Training Historians and the Dual Degree

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

January 28, 2014

When historians gathered for their annual meeting in January, the future of the discipline itself was on the agenda. Amid the talk about the relevance of historical scholarship and the precarious employment prospects for history Ph.D.’s were promising proposals aimed at broadening the graduate curriculum and rewarding nonacademic career paths. But one potential solution seemed to be largely overlooked: the dual-degree program.

Graduate students in a dual-degree program simultaneously earn a history Ph.D. and a second degree, often a master’s from a professional school. An aspiring historian planning to write on the history of urban planning, for example, could earn degrees in both fields. Along the way, that graduate student could learn about the different ways scholars in those two fields frame the same problem, and could pick up valuable experience working in interdisciplinary settings.

Some readers may instinctively recoil from any proposal that involves “more school,” but at their best, dual-degree programs can offer a solution to two key problems now confronting the history profession: relevancy and employment prospects.

Dual-degree programs show other realms of the academy—and ultimately, the broader public—the importance and usefulness of history. Historians often bemoan the sloppy invocation of the past in other disciplines (or its absence altogether), but we have hardly done all we can to sell our field’s virtues. The dual-degree program is one such method. Bright scholars at the very start of their academic careers can forge connections between different departments and schools.

Being able to job hunt in two fields is clearly better than being limited to one. Formal training in history and a second field gives graduate students credibility to teach in traditional history departments, in professional schools, and in explicitly interdisciplinary programs. And a dual degree can prove invaluable for historians looking to put their skills to use in a nonacademic setting. Having undergone the same formal training as practitioners is, if not the price of admission, then an enormous plus for history Ph.D.’s seeking to gain access to and navigate those careers.

We speak from experience. At the University of Pennsylvania, where we both earned Ph.D.’s in history, one of us (Chowkwanyun) also received a master’s in public health, and the other (Tani) earned a law degree. Having our feet in two worlds has had a major impact on our scholarship and on our careers. Both of us have found positions in academe—just not in a history department.

Chowkwanyun: I wrote my dissertation on the history of medical care and environmental health in the post-1945 United States, and included a significant section on air-pollution control. A key source for that section was a collection of mid-20th-century scientific articles on the chemical composition of smog and its health hazards. I drew on my epidemiology and biostatistics courses to read those old articles, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and think about how public officials in the 1950s might have used the articles while weighing regulatory options.

The audience for the dissertation was historians, and I wrote with them in mind, but my dual-degree training gave me the confidence and knowledge to publish in both social-science and public-health journals along the way.

Today I am a postdoctoral fellow in a program aimed at fostering interdisciplinary work on population health. None of my colleagues in the program are historians, but thanks to my training, I am able to take part in discussions fruitfully, especially on technical and quantitative matters, and not limit myself to explicitly “historical” remarks.

Tani: I had a similar experience. My doctoral dissertation on the law and politics of “poor relief” in the mid-20th-century would not have been possible without my legal training. First, it helped me to locate key primary sources. Second, familiarity with legal scholarship encouraged me to ask research questions that were distinct from those of previous historians. And finally, a practitioner’s understanding of the law gave me some comfort amid hundreds of boxes of jargon-laden legal and administrative records.

My dissertation is now a book manuscript, written mainly for historians, but also for the broader community of scholars interested in poverty law and policy, rights-claiming, U.S. federalism, and the everyday work of governance. Since finishing it, I have written scholarly articles for both legal and historical outlets and used my dual degree to tap into the law-school job market.

I’m now an assistant professor at a law school with a vibrant interdisciplinary faculty and a unique “law and society” graduate program. My dual-degree training allows me to teach bread-and-butter law topics, like torts, but also more specialized courses, such as legal history. Having to represent history on an interdisciplinary faculty makes me think carefully and productively about what it is that we historians do—how we build and sustain arguments, what we value in scholarship, and how we contribute to the academy and society.

Barriers to dual-degree programs: We’re sold on their virtues, but plenty of other people aren’t, judging from how uncommon formalized dual-degree programs continue to be. More often than not, students pursue a dual degree on an ad hoc basis, trying to assemble one on their own initiative. Their efforts often result in bureaucratic headaches.

One of the biggest barriers is financial. Professional schools, which often rely heavily on tuition dollars, are understandably reluctant to allow doctoral students to complete coursework without charge. Tani’s dual degree, for example, was possible only because Penn’s law school waived tuition costs and helped subsidize her graduate stipends.

Improvised dual degrees also lack coordination between faculty members in the two fields the student is pursuing. Intellectually, that means students often don’t get to choose the ideal combination of courses. Logistically, it can mean they don’t take the most efficient path to graduation. For instance, Chowkwanyun’s dual degree in history and public health, worthwhile as it was, added an extra 1.5 years of time to his training—time that could have been halved if more centralized coordination had existed at the university.

An additional impediment: The attitudes of certain faculty members, skeptical about whether a dual degree spreads a graduate student too thin or deviates too far from traditional disciplinary training.

Fortunately, those problems and concerns can be easily remedied. History departments (as well as others in the humanities) could work together with senior administrators to create a centralized pool of money to support doctoral students who are also earning a degree in a tuition-dependent professional school, and to grant an extra year’s stipend to those students for their extended time to degree. Universities could also appoint interdisciplinary officers who would help identify interested students, negotiate with departments and schools on the financing of their degrees, and approve courses of study. Faculty “buy in” is crucial and would take time, but in the short term, commitment from the faculty members supervising the dual-degree students would matter most.

It is easy to see how a successful stream of dual-degree graduates, in turn, could quickly enhance the reputation of departments, professional schools, and universities. Well-designed programs would lead to successful job placements and better inter-departmental collaboration—not to mention illustrating history’s value beyond the disciplinary silo.

In that last respect, the American Historical Association has a big part to play. It could create a Committee on Dual Degrees and Interdisciplinary Scholarship and conduct a national survey of current dual-degree programs to assess their cost, institutional design, best practices, and the career trajectories of their graduates. The results would prove invaluable for departments looking to create such programs.

In recent years, the AHA has pushed historians to consider ways we might broaden the intellectual and occupational horizons of the history Ph.D. But many of its proposals—including those outlined in the widely read “No More Plan B” essay written by its executive director, James Grossman, and the former AHA president Anthony T. Grafton—seem to implicitly endorse a scattershot approach.

Dual-degree programs are a more programmatic and permanent way to make this new vision for historians a reality.

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the department of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Karen M. Tani is an assistant professor in the law school at the University of California at Berkeley.