The American Historian

Rethinking Graduate Education

Philip J. Deloria

Global pandemics and social justice uprisings (to the surprise of exactly zero historians) have a way of shaking things up. Historical disparities and structural inequalities have taken on new visibility and urgency over the last year, as have issues surrounding climate and sustainability. Politics, healthcare, and education—long overdue for new thinking—are challenged to hit the reset button. And while graduate education might not claim the same existential urgency as climate disaster, those of us concerned with the history profession—its pedagogy and curriculum, the excitement of its research, its critical role in public discourse—might take the opportunity to reflect on what a post-pandemic shake-up might look like.

I finished my own graduate training in 1994. Back then, one could hear wistful whispers of possibility, predictions of the eminent retirement of a large and aging professoriate, hired during the post-war higher-education boom, that would send a positive ripple through the academic job market. Skeptics and realists scoffed at the prospect, and rightly so, for they had the evidence: optimists had been making such projections for decades and the trendlines surrounding tenure-track academic employment had continued a steady downward march. As a new faculty member getting the lay of the land, I began with the hopeful thought that I might cautiously encourage a few talented undergraduates to pursue post-secondary education. That hope shifted quickly: first, to silence on the matter, and then to doses of cold realism, splashed repeatedly on those who dared to dream.

Curiously, even as I was discouraging most of my own students, each January I found myself assiduously reading the files of talented, aspirational applicants from elsewhere. With colleagues, I debated fine gradations among the candidates, gleaned from close study of declarations of interest and personal statements. Each September, I welcomed new cohorts of students to the department. I established standardized mentoring procedures, aimed at supporting students as best I could, all the way through to a tenure-track job and eventual tenure. It was—and is—a classic case of academic self-reproduction, and it’s all-too-easy to mock its lack of self-consciousness.

But was the problem really just self-indulgent cluelessness? The disconnections and ironies were apparent to all. Faculty members understood the deep structural challenges of the academic job market, which were intensified—and often localized—as institutions let tenure lines shrivel, even as those institutions grew adjunct and part-time positions. Graduate students wanted more than just “the same old,” bolstered by well-intentioned but sometimes superficial changes to the mechanics of advising and pedagogical training. Everyone did the math when it came to the labor of graduate students and their crucial role in delivering high-quality education at scale. The calculation could not help but give you pause.

These issues have been commonly framed as a problem of ethics: wasn’t it wrong to admit students into a graduate program, knowing that on the other side of it lay diminishing possibilities for employment and that it was, in effect, recruitment into a labor system upon which universities were dependent? Those questions only intensified as history departments contemplated admitting a cohort in the fall of 2020, with the pandemic in full swing and Zoom the only classroom available.

If easily framed as an ethical issue, the answers to the questions have not been so straightforward. In those talks with talented undergraduates, I often heard a clear understanding of the risks and rewards, a more varied set of motives underpinning their desire for graduate training, a willingness to accept outcomes other than tenure-track teaching positions, and a strong interest in proceeding, despite it all. They were grateful for my cold-eyed assessment but rejected the possibility that my despair over the ethical issues should cancel my willingness to write them the strong recommendations they had earned. Tracing the lives of former students—and in particular, masters-degree students—I see a diverse set of what look like robust careers in public history, museums, the National Park Service, and local historical societies. Nor did all institutions fail to respond. Those able to offer financial support tended to cut the size of their graduate cohorts and increase the size of individual funding packages. And of course, graduate students organized unions and fought successfully for bargaining rights and benefits.

My short life as an academic administrator revealed the complexities of university budgets: the “alligator chart,” which matches a descending line representing state support with the ascending line of tuition revenue, with all that entails; the frequently invoked model of Baumol’s Cost Disease, which diagnoses a challenging relationship between faculty salary increases and the limited ability of education to leverage productivity gains; the Gartner “hype cycle,” which gives one caution about supposed innovation. It all adds up to no easy answers for reasonable people trying to make their way through any reform of American graduate education. And it suggests that the problems are systemic: few history departments—or even graduate schools—can address them on their own.

