Vocational Ph.D. programs: is this the future calling?

I’m often conscious that I don’t fully understand the differences between the US and UK higher education processes, so I’m not quite sure how bothered to be by a recent news item that I came across at Cliopatria. The story is that Drew University, a small liberal arts college in New Jersey, recently rebuilt its entire history Ph. D. program with a decidedly vocational bent. They have striven to assure that each student, of the few they will carefully choose, will teach their own course for a year as part of their programme, which will be closely constrained to take no more than five years and be tested throughout with historiographical essays that are more like what they’re actually going to have to do after they graduate than the exams they used before. They also aim to haul in all kinds of help from other departments and contribute as much as they can back in exchange.

Grad student etiquete, from Jorge Chams PHD Comics

Grad student etiquete, from Jorge Cham's PHD Comics

A lot of this makes sense for a very small university running a graduate program; to do so at all, which the article emphasises is unusual, requires a lot of pooled resources and selectivity about they’re trying to achieve. In fact I wish big departments in the UK would do more about this kind of sharing of aims between schools and periods, perhaps they could benefit from some similar pressures. That said, there are a lot of things that strike me very oddly, and I don’t know how many of these are just a difference between US and UK practices. Testing, first and foremost. In the UK most Ph. D. students have to pass an upgrade at some point in their course, without which they can only attain a Masters degree; there isn’t really any other form of testing, because the ambitious ones will already be working on conference papers and publications, which one could see as the real tests. And while I’m familiar with the archetype of the never-finishing grad student from the USA’s pop culture, this doesn’t stop me thinking that five years is still a huge chunk of one’s life to use on a doctorate. I took five years to do mine, but three of them were part-time and I was an Assistant Lecturer on a course with the time of two fewer teachers than it had been planned for during some of that; I also spent much too long on a first article, though I guess the work paid off at the time. In the UK it is conventional to over-run, but since one usually has to do so on one’s own money, rarely by more than a year; someone who over-runs by more than a year either has a private income, or probably isn’t going to finish, because they have already had to start in on a real-world career to make ends meet and stop needing the doctorate or enjoying the study. It takes unusual bloody-mindedness to continue to defy one’s normal employability in those circumstances. So there is obviously something basically different about the experience in the USA that means I don’t know how weird the bit that unsettles me is.

That bit is, how much like a vocational lower degree this seems. This bit particularly struck me:

At Drew University our public humanities project will require all our doctoral students to hold internships at intellectual arenas outside the university: museums, foundations, publishing houses, schools, and magazines. In partnership with these institutions, our students could apply their knowledge by designing humanities programs that directly serve the public, such as a museum exhibit or a high school curriculum. We will also sponsor a workshop on writing for a lay audience, taught by a professional author. Thus our program will prepare students for careers in both academia and the nonacademic `knowledge industries’—and some of them will probably choose the latter path.

Now, I know people who would really have benefited from such provision in their doctorate, because that is the path they have wound up on. All the same, is it the point? I did my Ph. D. to do a particular piece of research that would be recognised to have shown that I could be a real historian and work in the profession. In fact as many have found that is not so easy, no matter how good your thesis, and the work just doesn’t stop there. So I can certainly imagine that this could just be seen as realism, and it’s not as if the Drew programme makes anyone less likely to get hired; in fact, in some ways they are merely formalising practices that exist in most places already, like finding your students teaching experience on your courses, and their students will benefit considerably from this being done properly I imagine. But it bothers me all the same that this is being so tailored to getting a job. Really, as I’ve said, history is not supposed to be a marketable discipline, though you can surely write books that make you money from it. But Drew are picking a small cadre of élite students and instructing them how to deal with there being no way to continue their research. They are basically saying it doesn’t matter how good you are, you may not make it here. Surely only realistic, and nothing I haven’t told students of my own who will probably go on to outperform me. All the same it feels like something’s gone wrong if it finally has to be institutionalised.


18 responses to “Vocational Ph.D. programs: is this the future calling?

  1. There are definitely some cultural differences here; I took 6 years to do my Ph.D. in the US, and that was relatively fast for my program. I did not have a master’s degree when I started the program, though.

