to these ancient modes,” Darnton said. He also commented that the profession should consider cutting the average time to degree from eight years to four, with a series of articles replacing the traditional book-length dissertation. “Let’s end the overspecialized, trivial PhD,” he said. “Let’s develop thought and new modes of communication that will create new modes of knowledge and scholarship.”

As a strong proponent of open access, Darnton sees tremendous opportunity for students to share their work globally and ecumenically, especially through the Harvard portal DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard). “The 17,000 articles in DASH that are available free to anyone in the world have been downloaded 3 million times,” he said. “Open access is creating a new space of freedom for writers and for the public, and this is an excellent way for historians to reach more readers.”

While the panelists made it clear that the profession is changing because of the introduction of new technology and due to individual decisions not to pursue academic careers, they recognize that this shift underscores the importance of the degree. “History PhDs should be cultural mediators,” Darnton said. “There is such a need to teach people about the world and the past.”

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