There is an interesting new op-ed piece just co-authored by Anthony Grafton, the Princeton historian and current president of the American Historical Association. Called “No more Plan B: a very modest proposal for graduate programs in history,” somewhat to my surprise it did not advocate fattening grad students and then serving them up for supper at faculty get-togethers. It did rather suggest that the time has come – the time has very long come – when we should all be thinking about alternative jobs for those with academic doctorates, alternatives to being professors that is.
They write: “For all their energy and learning, their range and experience, many … students will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities. In 2009–10 the number of jobs posted with the AHA fell 29.4 per cent, from 806 to 569, while 989 Ph.D.’s were conferred.”
So what is to be done? Alternative jobs, although Grafton is not too specific on where these are to be found. I am not sure that there are too many openings for the Chief of Staff of the Army. One thing he does recognize is that it might be necessary to start thinking about rejigging doctoral programs to take account of people’s intended alternative career paths. It might be thought sensible to take courses in “statistics, economics, or public policy.” (Am I missing something? Wouldn’t courses like these be considered de rigueur for many if not most history students already?)
One thing though on which the president of the AHA stands firm. No messing around with the dissertation.
We don’t advocate narrowing the historical work that constitutes graduate education in history. Nor do we agree with the well-meaning observers who suggest that graduate training in humanities fields could be made less onerous, and attrition reduced, by easing the requirements: for example, by cutting the dissertation down from the grub out of which a book should emerge into three or more articles that can be researched and written in one to two years. We leave the feasibility of shorter dissertations in other humanities disciplines for our colleagues to assess. In history, the dissertation is the core of the experience. It’s in the course of research that historians firm up their mastery of languages and research methods, archives and arguments; and it’s while writing that they learn how to corral a vast amount of information, give it a coherent form, and write it up in a way accessible to non-specialists. Most students learn the challenges and satisfaction associated with extended narrative and/or complex analysis only at this final stage.
I don’t think I am being overly paranoid by sensing that there is a jab here at philosophy, because – like the scientists – we very much like it if our students stitch their dissertations together over the weekend from three or four published articles in refereed journals. And as I have said before, grubs or otherwise, I personally am not impressed at all when people come up for tenure and want to get it essentially on the basis of a dissertation-based book. The way you learn to succeed in my discipline is by going out into the jungle, aka sending your papers off, having referees savage your first efforts, and writing and rewriting again and again, until you are getting somewhere. (Actually, as one who edited a journal for 15 years, I was constantly amazed at how much time very senior people would put into the efforts of very junior, totally unknown people.)
So let me throw this out as a topic for discussion. If we are preparing folk for the market place or for other jobs outside academia – and I personally very much think we should do this, because I am jiggered if I want to spend more time working with worthwhile young people who are going to spend their adult lives dashing from one institution to another to teach a course here and a course there – a massive, traditional, history-style dissertation is the last thing they need. Get them used to writing shorter pieces that are going to be criticized and revised again and again. That’s how you do projects in the real world. Not by shutting yourself away for two or three years and emerging with a monstrous opus, but by responding to challenges as they come up and working on them and then moving on.
Believe me, going this way does not make things less onerous nor is one easing the requirements. The stress and strain of publishing articles in refereed places is just plain awful when you are young and frankly I don’t find it gets altogether easier as you get older. But it does prepare you for the real world.