    This does seem to be a very professionalized degree. I’m torn between wishing I had had that kind of training myself, and feeling a bit uncomfortable as you do.

  2. Sounds to me like they are on the right track. They will create better teachers. Most professors in the US must teach in areas outside of their PhD topic. People here don’t get to spend their entire career teaching on Roman Britain. They wind up on teaching on all ancient history, most medieval history, and in a pinch they might have to teach an American history course. When they get to be mid-level or senior faculty they might get the perk of offering a special course on a topic near and dear. That is just the way it goes. Most colleges/universities don’t have more than two medievalists on their entire staff. Few offer more than two medieval courses per semester.

    I would also point out that an awful lot of liberal arts PhDs never find a full time job in their field. Any program that actually focuses on making them marketable enough to get a job in a field they supposedly love, should be very competitive for students.

  3. I suppose I’m one of the unusually bloody-minded, then …

    One of the things I liked best about my PhD program and my advisor is that they really did prepare us to teach. We all taught a full lecture course of the survey — whichever was appropriate to our field. The graduate school initiated teacher-training workshops in my 5th year (so about a year after I finished my MA — two years of coursework required, and they changed requirements and faculty my second year, so I was a little behind). I was given lots of additional opportunities to teach, although it got in the way of writing. I had my primary field, Medieval, a secondary exam field, Ancient, and then two minor fields, Early Modern and East Asia. And because of the program changes, I ended up with coursework in Economic History and Modern History as well.

    I’m not nearly as well-grounded in research as many of my colleagues (*looks at Jon*), and I’m still playing catch-up when it comes to scholarship. But the training and breadth made me marketable, at least.

    Having said that, Drew’s plan doesn’t work for me.

  4. ADM, when I said one had to be bloody-minded I meant in the UK, where the funding to continue is (apparently) harder to come by, which is not to diminish your efforts at all. And I envy you not just the teaching training, but also just the breadth of your knowledge about history out of your period. That said, as we’ve discussed before, we’re both marketable for our own markets; as the Disciple also points out, there really is a culture gap here and crossing the pond is tricky. Weirdly, it’s perhaps easiest for the people in the UK who’ve been stuck on the bottom rung and teaching anything that’s going on rotten wages. Someone from the UK who had flown the good flight from Ph. D. to Research Fellowship to Temporary Lecturer simply wouldn’t be able to get your job, ADM, whereas someone with a few years of grunt work as an RA or Assistant Lecturer would actually have much more relevant experience and knowledge. I realise that that would be more of a comfort if you could get their job, but I think your game of catch-up may be easier than theirs.

    What is that you don’t like about the Drew program?

  5. Maybe. I’m not feeling hopeful about anything at the moment, so just ignore me :-) But I think the Drew program is in some ways not all that different to what I experienced — we had very similar funding, and there were opportunities for interdisciplinary work.

    I think it’s that I don’t like the required internship and the underlying attitude. On the other hand, since they are all modernists, I suppose that it makes a bit more sense for them, just as focusing on historiography might make more sense for a modernist. My comps were more like the ones they decry, but the emphasis on knowing the major narrative sources for the periods (exams in both Ancient and Medieval) was incredibly useful.

  6. This brings up many thorny issues. My field (not history) has been creeping its way toward doctoral programs that require formal internship and teaching experience with the explicit purpose (like Drew) to enable graduates to be more “marketable” in non-academic (i.e. non-research focused) settings. While I agree that many graduates in my field are unlikely to find (or may not want), a “traditional” academic job some problems are clearly emerging.

    Primarily: 1) Imposing internship and teaching requirements is actually causing students to take LONGER to finish their degrees. While ambitious students always end up participating in these activities, by formalizing the process they are now tied into set time schedules, usually resulting in lengthy delays of their research. 2) Very few of the professors in my field actually have much in the way of non-academic career experience. Meaning we are charged with the duty to train students to be succesful in careers we know very little about. We know how to conduct research and teach in college-level environments, we don’t know much else!

    I don’t know how to solve these problems. Ultimately I think if graduate programs elect to go this more vocational route (and it’s not a bad idea considering the current and future job market) it will require greater changes. I think we will have to change not only what is required of students, but what is required of professors as well.

  7. I think there’s another way to look at this, which is that requiring a public humanities component will help get historians and historical perspectives into the non-academic world. Sure, there’s a clear vocational bent to the Drew reforms, but I think that that is partly explained by pressure from graduate students themselves, as well as from groups like the AAUP and AHA, about the lack of teacher training in the traditional PhD program and the lack of preparation for not getting the traditional tenure-track job. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I see that much wrong with training students to do the job to which they aspire. Especially if that means expanding the range of jobs to which they might aspire and expanding the scope of historians’ involvement outside of the academy. To suggest that only academic historical writing in the form of theses/articles/books counts as “real” research is to take a rather narrow definition of research. I think it’s also counter-productive politically and culturally. Most people get their knowledge of history outside of the classroom, so the more properly trained historians are involved in public history work, the better, I say.

    It’s worth pointing out, too, that Drew isn’t replacing the dissertation with the required internship. Students will still do serious work in the traditional formats. And the proposed obligations in terms of internships and teaching are still far less onerous than the teaching obligations in many U.S. PhD programs, so I don’t see this significantly slowing progress.

    On another note, ADM, why do you think historiography is more relevant for modernists than medievalists? Surely knowledge of the broad narratives is necessary for good historiography, no?

  8. Different approach to sources. I’ve never gone to a Late Antiquity or Medieval conference where most of the questions were not rooted in the primary sources used by the presenter, or that might be useful to the presenter. I’m not at all saying that knowing current scholarship isn’t important, nor that we don’t need to be aware of major arguments and works in our field. Rather, I’m saying that I agree with the idea that, if you’re going to be tested on something, it’s more important to know what Fredegar and Gregory say about the Merovingians than it is to know how Wood and James differ on them. Scholarship changes, but having a grip on the major sources for a period makes it possible to continually respond to the scholarship of one’s peers while remaining connected to the roots of the subject.

    Modernists don’t really have the same sort of canon when it comes to their periods. There’s just so much evidence out there. So it makes more sense that they are more conversant with a secondary historiographical canon.

  9. Man, I hate coming late to a party. This is just all kinds of interesting…

    Anyway, I think the Drew program is quite interesting and I’d like to see how it plays out in its 1st few graduating classes. My gut reaction to the discussion in the comments, however, is that we might be taking too narrow a view of the program. Drew seems to be offering an alternative, public history PhD that’s similar — though not the same as a more traditional (research?) PhD. Placing History PhDs in museums, school administrator offices, policy shops, government, etc. is not such a bad thing, methinks. But you don’t go to Drew (I think/ hope) to get an academic job. Can’t the 2 types of programs exist side-by-side, maybe even within the same institution — 2 tracks that the student can choose after comps or something? Wouldn’t this only benefit the profession and the discipline in the long-run?

  10. It’s an interesting question, Matt, and one I think deserves some thought. I know at one point, my uni had a PhD with an emphasis in teaching, but we all got a lot of teaching, so I think that died. And I have nothing against a PhD in Public History as you describe it. I’s more that I wonder how that eventually plays out as soon as HR gets hold of the idea. That is, for academic jobs, between HR and the accreditation rules, it’s already hard for interdisciplinary people to get jobs unless the description is just right.

    When I was working in not-academia, I had a hell of a time convincing people that I could write as well as a person with a degree in English, because the HR people often have little idea of what we do. So my only misgiving is whether splitting off degrees might make it harder in the long run to change emphasis and close off some job opportunities.

  11. At the CMS in Toronto, I am pretty sure our normal time for completion is over six years, if you include the required MA. The MA is only terminal insofar as the MA year is a chance for the committee to decide who shall or shall not get into the PhD–beyond that, the requirements are: two years of coursework, a high-level exam in Latin, two low-level exams in French and German, then the Major Fields Exam; only then are you allowed to formally work on your dissertation. For example, I am currently an ABD in my sixth year doing fieldwork on manuscript producers in Ethiopia–I will have at least one more year of dissertating upon my return, and can count on many of my MA-year coursemates still being there.

