Monday, November 21, 2022

History of history doctoral programs

Active History
's recent nine-part series on the history PhD in Canada, which began with data suggesting that about one graduate in ten of such programs can hope to secure a tenure-stream academic job, ends with the conclusion that that's not really such a problem:

While many might rush to conclude that we should simply stop training History PhDs in order to better match the number of graduates and the number of academic jobs, doing so does not address the diverse reasons students pursue a PhD or the many structural problems that exist within programs. To improve student experiences and enhance the value of the PhD, departments need to acknowledge the flaws in current programs and recognize the effects of these flaws. We can re-think the design and purpose of our programs. The Task Force heard throughout our consultation process that there is value in completing a History degree, and History PhD training is important for those who work outside of tenure-track faculty positions.

Ya think? 

Of course there is "value in completing a History degree." And no doubt many of those who complete a PhD emerge as well-informed, hardworking, diligent people equipped with critical and other skills. But can it be reasonable to argue that the enormous demands and massive investments (public and private) that go into a doctoral degree are justified if what they provide becomes roughly equivalent, for most of their graduates, to what the community colleges call GE - general education? 

I presume there are history PhDs in many non-academic pursuits who do appreciate the doctoral studies they did, but I greatly doubt that making the PhD an entry qualification for every kind of history-adjacent career is "important," at least when subjected to any kind of cost-benefit analysis.

Ultimately, preparing future academics is what the PhD is for and what it should be good at -- and probably the only career for which it is better suited than some other kind of apprenticeship. Can it really be wise to "rethink the design and purpose" of academic doctorates for some other purpose than preparing future faculty?

Evidently the academy is unready "to better match the number of graduates and the number of academic jobs." I can't help thinking an educational planner who reads this series might think there are some good reasons for doing so.

Update, November 22: I meant to recall my late friend Silver Donald Cameron, who was an English prof before he left to become a freelance journalist, novelist, environmental activist, and examiner of the Maritime soul. I remember him once saying, "It took me ten years to get a PhD. And ten years to get rid of it." To which I said, "Then I'm twenty years ahead of the curve."  And we laughed and laughed.

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