Making a Public Ph.D.

Brian Taylor

February 12, 2012

I recently returned from the Modern Language Association's annual meeting, where paradox once again knocked me flat. It's a simple irony, really: The more withered the academic job market becomes, the stronger the job candidates who emerge from it. And this year's market is bursting with recession-related backlog. As a member of many hiring committees over the years, I'm used to feeling depressed at having to turn away so many dazzling applicants. But this year set some kind of record. The question now on many people's minds: How can graduate schools prepare these talented people for other jobs along with academic ones, so that candidates might not pile on top of one another in pursuit of a few coveted professorial openings?

I wrote last month about how some history professors are developing classroom strategies to serve a broadened set of career goals for Ph.D.'s. Instead of assuming that all graduate students will become professors—a notion that hasn't been supportable for two generations—they're teaching students some of the skills and practices that you find more often in nonacademic workplaces. The buzzword "interdisciplinary" takes on new meaning in those contexts, for example, as professors encourage students to collaborate across fields.

Innovations in graduate education work best, however, when they're organized and supported by departments and programs—not just proposed by a bunch of academics talking at a conference. As many commenters have pointed out, it's one thing to speak hopefully of such programs and quite another to actually create ones that work.

How, then, do you put together a program that will prepare graduate students for nonacademic careers? History will again serve as my case-study discipline. It's "ethical and practical" to prepare history Ph.D.'s for careers outside the academy, says Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, "but it's not as easy as it sounds."

Consider the possibility of training history graduate students to enter Zelizer's own field, public policy. First, it would be practical to equip them with a recognizable credential, such as a certificate that they could earn by taking a certain number of courses. It's likewise practical to steer those interested toward a public-policy-friendly dissertation topic.

But "if we really want graduate students to do that," Zelizer says, "we'll need a different curriculum," because the study of public policy "is extraordinarily different from what you do to get a doctorate in history." Public-policy students, he notes, receive more quantitative training in both economics and statistics than history students do, which gives them the tools to do budgeting, among other skills.

If doctoral programs in history are to credibly prepare interested graduate students to work in public policy, Zelizer says, departments will have to blend their own requirements with those of a policy degree to establish a public-policy track within the Ph.D. program. That will either add some course work or mean that some other courses may have to be eliminated.

Graduate students in history who are considering work in public policy would need to make room for that possibility early on—concentrating in U.S. history, making time for that extra course work, and doing a nonacademic internship. Internships are "really important," asserts Zelizer, "not just for experience but also to get a reputation so that students can break into the field."

For the graduate educators who would design such programs, those various needs point to two main structural guidelines:

  • Professors need to identify specific employment goals for graduate students and work backward to structure a curriculum. That may seem obvious, but it's not what we usually do. In a world of esoteric graduate seminars, the student's foot is much more often forced to fit the professor's already-designed shoe.
  • Faculty members would have to actively intervene in graduate students' training in order to equip them to pursue those career goals themselves. The intervention, Zelizer warns, "needs to be specific, targeted, and early." Again, that seems basic, but new graduate students frequently go for months without anything more than a few words of advice about which courses to take, and maybe not even that.

Sometimes it's the students themselves who point the way. A new public-humanities initiative at Yale University originated in the American-studies department through the parallel efforts of students and faculty members. The "public humanities" are just that: scholarship and teaching that go on outside university walls. For historians, the discipline usually points toward museums and historical sites. Public history—long viewed as a way to make money off of master's students—has had an unfortunate reputation as a low-rent alternative to academic history. But that's changing.

Lauren Tilton, a doctoral student in American studies and co-chair of Yale's student working group in the public humanities, describes herself as "passionate about bridging the gap between the ivory tower and the public at large." She recalls that the Yale student initiative arose a few years ago out of a collective desire for a "sustained dialogue about the public humanities," and that the group "started reading in all directions."

Matthew Jacobson, a professor of history and chair of American studies, agreed to direct the students' efforts. With Laura Wexler, another American-studies professor, he helped put together a certificate program in public humanities, a four-course sequence that is open to students from all departments and that can be completed as part of their M.A. course work. Jacobson, who has taught in the sequence, reports that the students bring "amazing skills" that they don't get to use enough in traditional seminar paper writing. Indeed, says Wexler, "the crux of the program" is to get both graduate students and faculty outside of academia. "Students have to invent their own jobs" for themselves, which they have proved most adept at doing.

Meanwhile, some Yale faculty members have been working on a similar project. David Blight, a professor of history and director of Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, says, "Historians have to get out and reach the broader public," which he describes as "the ultimate audience." Dana Schaffer, assistant director of the center, says "students are clamoring for more experience in this realm."

Responding to public need and student demand, the Gilder Lehrman Center will hold an institute this summer that will bring graduate students and museum professionals together for a week of lectures and team workshops—and, not incidentally, networking—followed by a year of collaboration. Financed by Yale and the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the institute costs less than a tenured professor's salary for one year (and I'm not talking about a Yale professor's salary, either).

Bridging the certificate program and the summer institute is the work of Richard Rabinowitz, a longtime public historian, curator, and president of the American History Workshop, in New York.

"After a very long career in this field," Rabinowitz says, "I'm alarmed that there aren't more people with strong history backgrounds actually doing public history." There are more than 400,000 museum professionals in the United States, according to a study by the American Association of Museums, and only 1.7 percent of them have Ph.D.'s (a figure that includes art historians in museums, usually a well-credentialed lot).

"The curator has got to be a scholar," says Rabinowitz. His advice to aspiring public historians: "Get out of the library" and "spend a year or two doing the work. Use internships to immerse yourself, worm your way into the design meetings, the fund-raising sessions, the long-range planning conferences, and eventually you can have an impact on how Americans confront their history in the public realm." Like the work itself, the implications extend beyond the university's walls.

"If academic historians don't get involved," declares Blight, "we have no right to complain about what we see at public historical sites."

The parallel Yale programs braid a lot of threads together. They identify a need for accomplished public historians. They create cost-efficient educational frameworks within which to educate graduate students about public history. And if the students show interest, the programs provide possible entry into the field.

It's one thing to take some extra courses, cautions Princeton's Zelizer, and another to have those courses add up to recognizable qualifications for a specific kind of job. "We need to do this well so that it will mean something," he says.

The Yale example means something, and in the coming months I'll be reporting about other programs that do, too. We have to think creatively, across the disciplines, about how to continue this necessary work.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at