    I honestly really like the idea of placing students in real-world situations where they will have to engage their teaching and presentation skills. Firstly, it recognizes the fact that people may be going into non-research-university jobs. Second, I think that there is a lot to be learned about the real business of research and teaching from engaging with the real thing. Finally, I think it can hardly be more onerous than some of the brain-killing RA positions that one gets assigned. I think that we should be more ambitious, and fight the rising trend of Museum Studies departments by making that an available, if not integral, portion of academic training. I would make the same argument that academic departments should take over the production of librarians, as well.

  12. Thanks for all comments, people, this is very interesting stuff. I like Matt’s phrasing of it as a Ph. D. in public history, and as you’ll know if you’re following the recent thread on Modern Medieval that is something both he and I would want to encourage inside the profession; I just hadn’t thought of this programme as sending people out on that mission as Ellie does. Though I think the problem that I see with that is that it rather devalues the Ph. D. as such; the same arguments that used to be made about a history honours degree being useful in all walks of life, especially those involving writing your own words and reading others’, are now being deployed here, not least by ADM, to explain why a Ph. D. is useful in that way. I think that takes us right back to the question Matt was asking at Modern Medieval, does anyone outside the academic sanctum really think graduate study adds to our abilities?

    However I do like Mr Winslow’s point that we should be taking over other professions, not least because I’ve applied for librarian posts where they were prepared to overlook my lack of library experience precisely because they needed someone to handle and catalogue academic books in various foreign languages and that took someone used to reading them. Though, I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t have a doctorate then, and I wouldn’t apply for it now, though only because I already have a more comfortable job than that. And of course that’s in a museum. I think the point that we are qualified to cross these lines could be reinforced by programmes like Drew’s, but despite Matt’s feeling they seem to be aiming to produce people who are qualified either for academic work or that sort of sideways transit to `real’ employment, and I can’t help feeling that one programme can’t aim for both.

  13. When I think of this, I am reminded of the public history program at my school, Middle Tennessee State Uni. Their graduate program, Ph.D and Masters, places emphasis on real world experiences through internships and job placement w/ local and regional museums and histroic sites. The program here is very successful, to the extent that some types of funding have been funnelled from my area, “traditional” history, to the public history program. Consequently we (they like to call us those “other” historians) have fewer resources. Still, PH is a great program, I have to grudgingly admit. The problem they are having is that some candidates, masters and Ph.D, never finish the program because they are snapped up by museums and sites looking to hire ANYBODY with any type of public history experience.

  14. Wow! But how long do those jobs last, and how long do people stay in the sector? That would be my cynic’s question, because funding in these ares is so rarely long-term. All the same, that’s an encouraging thing to hear.

  15. Well, the funding the Uni uses typically goes for assistantships and such. Those that leave the hallowed halls of academe for the “real” world have as good a chance as any at staying in the market. In that sense, where they land is not beholden to any funding. They literally are drafted OUT of the school to the job. Budget cuts here are beginning to get brutal. Public history is what the state calls, a “high productivity” major, which means it is recognized nationally, so we (the history dept. in general) haven’t suffered much. The axe, however, is sure to fall sometime…

  16. Yeah, but over here the posts that they would land in would all be short term. Archaeology units hire people on for projects, not for life, and museums increasingly similarly, except as press and marketing and education where there is a continuous turnover in business. So I would expect, from my own experience indeed, that to be an equally painful few years on `soft’ money until one manages to land the fabled real job. If there are long-term jobs in public history in the USA that’s great, but it doesn’t match my experience here.

  17. To be honest, I don’t really know a lot about “public” history. I do know that one of the Ph.D students had been working at a regional museum for 15 years, 4 of those as curator, before he decided to get his Doctorate. He was hired straight out of grad school and already has a gig when he finishes his dissertation. As in, before the defense, as soon as he types the last word. As for the rest of us traditional types, we are biting our fingernails down to the quick wondering what the terrain will look like for us.

  18. Nice work if you can get it, as the saying goes…

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