For that reason, there have been no shortage of outside efforts to rethink graduate training. The Mellon Foundation, early on, offered support for reducing time-to-degree and attrition, and other programs followed that lead. Mellon’s 2016 report, Reforming Doctoral Education, lays out a comprehensive history of those efforts. Authors Robert Weisbuch and Leonard Cassuto identify twelve essential problems to be solved, none of which will surprise anyone engaged with graduate education. They also offer six essential recommendations, focused on diversity, funding, coordination, management, and measurement. Most important—and echoed in subsequent studies, including Duke University’s useful 2019 report, Reimagining the Humanities Ph.D.—Weisbuch and Cassuto called for “a cultural change in the definition of the Ph.D. degree, as providing disciplinary expertise applicable to all social sectors.” That sounds something like a brief for post-pandemic thinking: what is a Ph.D. degree in history, anyway? How might we change the way we make sense of it? Can there be utility to graduate training in history that has little or nothing to do with the tenure-track job market?

The go-to move for many doctoral programs over the last decade has been in developing curriculum or mentoring options aimed at an ill-defined “public history” sector. These have been framed around “alt ac” careers (though that term seems to have had its moment), which were often seen as lesser options after the tenure track job didn’t pan out—and which ignored a robust culture of successful public history and museum studies training at other institutions. If graduate education seeks to advance “disciplinary expertise applicable to all social sectors,” we cannot simply train students for R-1 tenure-track jobs and point vaguely to “a museum or archive” as a backup.

What would it look like, for example, if we imagined “flooding the zone” of the United States with advanced-degree historians? Reduce time to degree to four years. Throw out the comprehensive exam structure and replace it with a portfolio demonstrating broad expertise. Connect the historical toolkit with real quantitative skills and scientific literacy, particularly around climate issues. Build collaborative lab models for teaching and learning. Rethink the semester seminar, perhaps turning instead to modular and tutorial formats. Create high-end practicum and internship opportunities and connect graduate programs with an array of local, regional, and national institutions. Recognize the range of non-tenure track teaching and craft pedagogical training accordingly. Encourage dissertations that are not only books in the making, but that utilize digital formats, offer multiple public-facing essays, develop community-based projects, and explore other innovative forms. If on a full-funding model, then leverage small cohort size to create faculty teaching and mentoring clusters that break down traditional learning based on geography and chronological periodization. If on a tuition and teaching model, consider admitting more students, leveraging quicker time-to-degree and a range of engaged learning opportunities. Ensure that new strategies are geared to a more diverse range of students, enabled rather than constricted by changes in timing, format, and goals.

This list is hardly exhaustive and, I should note, none of these ideas are mine, though I’ve kicked the tires on a few of them from time to time. If I’m suggesting that the challenges of the last year ask us to pause, rethink, and start afresh, the good news is that the infrastructure of ideas is already well developed, and worth contemplating. Among the many guides and reports, two crucial gateways are Weisbuch and Cassuto’s Reforming Doctoral Education and Edward Balleisen and Maria Lamonaca Wisdom’s Reimagining the Humanities Ph.D. Both contain dozens of references to studies, experiments, plans, arguments, and other useful and provocative possibilities.

The Organization of American Historians aims, in our most recent strategic plan, to serve the broadest possible community of practitioners concerned with the history of this continent. In that mission, we’re often still feeling our way. As we imagine a big-tent community of historians, it is impossible not to imagine changes in the ways they are trained, the social and cultural roles they take on, and the connections between graduate education and what follows. If older models were built on faculty research interests, and newer ones turn our eyes to student-centered learning, perhaps the last year has suggested a third imperative: that graduate education might be society focused, a renewed responsibility to the common good, one that serves students with the same commitments. After all, without engaging the past—richly understood and communicated—we limit our possibilities for the future.


Philip J. Deloria is the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University and President of the Organization of American Historians.  He is the author of Playing Indian, Indians in Unexpected Places, American Studies: A User’s Guide, and Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract.