U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Graduate School in History: Norms and Inequities

Programs-History-Norms-InequitiesHaving just passed my tenth anniversary as a holder of the doctoral degree in history, I’ve found myself reflecting back on my training. What did I learn? How did it change me? How have I evolved since completing the degree? Where is it all going?

I started a post last week that reflected on things accomplished since 2006. But I quit that effort because I found the recounting tedious, or at least my presentation was tedious to me as I was writing it. In my other writing venue I found some inspiration to reflect on how graduate education is, or isn’t, a meritocratic process. That piece was inspired by a New York Times article on how law schools fund their students.

Today I want to think through the uneven terrain of student preparation for graduate history programs, and what those programs profess to do, especially in relation to doctoral students. On preparation, I’m particularly interested in norms and expectations for incoming graduate students, in terms of both history content and writing ability. In pondering all of this, I found it useful to refer to the AHA’s 2004 report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, particularly chapters one and two, “We Historians” and “Necessary Discussions,” respectively.

I’m interested in these factors because I think they determine, or shape, all inequities in the profession, in terms of material aid and immaterial factors (i.e. networking, enthusiasm, recommendations, tapping for events). Like it or not, our preparation and training—our experiences in graduate school—determines the baseline of our outcomes.

I. Student Preparation

Content Knowledge

What are the expectation norms for content knowledge in a subject area for a graduate program? If you plan to study pre-Civil War/Antebellum U.S. history in your program, what basic knowledge can be assumed by a professor in a graduate course? What names, dates, and events *must* be known, if any? Is it a crime to not know the details of the Burr-Hamilton duel if your candidate loves studying slavery, or knows all there is to know about philosophers or environmental history in the period?

How much historiography or methodological knowledge should be expected of an incoming student? What if they are strong on one but not the other? Or what if they are strong on both, but weaker on fact-based content?

In the past some of these questions would have been answered by the GRE subject test. I haven’t seen any recent statistics on that test and its requirement by programs, but my impression was that it is now used infrequently. It wasn’t required when I entered my program in 1998.

Apart from the subject test, the other obvious way to answer this question is by assessing prior undergraduate coursework. This is why certain numbers of previously earned credits are required for entry. But how many? What is enough, or not?

In the “We Historians” chapter of the 2004 AHA report, inclusiveness receives, appropriately, front-and-center treatment. But how does the profession balance inclusiveness with baseline teaching expectations? And how does inclusiveness balance with the desire for rigor and excellence—i.e. how does one know who are the best prepared to complete graduate work and excell in the field?

Does the person with more coursework or a high GRE subject score deserve more funding? What if they are terrible writers?

Writing Ability

How does one measure “writing ability” in an incoming graduate student? What minimums can be expected? What high-end ability is available? What coursework or writing experience conveys “success” to an admissions committee?

II. Graduate Programs


What is Being Taught in our Programs? Theory, historiography, methods, writing, teaching, content, and professionalism. But how much is actually taught, and how much is practiced or solidified?

How much content is learned in a graduate program? I think the general answer is probably a lot, even if it is secondary—meaning not much is expected in terms of the memorization of facts, people, dates, and events.

How much theory? The answer probably depends upon topical areas—esp. gender, sexuality, race, class. But there are also theories of language and narration, which would apply to all students. On broad applicability, we should include the philosophy of history and associated concepts in “historical thinking.” But how often are all of these areas given due attention, say in a distinct class? And when do questions of justice bear on, or intrude upon, historical questions of theory and philosophy?

How much historiography? As much as possible, of course. But should the historiography be more contemporary, or should classics be taught and learned? If so, how far back? The old “relevance” question is a tough one.

What methods and skills? Archival research, of course. Quantitative approaches. Oral history. Language acquisition or improvement. What about presentation styles? What of website coding and digital mining? What about “foreign” language requirements for those studying topics in their native country and tongue?

What of writing? Is one’s writing improved in a graduate program, or are prior learned skills merely practiced? How much are skills in narration taught? I have no sense of how much a program should improve one’s writing, and even less about how a program measures that improvement.


How many years should go toward coursework? I think the usual answer is 3-4 for a PhD, depending on whether you’re in the quarter or semester system. But how much should be allowed for research and writing? If you’re aiming to teach, should there not be more coursework and less time spent on research and writing?


The master’s and/or doctoral degrees, of course. What of publications? Conference presentations? Certificates? Number of courses assisted or taught? And shouldn’t the desired outcome (i.e. teaching, research, public work) determine the training? Of course. Not as much specialization should be expected of a person headed to work in teaching or public life/policy.

What makes a “compleat historian”? (To borrow words from chapter one of the 2004 AHA report mentioned above.)

III. Conclusions

With all of these questions in relation to preparation for, and learning during, a program, how can any semblance of norms or equity be obtained, either in terms of training or outcomes? How can any one student ever be judged better than another—before admission, during the program, or after? I suppose by grades, or some holistic measure. But how does one avoid the narcissism of small differences and mere assessments of personality in these judgments, especially after the midway point of any cohort’s progression? – TL

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. PS: I did not intend it, but the format of my post mimics (questions and answers), somewhat, a related section from chapter two of the 2004 AHA report. That section is titled “Departmental Mission and Program Requirements.” It can be found about one-fifth down this page. – TL

    • PS-2: I’m both shocked and not shocked at how few of the points made on the “Necessary Discussions” page have been heartily tackled or implemented. – TL

  2. Tim, thanks for this post. I’m a little surprised, though, at this assertion: I think [these factors] determine, or shape, all inequities in the profession, in terms of material aid and immaterial factors (i.e. networking, enthusiasm, recommendations, tapping for events). Like it or not, our preparation and training—our experiences in graduate school—determines the baseline of our outcomes.

    The baseline of our outcomes (if by that you mean tenure-track job placement) has less to do, I think, with the quality of our undergraduate preparation (or lack thereof) for advanced historical study than it has to do with the prestige (allegedly / presumably / hopefully tied to the quality) of our graduate degree-granting institution.

    I will never forget my astonishment when one of my graduate professors explained to me, “You will never land a job at an institution more prestigious than this one.” It’s not that I had ambitions about skipping a few rungs on the prestige ladder. It’s just that, like a dolt — or, I guess, like an oblivious idealist, or like an academic from a working-class background with a working-class idea of work, including academic work — I wasn’t particularly aware that there *was* a prestige ladder, or that I was starting out on a low-ish rung of it.

    One of the amusing side-effects of having stumbled into a Stanford education as an undergrad is that for a long time as a graduate student I still did not really understand the hierarchical distinction between research and teaching. Almost all of my undergraduate teachers were full professors. I just figured that anyone with the title “professor” not only “had to” teach, but also aspired to. I mean, it was part of the job — the only part of the job that I ever saw. And so I aspired to do so as well. I didn’t know that my aspirations were less estimable than they “should” have been if I had been paying attention — if I had even known to pay attention — to the prestige economy of higher ed. Fortunately, a consequence of my very-late-to-develop awareness of the prestige ladder is that I feel no indignation at the thought of teaching the U.S. history survey. It’s not an affront to my dignity as a scholar; I don’t feel like I’ve been shortchanged by academe because I landed a teaching job. I’m frustrated that it’s only a part-time job.

    Indeed, I’m hacked off at the adjunctification of higher ed — and one contributing factor to adjunctification is the low status of teaching within the profession. History departments at four-year colleges and universities are bleeding instructional hours as more and more students choose to IB / AP / dual credit / transfer their way out of introductory coursework. But how many of the profs or department chairs who lament this development are clamoring to teach the survey? Or, leaping to another discipline within the humanities, how many tenured English profs are falling all over themselves to teach freshman writing? Nobody wants to do that work, because at most research institutions, that work is not rewarded. Maybe you get dinged on tenure if you teach abysmally, but it’s not like you’re guaranteed tenure or advancement if you teach exceedingly well.

    Anyway, I’m not so sure that the quality of undergraduate training is the most important factor in determining the equity (or lack thereof) of graduate outcomes for history.

  3. LD: Thanks for highlighting that passage and giving me an opportunity to clarify.

    That sentence you highlight was meant to refer back to the entirety of the first sentence in the paragraph before it: “Today I want to think through the uneven terrain of student preparation for graduate history programs, and what those programs profess to do, especially in relation to doctoral students. ”

    So “these factors” was meant to be inclusive of both one’s training or prep for a grad program, as well as what those programs profess to do for, or to, doctoral students. And then, in the sentence after the one you highlighted, I write: Like it or not, our preparation and training—our experiences in graduate school—determines the baseline of our outcomes.

    In sum, I meant both our prep for grad school and our experience in those grad programs shape, or determine, what comes after.

    Again, my apologies for any confusion. – TL

    • Thanks for this clarification. But even if you include the “quality of preparation” of graduate programs, I think that still does not determine outcomes nearly as much as the prestige profile of the programs. It’s necessary and commendable to care about the quality of graduate training, and it’s important to contend for the idea that graduates of non-elite programs can and do often receive outstanding graduate training — more outstanding, sometimes, than the resources of those programs might suggest. But there are far more “quality” graduate programs and “quality” graduates than there are tenure-track jobs — unless the primary measure of “quality” is a circular one, where placement rates certify/determine quality, not vice versa.

  4. LD: I can’t dispute what you’re saying about outcomes. For today, despite my deterministic thesis (went big!), I was attempting set aside the full range of outcomes because of the outside factors you mention. I was hyper-focused on what we do while we’re in those programs, and what we did to get into them. I was concerned about the intellectual component of training and how it causes or effects inequities.

