What’s Beyond the Ph.D. in History?

phd

HAPA recipient Mookie Kideckel attended the annual American Historical Association meeting in Denver. This year’s conference theme, “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience,” informed a number of panels on History in Action-related themes, including one on the value of career diversity initiatives. In his recap of this panel, Mookie discusses the comparative merits of M.A. and Ph.D. programs for those who go on to work in Public History, including “the value of degrees, costly in both dollars and years” and relationship between the Ph.D. and the “public.”

At the American Historical Association (AHA) conference in Denver this January, I took part in one of many important conversations about the future of the Ph.D. I joined students from the other pilot sites for the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative—the University of New Mexico, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Los Angeles—to discuss our universities’ programs and our own internship experiences. Sharing our stories led to a larger conversation during the Q&A about the doctoral degree and academia’s relationship to public history.

Our audience was, first, interested in the success of history-in-action-type programs at the pilot schools and attentive to their challenges. Students at each school had fulfilling experiences working with varied institutions, learning to collaborate, and thinking about new audiences. Still, panelists and audience members noted that many students and faculty seemed reluctant to participate in the career diversity programs, with some advisors even urging their students to stay away from public history. Attendees suggested that faculty and student reticence may come from uncertainty about how career diversity initiatives fit into doctoral training. The dissertation remains the most important requirement for both graduation and getting hired in an academic role. Career diversity, then, can appear to be simply additional work for overextended graduate students.

Rethinking the Ph.D. to orient it beyond academia led audience members to question the degree’s purpose. Must career diversity programs, one attendee wondered, come from a department? Why, another asked, should one get a Ph.D. to do the public history work that so many M.A.s and others already do well? Is there hubris in sending Ph.D.’s into the “public,” an overemphasis on what we can teach, rather than learn? Are there pernicious effects, even: are underemployed Ph.D.’s filling positions outside academia that make a scarce public history job market more difficult for those who do not want or need three extra letters?

The questions were important and difficult to answer in a 90-minute session. Panelists and audience members discussed the skills of historians and the value of immersive research. These thoughts were just a beginning. Historians must think about the value of degrees, costly in both dollars and years. They must also think about the function and spirit of masters and doctoral training. As academic and public historians work together more, it is important for doctoral candidates to understand the established worlds to which they are trying to contribute. One of my co-panelists argued that Ph.D. students often oscillate between imposter syndrome and God complexes, with little stopping in between. There is an opportunity, in future conversations about the profession and its training, to find both confidence and humility.

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