Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Blog XCVII (97): The Departmental Response to the Plan B Debate

In Blog XCVI, I addressed the Plan B debate that Anthony Grafton, the President of the American Historical Association and Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, initiated. In my contribution to this discussion I argued that the organization is not as weak as it thinks it is when it comes to responding to the job crisis in the history profession. There are things that the AHA can do to change the employment situation. Now, it is time to turn our attention to individual history departments.

What can they do to change employment patterns? The answer is again a lot more than they think. The faculty in departments of history have a lot of influence on the Ph.D. glut. One solution that many people writing higher education newspaper columns and blogs have suggested is that these programs stop admitting students that they know will never find academic employment once they finish their Ph.D. That would indeed solve the problem, but it runs against the institutional interests of the departments. They need and want grad students. These junior scholars are necessary for the operation of large lecture classes that tenure track faculty teach and they can also be used as instructors of record to make up the difference between the tenured faculty’s work loads and the teaching obligations of a department to meet degree requirements.

So that idea is a non-starter, but there are several other things that a department can and probably should do if it continues to admit students that will not find academic careers. These suggestions will help students, but increasing the viable career options for Ph.D.s also services the institutional interest of history departments that want to maintain or increase graduate-student enrollments. I have four main proposals:
  1. Develop an Alumni Speaker Series: bring recent graduates back to campus and have them give talks about their careers. They can provide useful information about a number of issues: where did they find job ads? What did they learn about the application process that they did not know before? What issues (expected and unexpected) did they face once they started the job? How well did their training prepare them for their new positions? What would they do different if they had it to do over again? What are they glad that they did? This type of program is good feedback for the faculty, but it can also be an inspiration for currently enrolled students. It helps to let them know what others that have been where they are now have been able to do with the degree they are earning. In Blog XV I said that alumni networking was an important consideration that historians need to do more of; this is one of the reasons why and a way to do it.
  2. Develop a Non-Academic Career Speaker Series: bring historians to campus that are doing something other than teaching in a history department. These speakers do not have to be alumni of your school. The fact of the matter is that the majority of people in history Ph.D. programs are going to be doing something other than becoming an assistant professor of history after they graduate. History faculty need to start preparing their students for non-academic careers and that will be difficult for individuals who went from grad school to faculty positions. There is no reason to have them reinvent the wheel. Have people who have already done trailblazing work in finding non-academic utility for their degrees explain those efforts. They can answer important questions like: What can I do with a history Ph.D.? Where did they find job ads? Is it possible for me to do research, publish, or teach in this type of job? Can I move into a tenure-track position later if I do something else for the time being?
  3. Profile These Guest Speakers: departmental web sites and newsletters are great forums for biographical portraits or question and answer sessions with these historians. Developing a sense of community among the alumni is also important. This type of published product bolsters the reputation of a department as an institution, which is something different than the individual publishing efforts of their faculty members. This effort can have untold second and third order effects: enhancing the reputation of the department as a place to study for students because it makes real, creative efforts to help their students find jobs; it also makes a department look creative, which is always a good environment that makesit easier to recruit new faculty.
  4.  Develop the Resources of the Career Office: Each university has a placement office(s). These centers are usually designed for undergraduates, but graduate students in history would be within their rights to ask that they develop programs to help them pursue employment opportunities in which they can use the skills they developed in their Ph.D. studies. These programs would include workshops that will help students decide what career paths are available to them; that conduct practice job interviews; and explain the nuances of writing a impressive resumes.
In closing, I should note that if any of these ideas sound good and are things that your home institutions are not offering, you should ask the department, college, or university that it begin to do so. It is an entirely reasonable request. Part of a faculty member’s job description is to help prepare their students for using their Ph.D. after they graduate.

1 comment:

  1. These are good, practical suggestions that would help. Maybe not enough for everyone, but everything helps rights now.

    In the long run, faculty are going to have to change some of their attitudes. Too many faculty still believe that successful graduate students (or at least *their* students) can get jobs with little worry, and so they're reluctant to lose the status that comes with continuing to accept new students. This was a major obstacle that my department had to overcome when it became necessary to reduce the size of the incoming classes. Those faculty had not yet come to grips with the realities of the profession today, and so were in no position to prepare their students for life after graduation.