Crisis and Elitism in Graduate Education

When I started this blog, late last March, I was just wrapping up a three-year term as Graduate Program Director in a middling-to-smallish history department at a large, urban, public university in Canada. Many of the problems associated with that kind of job, and with graduate training more generally, were fresh in my mind. Joining Twitter and following a lot of historians — including faculty, grad students, and ex-grad students in non-academic careers — had further sharpened this awareness, as had participating in the American Historical Association’s GPD discussion group, and simply doing a lot of reading. In fact one of my last projects as GPD had been to help bring Maren Wood, consultant and co-author of an AHA report on the career paths of history PhDs, to campus to talk to our PhD students about the state of the academic job market and about the kind of “alt-ac” options they might want to consider as they move closer to it.[1]

One rather shocking piece of news — even to me — that came out of that meeting was that, in the previous year, exactly one Canadian tenure-track job in history had gone to a Canadian-trained history PhD. Despite Canada’s treasured role as a fantasy play-space for disenchanted Americans (be they liberals at election time or academics facing the AHA, or both), some of our problems seemed if anything more acute. If “adjunctification” does not seem to have gone quite so far up here as in the US, and if salaries and teaching loads are more often protected by faculty and graduate student unions, still the sheer challenge of finding academic work would seem to be exacerbated by the smaller size of our job market combined, perhaps, with the relatively greater accessibility and affordability of our graduate degrees. (Though it must be said that large-scale, systematic studies of these issues, comparable to those undertaken with US data, are only starting to be done.)

Beyond the problem of advising students already in our programs, then, simply justifying the existence of second-or-lower-tier doctoral programs whose stated goals aligned so poorly with any remotely probable outcomes had begun to seem hopeless. No doubt many Yale, Harvard and Berkeley graduates aren’t getting the jobs they dreamed of; but at least they are relatively likely to be in the running for the jobs that still exist. What about the rest — graduates of places my own graduate teachers (at Columbia) would have regarded as, to use one euphemism, “peripheral”? How ethical was it to entice students to pursue degrees that would get their job applications tossed before they were read — and even to pay for the privilege? That our own administrations so relentlessly pushed (and push) graduate recruitment even as they undercut the quality of programs — slashing department budgets and reserve courses, restricting course envelopes and faculty hires — did (and does) not help. The whole enterprise came to seem like a cynical scam.

A lot has happened since March 2016, not much of it good. Everything I could say about administrative cynicism regarding the needs and purposes of graduate programs — of scholarship as such, for that matter — still stands, or goes double. Ditto the market. Academic programs that lack a clear focus on generating either revenue for the university or attention for its brand are under assault from within the university as well as without, notwithstanding Canada’s comparatively liberal atmosphere. Meanwhile the pattern of hiring across academia confirms again and again that scholars who get their doctoral training outside an ever-narrowing circle of elite institutions are the permanent (though not permanently employed) antipodes of a rigidly stratified academic world. To quote a much-shared Slate write-up of one recent study, just eight US doctoral programs produced 50% of the tenure-track history faculty at 242 US colleges and universities. Either those eight are really something special, or the bid for prestige and the power of patronage are seriously distorting academic life.

Then there’s the political climate in the US and beyond. Academic freedom is receding before a tide of brash anti-intellectualism and spuriously populist disdain for research or expertise of almost any kind. The border protects us from at least some of the more direct effects of this, for now. But the resolve to fight for the integrity of our institutions is distressingly hard to discern in many of those who lead them. The sad irony is that even as administrative bloat leaves us hip-deep in associate deans and vice-provosts, each secreting a trail of brand-building initiatives while creeping from one corner office to another, the vital role that we actually need administrators to play in protecting and defending what we do has gone unfilled. Worse: where our research and teaching should shape our reputation and define our mission, they are instead twisted and clipped to fit the procrustean bed of a non-academic marketing plan or, at best, a set of vague targets for “growth”. We need leaders; we have managers.

