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The Ph.D.


Larry Cebula offers an argument we hear frequently: that no one should go on for a Ph.D. because there aren’t jobs. Cebula covers the basic points: delayed income earnings that will never pay off, massive debt, living in horrible parts of the country, etc.

It’s hard to argue against him. Like Paul’s many excellent posts on the problems with law schools that you have read here over the last few months, which I am going to force any student of mine who wants a letter for law school to read in exchange for the letter, it is probably a very bad idea to go for a Ph.D. in history.

But I hesitate a bit. I am a graduate of the University of New Mexico. This is not an elite institution. It is marginally a top-50 Ph.D. program. It has strengths in certain areas (Latin America, U.S. West, U.S.-Mexico borderlands) but you wouldn’t want to go there for anything else. Theoretically, it should be really hard to get a job with a UNM Ph.D.

However, every single person I know who was a serious student at UNM and who wanted to go into academia has a job. Every single one. Without exception (at least on the U.S. side of things). Almost all of these are tenure-track jobs with a few newer scholars presently in very fine visiting positions. And I know people from several other less-than-elite institutions who are doing very well for themselves too (Arizona, UNLV, and Nebraska come to mind). Those who chose to do something else other than academia have also succeeded in their chosen fields. So what’s the deal with this?

Just thinking out loud here because I’m almost positive no one has done any studies on this, I am wondering if there are not certain Ph.D. programs that are preparing people for the realities of the modern market more effectively than more traditionally elite programs. You might need that Yale Ph.D. to get that job at Brown or Vassar, but that’s not a lot of jobs. And people coming out of New Mexico, who have been forced to engage in public history just to pay their way through the last years of graduate school (I did historic preservation work at Los Alamos National Laboratory), probably aren’t going to get that Brown job. But we are getting positions of quality, including myself.

I don’t mean this to brag on my Ph.D. program (well, maybe a little bit). I do indeed think it’s a terrible idea to go get the Ph.D. in 2011, wherever it may be. But I’m also wondering if there are not better ways to train historians (and presumably students in other disciplines) that will make them more competitive on the job market as it now stands. Because I don’t think just writing a great dissertation and having letters from big-name professors and a big fellowship is enough anymore. I think you need to have real teaching experience, be able to teach online, have experiences that will resonate with the average undergraduate at your directional state school. You need to be flexible, do a lot of different things, and prepare for a world outside the academy. You’ll probably need those skills because you probably aren’t getting that academic job.

On the other hand, those very skills that have prepared you to do something else may also separate you from the pack in a traditional academic job search, as they have with me three times, and as they did with other people I know. In my case, that meant blogging, creating historical markers, doing some consulting work, etc.

No conclusions here, just some random thoughts. I’m not saying that less elite programs are by and large placing students at a greater rate than more elite schools. That’s probably not the case. I will say though that any Ph.D. students needs to be as flexible and multifaceted as possible and I’m not sure that traditionally elite Ph.D. programs are prepared to train their students in this way.

…..To ground this in a bit more hard evidence, 4 UNM Ph.D’s received tenure-track jobs in last year’s job cycle. That is more than some much higher ranked departments have placed in the last 5 years combined.

…..Roger Whitson has a really intelligent reply to Cebula, with specific recommendations to both graduate students and departments on ways to improve job prospects outside of the collapsing tenure-track market.

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