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PhD-Degree

Should people in History Ph.D. programs stop taking students because of the job crisis? American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz is making that decision:

I remain hopeful that our efforts will widen opportunities for current Ph.D.’s. However, this optimism is tempered when I reflect on the job prospects for my recent doctoral graduates. Out of four accomplished junior historians (with seven prestigious research prizes and fellowships among them), only one has secured that elusive tenure-track position. Of the others, one has retreated from view, while the rest remain freeway flyers and/or part-time administrators. Trite as it may sound, it breaks my heart to watch them struggle.

With an additional four mentees in the pipeline, I have placed a personal moratorium on Ph.D. recruitment. I respect and support colleagues who desire to guide a new generation, but my priority remains on the career paths — inside and outside the academy — of people with whom I have a longstanding mentoring relationship. My personal moratorium embodies my hope that the association’s Career Diversity project will stimulate the retooling of graduate programs to prepare our students for wider opportunities. That will take time. In the interim, some of us are likely to slow the pump of history Ph.D.’s into the overflowing adjunct pool.

I have complex feelings about this. A couple of notes. First, I am somewhat associated with the American Historical Association pilot project Ruiz mentions to get programs to rethink graduate training because I am an alum of the University of New Mexico, one of the included schools because it punches way over its weight when it comes to placing PhDs in both academic and nonacademic positions. In February, I went back to UNM to talk about some of the things I do, joining a group of fellow alumni and a few others discussing their experiences. I really don’t know if it was helpful for current Ph.D. students there, but I hope it was. I do have to say that I took verbal exception to what AHA head Jim Grossman had to say and didn’t say at this event, which was basically to a) ignore the fundamental reasons why there are no jobs (the disappearance of history lines and adjunctification) and b) to tell every history PhD to basically be a business major and learn how to read a spreadsheet and learn to budget (a worthy enough skill, but no answer to the problem). On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we assume that PhD students will not get an academic job, whether at Harvard, New Mexico, or South Carolina. This should be the assumption of every PhD advisor and every PhD student. Sometimes the student will strike it rich and win the lottery from any of these schools! I did and I know some people from all these schools who have in recent years. But usually they won’t. To me, that’s the first step advisors must take. What are students being trained for? Can advisors or other mentors offer skills that will get students actual jobs?

But even outside of that, I think the assumption that we shouldn’t take PhD students is a bit more problematic. Not that I disagree with Ruiz per se, as she takes an obviously defensible position. But the reality is that there aren’t good jobs anywhere in this economy outside of select fields. And some of us–myself included–are very smart in some ways, but not in the ways that this capitalist economy values. So the moral question around accepting PhD students I think revolves around whether they are funded or not. I would not be comfortable accepting students that are not funded. But if they are funded, at least they aren’t going into debt, or much anyway. To me, this is the fundamental difference between the PhD and law school. If the student is just delaying their income earning potential, such as it is in this stage of American capitalism, then that’s one decision and a potentially defensible one. If they are going into debt for that PhD, that’s a horrible idea. I find that a compelling dividing line.

But then I don’t know. There aren’t good answers. And the balance between giving students the opportunity to pursue their intellectual dreams and career goals versus placing them at a disadvantage in their lives going forward is not an easy one to maintain. I figure many of you will have thoughts on this.

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