    I’m with you on the prestige/quality of one’s program and institution, and perceptions of both, having an important part in the outcomes. The other part of outcomes is determined by the over-production of PhDs in the market as it is (i.e. with declining t-t and increased adjunctification). Prestige can sometimes trump even those pressures, but not always, for sure. – TL

    • My thesis for today’s post suffered, in a way, from the same meritocratic assumptions that guided my own thinking while a graduate student—the same ones I said don’t exist! As if purely intellectual considerations determine one’s outcomes! Pshaw. That said, when I included networking, recommendations, and other immaterial factors, I was indeed alluding to reputation of one’s adviser, program, and institution. Those things affect perceptions of one’s prestige as a trainee. – TL

  5. Tim, may I ask a different sort of question? Where does non-school preparation fit in? I know that several of my historian heroes (Jon Zimmerman comes to mind) worked as non-university teachers before going into history graduate programs. In my case, I know that my ten years of high-school teaching have had probably more influence on my writing and teaching than did my formal graduate classes. And in the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to work with several students who had careers as teachers or journalists before they entered our doctoral program. They all wrote fantastic dissertations and they did them relatively quickly.
    Are there things that history doc programs could adopt to mimic or include this sort of experience? Should they? Do they?

    • Adam: This a good question and an important point. It sort of goes with another area that’s been on my mind—the hidden curriculum of graduate school (sometimes lumped with or under “professionalization”).

      On non-school preparatory experiences and your examples, I think they point to the importance of having strong writing skills *upon* entrance. I had average-to-weak writing skills when I entered my program. So my entire time was overly focused on improving them—plus getting acculturated into a different writing culture (i.e. historical writing, narrative and analysis).

      Otherwise, all kinds of work experiences enrich graduate programs and the profession in general. The 2004 AHA report addresses that too, in a sidebar to its advocacy for inclusion. – TL

  6. Loved this post. I think preparation for grad school is vastly under-emphasized. Honestly it sometimes feels like if you want to do a doctorate in history, you have to decide that your freshman fall and select the appropriate undergrad courses.

    I think grad students don’t get enough instruction in writing, but maybe there’s an assumption that they already come with those skills? Research methods and theory are both emphasized more than writing, in my experience.

    In some ways I think my writing was better as an undergraduate. Crisper and more lively.

    Pace is an enormous problem. I’ve written about this before, but I think the key solution to this is to cut the length of dissertation.

    Of course there should also be more job training/preparation. Students should be required to give conference presentations, and to write one article that faculty deems publishable.

    Having said all that, I agree with LD: nothing matters more than institutional prestige.

    • Dave: Thanks for the comment. The problem with writing instruction in graduate school, in my experience, was that it was idiosyncratic—entirely dependent on the good will of particular instructors and advisers. In my case, however, my adviser was solid on that front but I wanted more and more and more. I’m still of the opinion that more feedback is better than less. – TL

  7. I’m a bit puzzled that you assume graduate school admissions are based primarily on numerical measures such as grades and the GRE (note that the GRE subject test in history was discontinued over a decade ago, and no longer exists). To me it seems clear that graduate school admissions are based primarily on the two major subjective assessments: the writing sample and the personal statement. The writing sample is what demonstrates potential: does the student think and write in innovative ways? The personal statement is what demonstrates fit: does the student understand the dynamics of the department and work well within them? The numbers matter, I think, but only as a way to cull the applications to a manageable number.

    By the same token, I confess I’ve never been convinced of the value of much graduate coursework. Graduate school is fundamentally a mentorship: your exam committee gives you a list of books to read and master, your thesis committee helps you shape what will hopefully become your first book. At their best, courses can facilitate those processes; at their worst, they are costly diversions from the primary goals of graduate education. I had many good graduate courses, but I didn’t start to become a historian until I sat down with the book list and began to read on my own.

    • Actually, Jeremy, I did not assume that. I only discussed GRE and coursework in the post, but I left the precise mechanism for admission open-ended. But I did address writing in my discussion of preparation. I believe that admissions decisions are quite opaque, and highly variable by school. That said, I know from sitting on admissions committees in various contexts that when considering top candidates, the credentials are often so similar that decisions are made based on highly subjective factors that are rooted in preferences of individual committee members. And sometimes the default to numbers feels like the best objective thing when all else appears equal.

      That’s an interesting point about mentorship and coursework. I’ll think more about that. – TL

  8. 8. Humanities PhDs have to malleable now in response to the failure of tenure-track outcomes, which isn’t entirely new. (My undergraduate and Master’s advisor remembered receiving an acceptance to a PhD program and in the letter it warned him that the job market wasn’t strong. This was 1971 or 1972.) As a current doctoral student, one with hopes of being a professor one day, I’m somewhat concerned about the move toward a “malleable” PhD, especially considering the emphasis on vague training for “public history.” Another issue I see is this: even liberal arts colleges are moving toward “career preparedness.” I think this speaks to another commenter’s observation that one must know that they want to get a PhD in History their first-year in order to be adequately prepared. These are disparate thoughts, I know, but I figured I’d throw them out there.

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