Given all this it might be thought that the best thing for lower-tier doctoral programs to do would be to quit: leave the game, if you can’t change it, to the few who have a hope of winning. This is the implicit (maybe unintended) message in a lot of the hand-wringing pieces written over the last ten or fifteen years about the ethics of graduate recruitment and advising, and it is the message that elite schools send when they recruit even their doctoral students almost wholly from their sister institutions — perhaps reserving one or two spots in each cohort for the antipodeans of the academic periphery. It is, in a way, the message I send when I tell my own Honours and MA students what to aim for next. And yet despite all the empirical and practical weight in its favour as career advice, it is, I think, a problematic message when read at the level of the discipline or the profession.

First, the 242 colleges and universities that draw half their history faculty from those eight programs presumably draw the other half from elsewhere. More seriously, there are many more institutions and types of institution employing history PhDs in research and teaching roles than those 242 schools in the first place: community colleges in the US, “cégeps” in Québec, and so on. If it’s delusional to use Harvard applicants as a lens for observing the stresses high school graduates face as they look toward college, it may not seem very much better to talk as if tenure-track jobs at four-year institutions you can name constitute the whole of the academic jobs market — even if it is, arguably, much closer to the world many PhD students envision when they start. There are some things that regional doctoral programs apparently do as well as anyone else. Further, as consultants specializing in alt-ac transitions attest, there’s more to having a PhD than getting an academic job. (Though, despite the proliferation of professionalization seminars, few programs have done much with this in any fundamental way.)

But second: if we take the problem of an excessively narrow, prestige- (dare I say brand-?) driven academic elitism seriously, then — whatever we must do as individuals to advise our students, and whatever they must do as individuals to get through — the solution for the discipline at large simply cannot be to give in. If it is indeed a problem that a handful of schools supply a hugely disproportionate number of professional academic historians; if those schools themselves draw their own faculty and graduate students alike, again disproportionately, from that same charmed circle to which they already belong; if the tracking begins still further back; if the prospects keep narrowing; at what point is generation after generation of endogamy among a scholar-aristocracy (however diverse it is in other respects, however liberal its politics) going to tell in the quality of the work or the strength of the discipline? Or, to drop the queasy genetic analogy: how long will it be before historical research becomes an elite hobby?

If nothing else, maintaining institutional diversity in the production of PhDs — which, in practice, means maintaining many programs now considered second-tier, or lower — seems important to preserving some semblance of health, some semblance of variety, in the discipline itself. That does not, of course, excuse the shoddy practices of many such programs, which are as or more liable than their elite compeers to be exploited by cynical administrations for cheap graduate labour and the lesser sort of prestige they confer on the schools that claim them. Nor does it roll back casualization in the academic workforce, make academic hiring practices more equitable, or offer new solutions to the problem of what to tell that promising student you don’t want to doom to unemployment. It is a hard, sometimes wrenching thing to be involved in, on either side of the desk. But it is also no more than the truth that programs like mine take on students elite schools don’t look at; that, often enough, they exceed their own expectations; and that, now and then, they get into elite programs (or good jobs) at the next stage. Speaking as an advisor, and as someone who was once an unfunded and under-informed PhD student from a peripheral undergraduate institution, it feels wrong to stake too many students’ futures on that possibility. But if we believe in diversifying the academy, if we believe that pursuing history matters in our present circumstances, if we think that the opportunity to pursue scholarship should be a matter of talent and commitment, then closing it off doesn’t feel right.


[1] There is debate about the aptness of “crisis” as a descriptor for the situation in which young academics find themselves. It’s not new, for one thing; it’s unevenly distributed and experienced, for another; and just what the “crisis” refers to (PhD over-production? The casualization of academic labor? The structure of academic life?) is disputed. Below a certain level of analytical abstraction, however, and in an institutional or personal context, the terminological question becomes secondary to the question of what one can do.

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