Not that kind of doctor: questions about the history PhD from near-ground level

One reason that I feel free to try my hand at blogging all of a sudden after all these years on Earth is that a great weight is about to be lifted from my shoulders: the weight of being my department’s graduate program director. When I agreed to take on the job just over three years ago, the “state of the field” with respect to doctoral programs in the humanities seemed still to be one of anxious hand-wringing. Not (yet) having any PhD students of my own, though hoping to, I aligned myself spiritually with a frank-yet-not-ultra-pessimistic Chronicle piece I can no longer locate that counselled letting students decide whether their happiness depended upon going for the degree, and if it did, to let them go. They are adults, after all; and, a voice on one’s shoulder might add, someone is going to get the few jobs that still exist. (Probably someone from Yale.)

Now, whether because the landscape has changed or because I know it better, the prevailing sense seems very different. The academic jobs crisis – that is, the collapse of the tenure track – is the norm, and the question is not how we prepare our students to ride it out or beat it but what we do with doctoral programs now that we know they won’t. A burgeoning consulting industry now exists around “transitioning” from doctoral study to the worlds of government/non-profit/private sector employment, created and driven by savvy, energetic examples of the genre and bolstered by a handful of impressive – though in some ways shockingly rudimentary – studies of what happens to people who get PhDs. The language of “alt-ac” careers, nervously bandied about when I was a student in the early 2000s, has become that of “post-ac”, reflecting the fact that “ac” is itself now not so much a career as a preliminary and quite possibly superfluous phase in the search for one.

Meanwhile, universities go on calling for ever more graduate students (perhaps especially in Canada, where the system is funded largely by provincial governments), putting pressure on departments and GPDs to “grow their numbers” or face cuts to their already meager budgets and course offerings, and chasing down wavering recruits through March and into April with increasingly desperate offers of money to enroll. They do so in contempt of established trends, but also in convenient and willed ignorance of their programs’ specific situations: retention data – how many students finish their degrees – can be cobbled together ad hoc by those with access, but is rarely systematically kept and never publicized, at least in Canada; job placement data is only beginning to be gathered, through such cutting edge tools as looking people up on Google. What universities don’t admit can’t hurt them in the eyes of uninformed applicants.

I have enough faith in the responsibility and awareness of my own PhD student (I have one now) not to issue a personal mea culpa here. He’s informed about the world he’s entering (he’s heard Maren Wood in person!), and he’s elected to stay the course. Apparently our tutorial discussions are that engaging. Good for him, good for my sleep at night. Still, the larger question of what PhD programs are or should be for remains, and as an outgoing GPD I don’t have any more compelling answers now than I did when I took the job. Only more questions. The studies mentioned above aren’t all bad news. Besides savouring the schadenfreude of learning that the STEM fields their uncles thought they should pursue are also in crisis, humanities PhDs can rejoice in the knowledge that they are most likely bound for gainful employment in areas where at least some of their skills – research, analytical, writing, language, logistical, and so on – will be put to use. (One surprising caveat is that teaching talents will apparently, for most of them, be irrelevant.)

But they can also contemplate the fact that while pursuing the PhD may have honed these skills, it is not usually the only way to acquire them. It is, on the other hand, a great way to build debt while postponing one’s climb onto the salary ladder by eight or nine years. Whether or not intelligent people continue freely to choose this fate, it’s not one that is easy to justify devoting a lot of resources to preserving. The quaint claim still lingers in some university documents that PhD programs confer “prestige” on the institutions that house them; that’s a poor rationale, ethically speaking, and, given the status of scholars in the public mind, it’s also a dubious one. This leaves the “apprenticeship” argument: if you want to have historians, this is how you make them. I’ll certainly agree that I learned my craft in my doctoral program, and I’m very grateful to my mentors for it. But it doesn’t really follow that just because this is how professional historians have been trained for the last century or so, this is the only way to do it; and, anyway, professional historians are no longer what history PhD programs mostly produce. So it seems to me that the real question is: what is it that only a PhD program can do? And for how many people? And for how long?

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4 thoughts on “Not that kind of doctor: questions about the history PhD from near-ground level

  1. Dear Dr. McCormick,

    It was a happy surprise today to have stumbled upon your blog. This piece in particular I found informative – though perhaps more importantly for my own purposes, I found it thoughtful and honest. I feel I can speak for a large number of current graduate students by saying that we do deeply appreciate honest discussions such as this, especially when led by present faculty and/or graduate program administrators such as yourself. Thank you.

    My main reason for commenting was to bring up some ‘numbers’ I found a few months ago regarding trends in history PhD admissions at a few Canadian institutions. Of course now I am having trouble finding links, but I will do my best to explain the data in the most general way.

    The history PhD programme websites of two Western Canadian universities had listed their admissions numbers from roughly 2010, presenting them as ‘Applied,’ ‘Offered,’ ‘Accepted,’ and ‘Finished/Conferred’ (or similar – again, my memory is hazy here). Both institutions saw little or no decrease in total applicants nor did the percentage of acceptances drop through this period – this, I believe, might be read two ways: one, students are still clamoring to to get in, and two, funding has yet to decrease enough (at least for the earliest years of the PhD) to keep those applying from taking their offers and attending the school.

    My interest, however, was piqued by meaning I pulled from the numbers at the next step. There was a steady (if slight) decrease in ‘offers’ made to applicants by both the universities since at least 2010. Less students were starting PhDs every year. I concluded that, given the rate at which prospective students had continued to apply and take the (now reduced number of) offers, this decrease seemed the doing of admissions committees rather than the product of any number of other concerns of funding, etc. on the applicants’ side of things. The completion rates seemed typical and steady throughout the period as well.

    So what can be made of this drop in PhD admission offers? Is this the sign of increased responsibility on the part of the institution? Is this a recognition of the problem of too many PhDs and an actual (and seemingly concerted) effort to respond to that problem?

    Though I have my assumptions as to their meaning(s), I am still trying to make sense of these numbers – perhaps I am giving the responsible, noble institution too much credit. Perhaps these two institutions are in fact not unique in their recent strategies. Your thoughts here would be appreciated.

    Maybe I have missed the mark in my reading of this data – or I have imagined it entirely. Either way, I think it points to a potential ‘role’ the institution might (or must?) take in relation to this issue. Do you see this as a viable or worthwhile endeavor? Or, are there other, more important or effective methods to control (or actively decrease) the number of PhDs – if so, on what level (personal, institutional, etc) do you see this taking place?

    I look forward to your future posts.

    — Jason

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  2. Hi Jason

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not aware of any readily accessible source for trends in PhD admissions that covers Canada, so it’s hard to know what to make of the trend at two universities without knowing which they are — and even then it probably wouldn’t be obvious. My experience is that smaller programs, for instance, fluctuate quite a bit from year to year in the offers made, for a mixture of reasons. Budget (not just amounts, but how they are broken down), staffing (leaves, departures, retirements), and the fit between the applicant pool and the supervision available can all vary quite a bit from year to year, even if numbers of applicants stay constant. The smaller the program, I suspect, the larger the impact of a shift in any of these is likely to be; but even a large program could be affected by any of them (say, if a star researcher leaves).

    Since we’re talking about two places and not all of Canada there are also likely to be local factors in play, and these might include a conscious desire on the part of faculty to shrink the programs concerned. Without knowing more I’d say it’s unlikely to be a university-sanctioned initiative or policy, though; the pressure from university administrations and provincial and federal governments is all the other way, since government funding is pegged to numbers. For that same reason, it doesn’t seem to me to be a sustainable way for a public program to improve PhD packages (as a lot of private US programs were doing 10-15 years ago, shifting to a 5-year full-funding model). You can divide the same budget fewer ways for a year or two, but if your numbers go down consistently, your budget will soon shrink to match — and you may have incurred the lasting ill-will of your dean in the meanwhile. A lasting change would have to be initiated at a much higher level than the admissions committees.

    I’d be interested to know whose numbers you’re looking at, though, because it’s rare for them to be publicized in Canada. Kudos to the schools that do so.

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  3. Dr. McCormick,

    Thank you for your reply.

    Yesterday I was able to locate one of the links I referenced in my post – one which I had viewed some months ago and had inspired these thoughts. Here it is: https://www.grad.ubc.ca/prospective-students/graduate-degree-programs/phd-history – see the fourth option from the bottom, “Statistical Numbers.”

    The other page was that of UVIC, although I cannot seem to find that link – my apologies.

    Your point regarding pressures from admin and governments is well taken and, having considered how numbers and funding correlate (as well as how fear of ‘losing’ that future funding plays in), I would agree that a top-down initiative to actively decrease PhDs does seem a little far-fetched.

    The problem, then, would be that a decrease in offers more likely DID come from a budget-related factor than any effort to address the issues discussed here. This of course doesn’t make me feel any better.

    Thank you for discussing these possibilities with me and for posting your original piece. You have clarified some of the ‘mystified’ and seemingly ‘magical’ aspects of application and admissions processes in Canadian PhD programs in history while also giving me another angle from which to think about these things.

    — Jason

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    • Taking a look at the UBC numbers to which you linked — thanks — my impressions are (a) they’re a smaller overall than I would have guessed, given the prominence of the program within Canada; and (b) both the numbers and the sample size are too small to conclude much about what is driving the trend or even whether it is a “trend” that extends beyond the period 2011-2015 (or beyond that program).

      Yes, offers went down from 8 in 2011 to 4 in 2014 and 2 in 2015. On the other hand applications were also down from almost 50 in 2011 to 31 in 2014, though 2015 increased somewhat. So leaving out 2015 the decline in offers 2011-2014 (50%) was not wildly out of line with the decline in applications over the same period (37%); even this disparity vanishes if you take the small size of the real numbers involved into account — just one more offer in 2014 would have brought the percentage declines in offers and applications almost perfectly into line. Moreover the decline in registrations over the same period (20%) was much less dramatic than either of the other declines; the difference might be down to committees paying closer attention to fit between applicants and supervisors, or encouraging more contact between them prior to application. Or the dumb luck of who happened to apply/be on leave one year rather than another.

      Or it could be something as simple as a bumper year in 2010-2011 (imagine, say, that a new research chair or two was/were awarded in 2010, with a burst of funding for PhD students). That is, 2011 and not 2015 might be the anomaly — and in fact if you take 2011 out, there aren’t really any drastic changes. But, again, the biggest thing to bear in mind is that the actual numbers involved are so small that even very slight changes look like huge shifts when rendered in percentage terms. What’s needed are larger tranches of comparable data for more programs and universities.

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